Payoff in Precision City Essay

To a lot of people, Rochester, NY, is Precision City. High-tech
cameras, copiers, carburetors, and college kids are made and molded
here. Yet, as I dropped out of the sky into their classic 1950’s
airport, it wasn’t all that obvious to an outsider.

Rochester is also job-shop city, and tough turf for the eager
entrepreneurs who compete here, like me and my friendly rival, John
Gillette, vice president of Gillette Machine & Tool co Inc. Me, I
don’t live here, I just sniff out a job or two here now and then,
but John’s shop is well implanted right across from the Rochester
airport. He and his dad, Frank, have their roots here, and the tougher
the competition, the better they like it. They’re as scrappy as
they come.

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When I visited here last month, I ran into John at the airport and
he was all ablaze about a sweet little precision job he had just pulled
off. Thanks to a new CNC Superslant bar/chucker he “stole”
from Hardinge Brothers and a gutsy young setup man who wanted to push it
beyond its limits.

CNC dividend

“We’ve only had this machine for 10 months,” he
gloated, “and it’s damned near paid for itself already with
the high-toleranced parts I can take on, and the 1000-piece-and-up jobs
I can run untended. And this particular part I’m going to tell you
about was truly a bonus, a dividend on our CNC investment.

“You know how it is, Joe, when people get carried away and
start sketching daydreams. They draw up a part they would love to have,
and send it around to see if anybody out there can actually make it.
They spec the print fully expecting to have to back off on areas that
push machining technology too far. So in this case, they were really
amazed. They got exactly what they wanted!”

“So, slow down and tell me about it,” I said as we rode
over to his place.

“I’ll have to just call this a ‘government
job,'” he explained, “because we promised confidentiality
on the part. This wasn’t one of those one- or two-piece jobs where
you simply got lucky. Anybody can do that. This was a 135-piece job
where you had better have the right machine setup and know what
you’re doing. You’re not going to get lucky 135 times!”

Then he told me about the nearly intolerable tolerances. “The
top of the 0.300”-dia stainless-steel part had a conical 30-degree-tapered depression. You checked the part by inserting a glass
ball into this taper. The distance from the top of the ball to the base
of the part had to be held within 80 millionths of an inch, the part OD
had to be concentric to the taper within a tenth of a mil and to size
within a tenth, and the base of the part had to be flat to 10

“The ball-to-base dimension came off the machine easily to
within 80 millionths, but I had to experiment and leave on enough
material for lapping the base to 10 millionths flatness. I got a
concession from the customer to cut a slight threaded chucking diameter
in the bottom of the part so that all machining could be done in one

Lucky, smart, or both?

“It was rather involved,” John admitted, “and it got
hectic trying to run this whole place at the same time I was supervising
a tough job like this. But once the machine took over, my supervision
went right to zero. It repeated perfectly for 135 pieces.”

And they all passed inspection with flying colors. Every dimension
on every piece was checked first by John’s people and then by the
government inspectors. What they saw they liked so much, they gave him
a repeat order shortly thereafter for 30 similar parts.

“When we checked these parts with electronic indicator gages,
spinning them on the machine, we found that they were not just within
tolerance, they were dead on–equal to our ability to measure!”

So the big question was, “Why so good, John? Was it you, your
hot-shot setup man, or was this Superslant more super than anyone should

“We couldn’t really believe this,” he replied,
“so we mounted an electronic indicator on the machine and turned
the part to check it for roundness, and we were amazed that total
runout–part and spindle–was only 5 millionths!”

“Not bad, John,” I said, “since Hardinge only
guarantees 25 millionths spindle runout.”

Why he loves NY

So if you’re John Gillette, you not only buy American wherever
possible, you also try to stick with upstate NY. “We had been
running Hardinge machines here for the past 20 years and doing well, but
with just automatics, tracer lathes, and manual machines, we simply were
no longer competitive with other jobs shops. To get the turning work,
we needed an automated, upgraded-accuracy machine that we could run with
minimal supervision at night–not an operator, just somebody to load it
now and then. Even during the day, the apprentice operator runs the
longer jobs and also works on two other machines during machining

It helps to have good help, and Rochester’s got plenty of
that. “My setup man (and programmer) is high priced, but he’s
worth it!” John explained. “He gets the job running and turns
it over to his apprentice, who will become a setup man too in a couple
of years. He’s with the setup man during all the programming,
helping him get tooling, cutters, etc, from the tool crib, and this
allows the setup man to work even faster.”

And it also pays to help the help. “The secret with the CNC
Hardinge is the tool crib that I set up beside this machine with all the
different grades of carbide, collet sizes, etc, that opens up this
machine to its full capabilities, and the 6-ft long, 1-5/8″-dia bar
feed I’ve ordered that will let it run untended.”

The family that job shops

together stays together

About this time, John’s dad, Frank gillette, joined us, and we
got to gabbing about what it’s like today in the job-shop game.

“It’s feast or famine,” John lamented. “When
we land a big job, the machines we need run 24 hours a day. (And I do
too, until things are working right. I may be here til 3 in the
morning.) The rest of the time, some machines may be sitting idle. But
I need that versatility. I have to be able to run 5 parts or

So I turned to the old-timer Frank, who’s chairman and
co-founder of the company, and asked for his secret of success. He
replied, “You gotta be well known. We’re into
everything–precision machining, production machining, tool-making,
machine building–and when one is down, another is up.

“The Rochester business cycles are fairly stable, yet we still
see the effects of major economic cycles. 1982 was bad, prior to that
was good, and now things are picking up and beginning to get real good.
We try hard not to be tied to any one industry or customer. We make no
long-term commitments to anybody; we’re freelancers.”

“What about that old bugaboo for family-owned companies,”
I asked, “the generation gap, where the young hot-bloods want to
expand and the older generation says, ‘Hey, slow down, wehre doing

“There’s no generation gap here,” Frank replied.
“I’m always ready for advancement, we never stop.”

“The big thing is we’re not afraid to tackle any
job,” John added. “We will try just about anything, and
normally, we’ve been very successful.

“On that job I described to you, I couldn’t have done it
without the setup man I have. I needed somebody with an open mind
who’s not afraid to go after an impossible tolerance and eget it.
If I had had an old-timer with a closed mind, he would have said that
part had to be ground, and that’s it! I might as well hang up my
hat, because then I’m no better than the shop next door who would
tell you the same thing. But because my man out there said, ‘Sure,
John, let’s give it a shot,’ we did the job. I didn’t do
it all myself. It was my man and his equipment.”

Which is the real bottom line for the all-in-the-family job shop
today–tools and teamwork.

If you would like to get a fancy brochure from Gillette Machine
; Tool on what they can do for you, circle E27. If you would like
information on the Hardinge Superslant (and try your luck at getting a
Super-Superslant), circle E28.


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