To a lot of people, Rochester, NY, is Precision City.
High-techcameras, copiers, carburetors, and college kids are made and moldedhere. Yet, as I dropped out of the sky into their classic 1950’sairport, it wasn’t all that obvious to an outsider. Rochester is also job-shop city, and tough turf for the eagerentrepreneurs who compete here, like me and my friendly rival, JohnGillette, vice president of Gillette Machine & Tool co Inc. Me, Idon’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 Rochesterairport. He and his dad, Frank, have their roots here, and the tougherthe competition, the better they like it. They’re as scrappy asthey come.
When I visited here last month, I ran into John at the airport andhe was all ablaze about a sweet little precision job he had just pulledoff. Thanks to a new CNC Superslant bar/chucker he “stole”from Hardinge Brothers and a gutsy young setup man who wanted to push itbeyond its limits. CNC dividend “We’ve only had this machine for 10 months,” hegloated, “and it’s damned near paid for itself already withthe high-toleranced parts I can take on, and the 1000-piece-and-up jobsI can run untended. And this particular part I’m going to tell youabout was truly a bonus, a dividend on our CNC investment. “You know how it is, Joe, when people get carried away andstart 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 thatpush machining technology too far. So in this case, they were reallyamazed.
They got exactly what they wanted!” “So, slow down and tell me about it,” I said as we rodeover to his place. “I’ll have to just call this a ‘governmentjob,'” he explained, “because we promised confidentialityon the part. This wasn’t one of those one- or two-piece jobs whereyou simply got lucky. Anybody can do that. This was a 135-piece jobwhere you had better have the right machine setup and know whatyou’re doing. You’re not going to get lucky 135 times!” Then he told me about the nearly intolerable tolerances.
“Thetop of the 0.300”-dia stainless-steel part had a conical 30-degree-tapered depression. You checked the part by inserting a glassball into this taper. The distance from the top of the ball to the baseof the part had to be held within 80 millionths of an inch, the part ODhad to be concentric to the taper within a tenth of a mil and to sizewithin a tenth, and the base of the part had to be flat to 10millionths. “The ball-to-base dimension came off the machine easily towithin 80 millionths, but I had to experiment and leave on enoughmaterial for lapping the base to 10 millionths flatness.
I got aconcession from the customer to cut a slight threaded chucking diameterin the bottom of the part so that all machining could be done in onesetup.” Lucky, smart, or both? “It was rather involved,” John admitted, “and it gothectic trying to run this whole place at the same time I was supervisinga tough job like this. But once the machine took over, my supervisionwent right to zero.
It repeated perfectly for 135 pieces.” And they all passed inspection with flying colors. Every dimensionon every piece was checked first by John’s people and then by thegovernment inspectors. What they saw they liked so much, they gave hima 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 withintolerance, they were dead on–equal to our ability to measure!” So the big question was, “Why so good, John? Was it you, yourhot-shot setup man, or was this Superslant more super than anyone shouldexpect?” “We couldn’t really believe this,” he replied,”so we mounted an electronic indicator on the machine and turnedthe part to check it for roundness, and we were amazed that totalrunout–part and spindle–was only 5 millionths!” “Not bad, John,” I said, “since Hardinge onlyguarantees 25 millionths spindle runout.” Why he loves NY So if you’re John Gillette, you not only buy American whereverpossible, you also try to stick with upstate NY.
“We had beenrunning Hardinge machines here for the past 20 years and doing well, butwith just automatics, tracer lathes, and manual machines, we simply wereno longer competitive with other jobs shops. To get the turning work,we needed an automated, upgraded-accuracy machine that we could run withminimal supervision at night–not an operator, just somebody to load itnow and then. Even during the day, the apprentice operator runs thelonger jobs and also works on two other machines during machiningcycles.” It helps to have good help, and Rochester’s got plenty ofthat. “My setup man (and programmer) is high priced, but he’sworth it!” John explained. “He gets the job running and turnsit over to his apprentice, who will become a setup man too in a coupleof years. He’s with the setup man during all the programming,helping him get tooling, cutters, etc, from the tool crib, and thisallows the setup man to work even faster.” And it also pays to help the help.
“The secret with the CNCHardinge is the tool crib that I set up beside this machine with all thedifferent grades of carbide, collet sizes, etc, that opens up thismachine to its full capabilities, and the 6-ft long, 1-5/8″-dia barfeed 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 wegot to gabbing about what it’s like today in the job-shop game. “It’s feast or famine,” John lamented. “Whenwe land a big job, the machines we need run 24 hours a day. (And I dotoo, until things are working right.
I may be here til 3 in themorning.) The rest of the time, some machines may be sitting idle. ButI need that versatility. I have to be able to run 5 parts or5000.” So I turned to the old-timer Frank, who’s chairman andco-founder of the company, and asked for his secret of success. Hereplied, “You gotta be well known. We’re intoeverything–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 stillsee the effects of major economic cycles.
1982 was bad, prior to thatwas 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 nolong-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 toexpand and the older generation says, ‘Hey, slow down, wehre doingfine’?” “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 anyjob,” John added.
“We will try just about anything, andnormally, we’ve been very successful. “On that job I described to you, I couldn’t have done itwithout the setup man I have. I needed somebody with an open mindwho’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 thatpart had to be ground, and that’s it! I might as well hang up myhat, because then I’m no better than the shop next door who wouldtell 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 doit all myself.
It was my man and his equipment.” Which is the real bottom line for the all-in-the-family job shoptoday–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 likeinformation on the Hardinge Superslant (and try your luck at getting aSuper-Superslant), circle E28.