The Bite Too Big to Chew
This is the loading station of a machine that was one of the last jobs I did with my small machine building company. It is a precision hydraulic press for torque converters. During the years of 2005-2006 we had acquired quite a bit of fabrication equipment including a lathe, mill, ironworker and roll-in bandsaw and had built several successful machines. Due to the overhead of added machinery and staff I went pretty far afield in bringing in new work. The economy was not particularly good at this time and I’m afraid I took on jobs that were not always within our comfort zone.
This machine was originally built in Japan for Exedy, a company in East Tennessee. My sales manager brought this job lead to me and I went to the plant to take a look at the hardware. The machine was pretty complex with quite a few small machined parts, but as I was assured that complete documentation existed for the system I decided to take on the challenge.
The first sign that this wasn’t going to go well was when I came back to the plant to pick up the documentation and was told “So sorry, but we don’t have the CAD files for the machine, only the printouts. And they are in Japanese.” Ok, so I will copy them and have our mechanical engineer redraw them. My wife is from Japan so she can read them if there is a problem. “So sorry, but we also can’t let you take these out of the plant, we need them because we are having to remake some of the parts because the machine doesn’t work properly.”
At this point I had invested quite a bit of time into the project and rationalized that it would still be possible to get this done. I managed to obtain copies of the prints and proceeded with design.
As the machine came together I started learning a bit more of the history of this machine. There were actually at least three of these machines built, none of which had ever worked. I drove out to the Japanese machine builder in Middle Tennessee who had built the last version and after a bit of discussion learned that they had gone through much of the same process we did. The difficulties were compounded when as we started assembling the machine we discovered that many of the parts didn’t line up. When the torque converters were placed into the station the entire concept was called into question. Long story short, the machine was bid at $85,000 and I put over $250,000 of time and material into the job. Most of the parts had to be shipped from Japan and were considerably more expensive than expected. After reaching the limit of what we could do I made the hard decision to close my company and take my lumps. We brought the project to a convenient stopping point, turned everything over to the customer and I began the painful process of closing the doors on my company. I like to think that everyone else involved came out ok. The process of shutting down took several months, all of my employees were assisted in finding new jobs and the customer ended up getting a lot of hardware and machinework at quite a discount. I took a pretty big financial hit and spent the next several years paying for it. I did get a job working for my current employer at a pretty good salary, definitely making more than I ever did working for myself. Without the ten years of experience I got working for myself I would have never qualified for my current position so I can’t consider the circumstances in too bad a light.
Since beginning employment with my current employer I have learned a lot about quoting and business and I don’t think I would ever find myself in a situation like that again. There is a lot of work that goes into the applications and discovery process as well as lots of legal jargon that goes into a quote that prevents exactly this kind of thing from ever happening. I feel much more confident that when I venture back out on my own again (sometime after the end of this year) I will have gained a great deal more knowledge from this piece of practical education.