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CAD/CAM Lifesaver: How a User-Friendly CAD/CAM Software System Saved a Company's Life

CNC Performance Engineering is excited to be featured in the April/May 2004 publication of CNC-West Magazine in the article, "CAD/CAM Lifesaver: How a User-Friendly CAD/CAM Software System Saved a Company's Life," by C.H. Bush. The entire article is reprinted here and can also be viewed in pdf format here.

Most job shops are managed by people who have a fair number of years of machining experience under their belts. They at least are able to perform essential tasks as setting up and operating their machines estimating and quoting on new jobs, and how to write programs to operate their equipment.

In March of 2002, Chris Nachtmann, age 29, knew none of those things, and yet, with the sudden passing of Larry Nachtmann, his father, he was plunged headlong into the problems of keeping alive CNC Production Machine, Inc., a going Porterville, CA business with 5 shop employees and a number of steady customers.

"My father and mother founded CNC Production Machine, Inc. in 1987 when they left a larger Los Angeles area company they had built with 70 employees, and moved to the Porterville area," says Chris. "The aerospace business was in trouble and they were tired of the rat race, so they came up here looking for a more peaceful life. At that time I was in the eighth grade."

From 1987 through 2002, Chris' father and mother (who continues to run the office) grew the business slowly, making parts for companies within their local area.

"My dad started making parts for cotton ginning equipment, aerial lift equipment, things like that. None of it was high-tech, super precision work, but it was profitable and steady. Mom and dad started with just themselves and a few pieces of equipment they brought up from L.A., but in the next few years they had increased the business to the size it is today. At one point, before the recent economic downturn, the company was shipping 120,000 pounds of steel a week. Over the years we have made more than a hundred thousand gin ribs, used in cotton gin machines and we still have those customers."

Not Like Father, Like Son

Although Chris worked at his parent’s shop off and on over the years, he wasn’t really interested in the machine shop business.

"All through high school I was heavily involved in drafting, machining and cars,” he says. “I liked cars, so I put myself through school and got a degree in automotive repair and technology with General Motors. I've always been somebody who worked with my hands and used my mind, so the school honed my mechanical skills."

Chris found working at automotive dealerships very unsatisfying, however.

"My dad grew up racing all his life,” Chris says, “When I was little we had dragsters, so I had developed a passion for racing. I used to go watch and help and hang out, so it was in my blood. Then one day, a friend of mine says ‘Let’s go on the road,’ and I said, ‘Great!’ I went to my dad and said, ‘Dad, sorry, but I’m bored here. I’m going racing."

Chris spent the next four years on the road and finally worked his way up to become team fabricator and clutch specialist for a 3-time, top fuel champion car.

"The driver of that car was Gary Scelzi," he says. "Alan Johnson was the owner. That was great fun and a good experience, but toward the end of my career in racing, I ended up meeting my wife Dayna, got married and decided it was time to settle down. Following a racing circuit is not a good way to build a decent home life."

Chris says he needed a job, but he still didn’t want to go home and work for his father.

"I had found that working with my father was just hard," he says, "maybe because we were so much alike. So my new inlaws and I bought a restaurant and tried to make a go of that. We did that for a year, but had to sell out. It just didn’t bring in enough money."

Coming Home

Finally, in late November 2002 Chris returned to Porterville and approached his father

"I came to my father and said, ‘Hey dad, I want to make superchargers for drag racing cars, but I don’t know how. I have a good reputation in that business and I have people who will buy from me. Will you teach me?’ Of course, he said yes, but he was already sick by then and we never got around to it. He was tough and just brushed his illness aside. When the holidays rolled around, he went home ill and never came back."

When his father passed away in March 2003, Chris and his mother were faced with a decision: Who would take over and run the business?

New Jobs Not Possible

"My dad had done all the quoting and programming for the company,” says Chris, “so there was no one here who could fill in for him. We had standing programs for all the ongoing work, but we had no way to quote on new work or program it, if we got it. We had a long-time employee who could set up the machines and punch in G-code on simple parts, but that was it. I barely knew how to turn on the power. I knew nothing about set up, workholding, quoting or programming. We really didn’t know what to do."

For advice, Chris turned to John Rodeck, owner of Paso Robles, CA’s Rodeck Aluminum Block.

"John and I became good friends during my racing days," Chris says. "So, when he saw me worrying, he says,'Chris, if you want to run this business you better start thinking. If you don’t want to hire a freelance programmer, you got to have software.'"

But Chis had strong doubts that he could do it.

"I told him, ‘John, I can't, you know, I don't think I can do that. I don't know how to turn on a machine.’ He said, “Look, Westec is coming at the end of March. You and I are going there and we’re going to get you some software. Without software you can’t do anything with this company."

Software Shopping

Chris and Rodeck went to Westec 2003 in search of CAD/CAM software.“

"The first software booth we spotted was Gibbs and Associates," he recalls. "Bill Gibbs was there and he was just ready to do a demo for us. But before he got started, John says, ‘Whoa, whoa, stop. This kid doesn’t know about CAD/CAM software, but he needs software, so make it so he can understand.’ Bill Gibbs says, ‘No problem.’ I sat there and I was amazed. I actually understood what he was talking about. The software looked pretty easy to use."

Chris and Rodeck sat in on two more software demonstrations that day.

"Both of those were much more complicated,” he says.“You had to know a lot more about machining to use them, which I didn’t. When we left Westec, I was leaning toward Gibbs, but I wanted to give the others a fair shot, so when I got back, I called Gibbs and another major software company and asked them to give me a demonstration at our shop. They came in one a day for two days."

Software Shoot Out

After sitting through the two demonstrations, Chris reached the same conclusion.

"At my level of knowledge, which was pretty pitiful, I needed something really easy to use, and that turned out to be Gibbs," he says. "For me the beauty of the software is that it takes you by the hand and guides you step by step through the process of creating your geometry. With Gibbscam you don't need to take ten steps to draw a line. It gives you simple, clear options. You want to draw a line with the mouse. Fine, click on a button. You want a point to point line? Just click a couple of keys on the keyboard and it’s there. Gibbs has little icons that make sense. I mean, you’re not saying, ‘Who the heck would know that little icon draws a line. It’s all totally clear."

Gibbscam to the Rescue

Chris Nachtmann made the decision to go for the Gibbs package, primarily because of it’s simplicity and the fact that it was like “having an expert sitting in front of you, asking you all the right questions.”

"I got four free lessons with the package," he says, "but it turned out I only needed one. The guys at Gibbs said,"Hey, read the manual first, then we’ll set up lessons.’Well, I read the manuals and they were great. I wanted to get right in there and start drawing lines, but they said, ‘Nope, the first thing you need is a piece of stock.’ So I say, ‘Okay’ and put in the stock. Now can I draw lines? ‘Nope, now you have to say what kind of machine you’re using.’ It was like that. The manual led me step by step through every process and kept me under control the whole time. I learned a lot about machining just reading the Gibbs manual."

CAD/CAM Lifesaver

Soon after installing the software, one of Chris’ customers sent a package of 35 new parts for a quote. In response, based on what he had learned from the Gibbs manual and estimating at his restaurant, Chris took a stop watch to the shop, timed out the processes involved, the set up time, the cycle times, and then priced the materials.

"I did that quote on scraps of paper and some Post-it notes,” he say, “drove my mom crazy. But the amazing thing was we got twenty-seven out of the thirty-five jobs. They had to be delivered in June, which we did, plus they were good quality work. The really surprising thing is we made money on them, too."

With those jobs in hand, Chris called Gibbs for his first free lesson.

Chris: "I called Mark at CAM Automated Manufacturing in Simi Valley, California; they’re the Gibbs reseller. I said, ‘Hey, Mark, I’m ready for my first lesson, but I want to learn on some real jobs I have in house.’ He said, ‘Come ahead.’ That was my first lesson and my last. I left that session with two completed programs and enough knowledge to do the other twenty-five. Now when I don’t understand something, I call Mark, who’s a machinist, and we’re able to handle it over the phone."

Production Machine operates a variety of equipment, including Acroloc mills, Urawa mills, Hitachi Seiki, OKK and Daewoo mills, and 3 Takamaz turning centers. Chris started out with the Takamaz manual and taught himself to operate and program each of the machines.

"I was told by a couple of people that post processors never work right the first time,” he says, “but the ones I got from Gibbs didn’t hiccup even once. They were perfect, which for me, was a blessing."

Since taking over the shop a year and a half ago, Chris has managed to bring in three new customers and is expanding CNC Production Machine into the automotive aftermarket and motorsports markets.

"I feel very confident now that we can build this company and make it even more successful,” he says, “but I do know one thing. If it hadn’t been for Gibbscam, I don’t think we’d still be here. It was a lifesaver."

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