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Shop Equipment Can Serve Niche Markets
By Brendan Baker
Ever since man first rubbed two sticks together to make a fire and then sharpened the first stick so he could hunt with it, we have been coming up with new ways to use old tools. When it comes to your machine shop equipment, today’s competitive market demands that engine builders not miss any opportunities to take on work that their equipment and personnel will allow them to profit from.
Harry’s Machine Works, located in Dodge City, KS, is the only machine shop around for many miles. Because of this fact, Harry’s has had many opportunities to do alternative, non-traditional shop jobs. Owner Russell Rogers says that his staff members try to learn as much as they can about their equipment’s capabilities, so when these jobs do pop up they are able to take advantage of the opportunities.
"Big spindles, like those on big trucks, we’ll put on our align boring machine and bore the king pin area," says Rogers. "Anywhere there’s two bores that need to line up, we figure out some way to get it on our align boring machine. We also do any kind of surfacing jobs we can."
Many of these non-traditional jobs involve repairing very expensive or unique equipment that is integral to that company’s business, explains Rogers, winner of the 2002 Engine Builder Magazine Machine Shop of the Year award. Therefore, time is usually the most important issue for these people. "You have to be able to get the job done quickly in many instances, which may mean having to put aside another job to get it done."
He explains some specific circumstances. "We had a customer with a damaged hydraulic lift rod. We had about a five-foot piece of chrome rod to stub the end of and replace the old rod with. I had to cut off where the pin goes through the rod of the old one and then undercut the new rod about two inches with about .001˝ press fit for that full four-inch depth. Once I stubbed that in I had to cut the threads. It had a particular taper that I had to machine, too. It worked great, and it saved the customer thousands of dollars. Those big hydraulic rods cost $5,000- $6,000 new. The customer bought the shaft for $500 and I probably had $1,200 machine work into it. It wasn’t difficult to do, but the material was so hard that it took a long time to do the work," says Rogers.
The key to most of these alternative-type jobs is timely turn around. "You can’t say, ‘Well, I’ve got these six blocks to line bore first," says Rogers. "When a non-automotive type job comes in the door, they are typically broken down. Every minute a loader or another piece of equipment is down, our customer is renting a replacement and losing money. All of a sudden, that job becomes my top priority for two reasons: the money, and to get it out of my shop because it usually takes up a lot of room!"
Another aspect to consider when doing non-automotive jobs is just being willing to do something different – and advertise that fact. "We do anything that comes through the door," says Johnny Bianchi, B&G Machine, Seattle, WA. "You’ve got to be able to think outside the box a little bit. You need to get out and show what you can do for local businesses and industries that don’t know who you are or what capabilities your shop has."
Most of the shops that we interviewed for this article said that they have had to solicit their services at one time or another. Potential customers in the area usually don’t have time to seek out machine work ahead of time or don’t know where to look. So if you can, set up a day to go out and visit local businesses and explain what you can offer them.
According to these ambitious shop operators, you should also be able to charge more for non-traditional jobs because it is often high priority work that can’t be done by just anyone. Therefore, you can – and should – charge accordingly.
"You don’t go by what your hourly rate is," says Harrys’ Rogers. "I’m not going to charge an automotive rate when I know what I’m repairing is a $10,000 piece. Since it’s a different industry with different pricing, I’m going to charge a premium price for my labor. These people came to you for one reason, and that’s because no one else can do it and you’ve got the equipment. If there’s anyone out there working solely off the hourly rate, then they’re not really maximizing what they can get out of this type of work."
Richard Hartmann of Hartmann Bros, Inc., Abilene, TX, does a large volume of non-automotive work and agrees. "If the job is a specialty job and the customer isn’t going to be able to run down the street and have it done, I feel that I can get a premium hourly rate. This especially holds true when I use my largest, most expensive equipment. On some other non-automotive jobs I try to get at least my shop rate, which ranges from $75-$125 an hour."
We do some industrial work," continues Hartmann. "We recently completed machine work on an injection mold for which we machined four large blocks to be perfectly square. On jobs like these, we’re usually working off of a blueprint."
In other cases, Hartmann says he has been provided information ahead of time. "I’ve machined some shafts for Bandag Tires, which has a plant located here in Abilene. They take the rubber and put it through some mixers that are actually underground. The company sent me some prints to make shafts, the first of which was 8 feet long and 12˝ in diameter and the other was 8 feet by 15˝ in diameter. Then we ground them and machined the keyways, too. Everything is very detailed, not like in the automotive where you know what to do and you’re simply machining to specs.”
Hartmann says information isn’t always provided. "In some cases, no specs or prints are provided and we have to do what I call ‘reverse engineering.’ We have to work backward until we come up with enough information to machine the part."
Alternatives For Everyone
Electric motor shaft repair: "If there’s a spun bearing on the shaft, you can put it in your crank grinder and grind the old bearing off," says Scott Wichlacz, Manitowoc Motor Machining & Parts, Manitowoc, WI. "Then you can build the shaft up with your welder and regrind it back to spec again. It’s a pretty basic, straightforward alternative job. If you can grind a crankshaft you can certainly grind a motor shaft because it’s just a straight shaft."
Wichlacz says he gets these jobs from some electric motor rebuilders in his town. Some of the shafts are pretty big and the work pays well, too, he says.
Balancing Armatures: "You can go to the companies that do electric motors and tell them that you can repair motor shafts as well as balance them. That way you can use your balancing machine," says Wichlacz.
Welding projects: "All of the hamburger joints have a lot of stainless steel equipment that breaks from time-to-time," Wichlacz says. "If the fast food joints know you do it, that’s basically all it takes to get the work. They’re usually very happy to find a machine shop that is willing to repair these pieces and you can get paid well for repairing broken stainless steel pieces."
One way to land this work is next time you stop off for a burger give your card to the manager and briefly explain that you can do this type of work," Wichlacz says. "McDonald’s, Hardees, Burger King – all the fast food places have potential jobs for your shop."
Transmission repair: Wichlacz says he welds aluminum transmission cases for transmission shops in the area. He says he does at least a few a week, which can really add to the bottom line at the end of the month.
Downsize Factor And Production Shops
There are a lot of non-automotive businesses out there that need work done. Many companies have consolidated and some have lost the departments that formerly did in-house repair work. Often times, these companies are looking for shops that can make shafts, machine keyways, drill and tap parts, etc.
"What we do the most of for non-automotive customers is cut threads and keyways," says Wichlacz. "You’ll find that most of the larger volume machine shops won’t do this type of work – cutting a few threads and a few keyways – they just don’t want to mess around with that few a number of pieces. So you really won’t have a lot of competition from these shops for little jobs."
Wichlacz continues, "We will occasionally do short run jobs for machine shops that do CNC work. Sometimes these places need keyways and shafts cut to length to fit into their production cycle. We’ll also do 10 pieces or so for large production machine shops that don’t want to set up for only 10 pieces."
B&G’s Bianchi has been successful at setting up his shop to handle non-traditional jobs. B&G has a separate area specifically for doing odd jobs. However, Bianchi cautions that you must know your limitations as well. Knowing what other machine shops are capable of doing can be helpful, too, especially if you decide to work together.
"Don’t be afraid to work with others," says Bianchi. "For instance, we had a job recently that was outside of our capabilities. The part was much larger than we could normally handle, so we did part of it and part of it we farmed out. We charged our customer for the whole thing, subbing out the part we couldn’t do. It can often keep customers from going somewhere else and us missing out on a job completely."
Shops that do alternative work say the best way to get these jobs is to actively market your capabilities to local businesses that you think would benefit from your services. Although non-traditional machine work may not be for every shop, it can be a good way to bring in extra revenue with your existing equipment should you decide to pursue it.