Rick Varnum is in his 40th year at J& F Machine and like his father before him he is a machinist above all else. He started cleaning the floors as the shop’s “hey boy,” ran all the machines through high school, and in what seems like the blink of an eye became chief of the tribe. The J & F tribe is 24 strong with two shifts of metal working warriors spread between 11 CNC milling and turning centers in 11,000sq.ft.
“My father Francis started this business back in 1976,” tells Rick Varnum, Vice-President and Operations chief of J & F Machine. “When we started out we were different, both in the parts we made and how we made them.” J & F began as a combination shop, making tooling and small production runs. They specialized in high precision one and two off commercial projects. “We used to do a lot for the local canning and bottling industry,” continues Rick. “We would make components for these giant machines that looked and ran like Swiss watches. They ran very fast and were very precise. They were on par with the precision needed now in our aerospace work, but without the necessary paper trail.” Tribal knowledge was a big part of how they did business in the early days. They would run a job and use what they learned on the next project. There were no production meetings, Rick was the chief and the tribe came to him for answers.
J & F’s quality policy is to never stop improving, be it through new machines like the new DMG MORI machines he has, advanced software, employee training or changing the company’s overall philosophy. Six years ago J & F was making great parts, but they saw a need to shift from being a personality driven business to a process driven one. “Small events led us to a point in our lives that we needed to make a change,” explains Rick. “We were always AS compliant, but industry pressure forced our hand to actually get certified. We went to a job fair and the first question everyone asked was are you AS9100 certified. We were compliant, but we see now that it isn’t the same thing. We do great work, complex parts, but not having that certification took us out of play.” Like many companies, Rick thought the certification was going to be more of a problem than a solution, but now a few years down the road they are seeing the payoff.
Rick is a machinist first and a businessman second, but fortunately his wife Micheline has a background in finance with Fortune 500 companies. “When Micheline re-joined the company she joined in a big way,” describes Rick. “She is largely responsible for the growth and direction we are headed as a company.” Micheline started out as the “girl Friday” driving for the company when she was in high school before going away to college. Rick claims she came back because she couldn’t get him out of her mind, but the fact is he is fortunate to have her as a driving force at J & F. “I like things to be planned and organized,” tells Micheline. “Part of our program is contingency and succession oriented. You need the confidence that things will progress and be done right in your absence.” Customers wanted to see that J & F were all set to cover them with a contingency plan. “GE can’t stop making jet engines because someone way down the supply chain died and the shop can’t function without them,” details Rick. “We have processes in place now to keep that from being an issue and it is business as usual if I am here or not.” Rick jokes that if someone would have told him getting AS certified would have got him more vacation time he would have done it long before they did.
Once they started taking continual improvement to heart things started to fall in place. “The hardest thing for us was finding a starting point,” describes Rick. “I look to resources like CNC West to see what other shops are doing. I really appreciate the people willing to share in the articles.” “We decided to change the culture from the top down, but we needed some help and needed ideas,” adds Micheline. “So I qualified for the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program and we contracted with CMTC (California Manufacturing Technology Consulting), a non-profit to help us with training.” CMTC organized trainings ranging from leadership and management to 5S and AS9100 reviews. What many companies do not know is that there is state and local funds available to subsidize the majority of the consulting and training cost. Rick and Micheline found working with CMTC to be a great experience and an under used resource. “It took a while for me to get used to the idea that the guys were sitting in a training and not out running the machines,” confesses Rick. “We included everyone in the programs right down to the person sweeping the floors. Everyone felt part of something bigger and appreciated that we as a company were investing time and money into them.” Having an outside company come in with an expert in each field made a huge difference on how the information was received. “It was no longer the boss telling them what to do, but an expert suggesting change,” continued Rick. “We were able to grow and learn as a unified group.”
Part of J & F’s continual improvement plan is having the shop filled with high quality machining centers. For a long time Rick has been a fan of Japanese built machines. The shop is strewn with Japanese milling and turning centers. “Most of our machines are DMG MORI or Kitamura Japanese built machines, and I am tremendously happy with them” tells Rick. Rick has purchased 6 new machines in the last five years including a NH5000 horizontal with 6 pallets, two DMG MORI NVX5100 vertical machining centers and a DMG MORI SL403 lathe. “DMG MORI hires smart and qualified people to represent their brand,” tells Rick. “They went direct last year and Matt Tierney who is the southern California sales manager is our salesman and does a great job for us. When customers visit and see a shop full of nice equipment like we have they know we mean business and can deliver what we promised.”
A good portion of J & F’s aerospace work consists of ultra complex parts manufactured out of heat-treated Inconel castings. “Inconel is a super alloy used in jet engines and high temp applications,” explains Rick. “It isn’t the easiest to machine and wreaks havoc on tooling because of its hardness. DMG MORI delivers a robust platform and they have no problems holding the tight tolerances we need.” Rick has machines on the floor that are 6 or 7 years old that still hold “like new” tolerances. The latest machines to come on line are a pair of DMG MORI NVX5100 vertical machining centers and Rick has been impressed by their output. “The Direct drive rotary table on our two NVX5100s provides high speed and high precision in a compact machine without giving up rigidity,” details Rick. “The newest controls are pretty awesome too. Besides doing all the standard control features they are touch screen and you can pull up all the planning, blueprints, and images related to the job you are running.” Operators take photos of the setups and call them up when they need it. Rick is a proponent of switching his guys around to keep them sharp and the photo system is a real value to maintain setup efficiency and still give the operators the opportunity to run new parts and different machines. “I’d be remiss in my duties as a shop owner if I didn’t mention the service, or lack of service really I get with my Japanese machines. They very rarely break down. We lose maybe one day every two years and that is it. You may pay more for a quality made machine like a DMG MORI, but you get it back in precision and reliability and I feel the ROI comes quickly.”
Over the years, J& F have shown a real commitment to their employees and it shows. More than half the workforce has been with the company for more than five years. “A quarter of our staff has been with J & F for 20 plus years,” tells Micheline. “All of our machinists are true machinists, not just button pushers. We appreciate their suggestions and ability to trouble shoot. We make sure to get them as much training as we can and try and do a good job in the hiring process.” J & F was having an issue with under qualified applicants showing up for job openings before turning to NTMA for a solution. “We’ve been an NTMA member for 25 years and our last hire Alejandro is a star employee. The NTMA gives them the base level to start the job and if they have the ability and aptitude they really shine.”
Rick jokes that the crack of the whip over the downcast shoulder used to be the motivation tool needed in this industry but admits that times have changed and they get better response out of positive reinforcement and continued education. J & F have quarterly 5S award lunches and recognize employee achievements, but one of the more unique items of business is their “Swahili idol.” The idol is given as bragging rights to the employee who has gone above and beyond. It stems from the joke they have in the shop when there is a breakdown in communication that Rick must have been speaking Swahili. The recipient gets the idol at his workstation; there is a gift and a short presentation ceremony. “The idol gives individual recognition in the tribe,” concludes Rick. “We sit with the idol around the campfire, eat raw meat and discuss how we are going to run the next job. There is a lot of pride in manufacturing here. We have parts with millions of miles on them because they have been around the earth hundreds of times. I like that, our employees like that and our customers like that.”