At 29 years old Rick Erickson already had a decade of experience in manufacturing. He opened Wire Tech with a single wire EDM and a small workspace in a Phoenix suburb. A few decades down the road he is a bit older, a lot wiser, and Wire Tech has become a premier manufacturing center in the Southwest.
As Every Breath You Take topped the charts in 1983, Rick Erickson was switching careers as a tool and die maker into business owner and EDM job shop. Wire Tech grew rapidly, expanding to a larger shop within the first year. They moved again to their current location a few years after that. “In 2004 I bought the building next door to this one,” tells Rick. “Since the beginning, I try and buy either a new piece of equipment to add to our abilities or to replace older machines. That means needing larger and larger work areas.” They currently have two buildings totaling 15,000sq.ft. and though it is a pain to transfer parts between the two locations, it is the right amount of space to house 18 CNC machine tools, support equipment, a quality lab, and offices. “I’ve always been of the opinion that keeping up with technology gives you an advantage,” continues Rick. “Especially in the early days when we were only doing job shop work. The Phoenix area is littered with machine shops on every corner, but the list gets smaller when you narrow it down to state of the art manufacturing facilities.”
Surprisingly, Wire Tech is not just EDM, but a full-service CNC manufacturing company. For the first 12 years Wire Tech was strictly a wire EDM job shop, but in the mid 90’s that changed when they added sinker style EDM to the mix. It was at that time they got their first mill, a Mikron HSM 700 high speed machining center. “You can’t have sinkers without milling support equipment,” explains Eric Rubin, shop manager at Wire Tech. “Each electrode is custom made for that part and requires expert machining to process. A lot of tribal knowledge is needed with sinker EDMs. Anyone can run it, but to truly be an operator it takes a lot of experience.” Wire Tech’s operators are involved in every step of the process. They do their own programming and work closely with the milling department manufacturing of the needed electrodes. Wire Tech has five sinker EDMs, all GF Agie Charmilles and eight wire EDM machining centers. Throw in a couple of hole popper EDMs and there is an electrical bill you don’t want to see during the Arizona summer.
Originally the Mikron was used only for machining electrodes, and internal tooling/fixtures, but Rick saw a shift in their customer’s needs and began to offer milling in support of EDM. “We started out as EDM only, but over the years we’ve added capabilities allowing us to provide a finished assembly,” details Rick. “It was a gradual process, but since we already had high speed machining centers to support the EDM process we might as well offer those services to our customers as well. We wanted to do the whole assembly. That way our reputation for delivering a quality product isn’t impacted by the next guy down the supply chain.” Wire Tech is an approved vendor for many of today’s most respected brands like: Raytheon, Honeywell, GE, General Dynamics, and Siemens. Reputation and quality are less about pride and more of a way of life as a NADCAP, AS-9100 and ISO certified company.
For many years Wire Tech was a job shop supported by projects that others couldn’t or didn’t want to do. “The business was built around injection molding needing the precision you can only find in EDM,” details Rick. “We always did aerospace and defense type work, but it wasn’t our primary aim. Honeywell came to us with a missile defense program in 2002 or 2003 and that shifted our focus more towards those kinds of programs.” The Honeywell program required Wire Tech to EDM parts out of Rhenium. At the time EDM and grinding were the only way to process parts out of that material. Because of its super high melting point, super alloys like Rhenium are used in combustion chambers, turbine blades, and exhaust nozzles of jet engines and missile systems. “From there aerospace and defense work just kept rolling in,” continues Rick. “Once our foot was in the door others opened inside Honeywell and we became supplies to multiple programs.”
Wire Tech’s milling and turning departments have expanded over the years. They still have the first Mikron HSM 700 they purchased. It runs every day without fail. When you buy a machine that costs a little more you hope that with a higher price point comes higher quality. “Twenty years later and Mikron is still a go-to machine for us,” tells Rick. “It’s not called Mikron anymore, but GF Machine Solutions. It is the same great piece of equipment. We have three of them including a dedicated 5 axis vertical. The service has always been impeccable, and we love dealing with the local rep, Randy Flores from D&R Machinery Sales. Even though we didn’t buy them through Randy, D&R is one of our preferred vendors. The last three new Hurco CNC machines we bought, we bought through Randy. Randy is the only sales person who can just walk right past Karen our office manager and is welcome any time. There is a personal relationship we have with him even if we are not in the market for a new machining center. He never badmouths another brand machine or another sales person. He knows when we need something we will call him.” Wire Tech has recently added two Hurco lathes and a Hurco 3 axis mill to further bolster their capabilities. “Two of our GF Machine Solutions milling centers have upgraded 42,000 RPM spindles that we use exclusively for electrode manufacturing and hard milling,” tells Eric. “We needed a machine that could be dedicated to tooling and the Hurco VMX 24 fit the bill perfectly. It’s a rigid, well-made machine with a good size work envelope and a 12,000RPM spindle. With plenty of tools it gives us added flexibility if we ever want to change its role in our workflow.”
The newest acquisition is a Hurco TM10i CNC turning center. It too was purchased through D&R with a specific purpose in mind. Wire Tech machines hundreds of shroud segments that are part of a turbine system. A segment is approximately a 10” ring made from Inconel or Hastelloy. They start out with 100 forgings, and each of those makes 9 to 20 parts about 1.25” thick. “We needed something with a larger turning capacity and more torque,” tells Eric. “The grooves we put in the segments require you to really get after it.” Turning on the Hurco is the first step in a multi-op process. After turning they go to the wire machine for segmenting. A final op is completed on the sinker EDMs before the part is ready to be shipped off. “The turning is the most expensive part of the program,” explains Rick. “The wire op and sinker op go off pretty quickly, but the lathe work takes the better part of a day and a half to complete.”
Eric half jokingly says how they could use a few more Hurco lathes, but with a staff of only 15 they are short staffed some days as it is. “We’d be happy to give Randy more money if we could find enough good people to run more machines,” he says with a sigh. “The core group of employees we have now are great, but we need more of them. Even with all the manufacturing in the area we struggle to find quality people to run the machines. Qualified applicants are welcome to come apply. We are interested in milling and turning people.” “Arizona is a great place to live and work,” adds Rick. “I’ve spent my life here and never tripped on sunshine.”
The transition from job shop to production shop has been gradual for Wire Tech. They walk a fine line between the two some days. One problem they face is that potential customers don’t know they do more than just EDM. Understandably so since their name implies wire EDM. “Our customers know the capabilities we have and the service we provide,” concludes Rick. “Spreading the word without scaring off job shop work is where it gets tricky. Current customers know how trustworthy we our and that our reputation in the industry means everything to us. Conveying that trust to other shops is sometimes a more difficult sell. Quality, value, and integrity are not just words on our website, but words we’ve lived by since 1983.”