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The lone star state is filled with idioms, traditions, and a uniqueness that can best be described as …..Texas. Depending on where you’re from “everything is bigger, no one should mess with you and something about playing with bulls and getting the horns are considered to be universal truths. Never eat chili with beans, and don’t be the person who is all hat and no cattle. But one saying you don’t hear a lot of is “I’m opening a machine shop and not hiring machinists.”

Nathan Byman’s no machinist concept for Wolfram Manufacturing has nothing to do with geographic colloquialisms, but instead stems directly from data and science. Nathan, a mechanical engineer spent years custom tailoring his career path knowing all along the zenith would be building his own company. “My first interaction with machining came from the design side,” tells Wolfram Manufacturing CEO Nathan Byman. “Soon after college I went to work for Lockheed Martin as a design engineer on the F16 program in Fort Worth. I had my own internal plan of rotating through different roles and responsibilities at different companies to build a foundation of manufacturing. The ultimate goal was to start my own business.” After earning a business degree from Rice University, he gained experience from a few shops before landing at Wyman Gordon as operations manager. “I was running the machine shop and still not a machinist,” continues Nathan. “It was there that I really began to think about getting closer to it and opening my own shop. We had a strike, and I spent a week on the floor running the machines and just had a blast. A few years later I went to work for a high end shop outside Houston. We were at the top of the world with six facilities around the globe and more tech than you could shake a stick at. It was contract manufacturing with pure craftsman doing one off 100k parts for high end oil and gas, US Navy, NASA, and nuclear submarines. You could go talk to anyone and learn something amazing every day. Then I woke up one morning in 2008 to global economic meltdown. It was a formative experience to say the least, early in my time there I was briefing the night shift machinists on something when one of them steps forward and asks what gives me the right or the knowledge to be able to tell them how to do their job. Well absolutely nothing gives me the right to do that, but we can talk, collect some data, and you will find I have some decent ideas. I was used to getting flack from people I hadn’t worked with for not being a 3rd generation machinist, but this was the point that I knew I wanted to start something of my own but do things totally differently.”

Above – This TMAC chart captures a cutoff operation using constant surface footage. If the white horsepower line reaches the red extreme limit the tool can be pulled near-instantly saving part, machine alignment and tooling. Right – This cut was stopped and kept from damaging the machine or the tool.

Working for that company allowed Nathan and his team to try anything. Because of the manufacturing challenges it was a great playground to test different technologies. That’s where he first came across the Caron Engineering integration tools. Technology is great and even though sometimes it seems like magic the science is what drives the tech. Finding new and exciting tech is the easy part, having a staff willing to embrace it is a different story. “We had so many tools at our disposal to make the best possible parts,” tells Nathan. “It was crazy what we had the latitude to do, but frequently instead of embracing new concepts and science we were met often by resistance and even sabotage on a few occasions. Some people were just not open to the idea that the old ways were not always the best ways. I didn’t want that mentality in my own place of business so when I opened Wolfram Manufacturing in 2011, I didn’t hire any machinists. Some of my team had manufacturing experience, but none of their primary skills was machining. We hired for attitude and aptitude and they came open to ideas and without possible baggage and bad habits. I also opened the shop with no secondary equipment to fall back on. No Bridgeport mills, no manual lathes. If we were going to put a hole on an angle, we were going to do it all on the same machine.”

Horsepower cutting data from a milling operation on three parts are overlaid for comparison in TMAC – The ultimate in process knowledge and control.

The concept at Wolfram Manufacturing is one piece flow. They load raw material and take out a finished part. If there is an opportunity for a human contact, there is an opportunity for error. They go the extra mile to do as much on the machine as inhumanly possible. So, with a devout, almost religious like discipline Wolfram Manufacturing use science and critical thinking to go after sources of variation. Nathan knew realizing his dream would require more than a 3-axis mill and traditional lathe that make up a large part of the Texas shops his size. “We are a small operation with a dozen employees and a 6000 sq.ft. building,” details Nathan. “Similar sized companies in the area don’t have the same kind of capabilities that we do. All our machines have a lathe spindle and sub spindle. Every machine has full milling, every machine has high pressure coolant, every machine has touch setters, every machine has probing, every machine has TMAC adaptive control, and every machine is an Okuma.” After running facilities with every machine tool under the sun Nathan felt the Okuma fit perfectly on the price vs performance vs “hackability” graph. “Okuma are dependable machines with good specs and in our particular case come with terrific support. Our shop is in Austin, TX and one of the best techs in the Southwest lives in Austin. Peter is a true local asset, and any time we need support, Peter is our guy. So many times the right system is the one you can get support for. I started with one Okuma Multus B400, but now we have four machines and are planning our next additions”

Machines communicating via OnTakt with production, tooling, and alarm notifications. Right – Consolidated tool tracking and inventory view across the shop with OnTakt.

Like the mighty Longhorn, Wolfram Manufacturing also has a two-pronged approach to business. The machine shop is only half of the equation, the other half is sales, installation and training on all the Caron Engineering production tools. Before they were dealers, they were customers, and one of the core beliefs at Wolfram Manufacturing is in the Caron systems. “I carry a lot of anxiety at night when the machines are running,” half jokes Nathan. “To get any sleep at all as a new business owner I knew the Caron system had to be deployed in my own shop. Holes in processes give me nightmares and I have to find ways to close them. Caron was in our process from the very beginning. Every member of our team from the get-go were trained in it. I forced them to learn it and depend on it. We got very good using it. When we talk about what went wrong one of the first questions always is “could we have caught this if Caron was set up properly?” I coach my team to ignore what the salesperson says is the limit of their system and ask for what you really want. Imagine the world as you want it and keep asking for that. If what they have doesn’t work and they appear to be a leader in their field keep pushing for feature requests. We did that with Caron to the point that they almost got tired of hearing from us. We reported bugs, requested feature changes, you name it. At a certain point Rob Caron who owns the company called and set up a meeting to come down to Austin and see what we were doing. He spent a couple days with us and that started the process of becoming a distributor for the Caron systems. We are unique in the aspect that there are other Caron distributors, but we are the only one who have a shop and use the systems every day. We sell the Caron products in our southwestern territory, but we partner with distributors around the country to provide applications, setup, and training where we are needed. Other distributors sell systems and help get the new users dialed in as well, but we have the unique perspective of training as a direct user ourselves. So we offer ourselves and our facilities to help integrators and their customers receive additional training and application support when needed. We have great faith in the Caron system; enough to let strangers loose on live machines that we depend on to run customer’s parts. Three years ago, we committed to Caron reselling and installation as part of our business model. We love the machining aspect of Wolfram Manufacturing, but we also love selling a system that helps people make better parts. It’s a different mentality sharing information with possible competing companies, but we take great pride in doing so. Helping others make better parts brings a lot of satisfaction to our whole team..”

Wolfram Manufacturing are a Caron Engineering distributor in the
Southwest but do product integration and training nationwide.

Nathan likes to describe the Caron system by comparing a machine tool to a surgeon. “For example, take a surgeon who is at the top of his game doing appendectomies. He or she could actually perform the surgery with their eyes closed because the movements are programmed into their brain, like the machine tool. The machine tool can perfectly replicate movements, that’s its job. Where it is different from the surgeon is that it has no idea if the tool has been loaded right or not. It is like the surgeon has his eyes closed and the assistant hands them the tool upside down. With their eyes closed they have no way of knowing the scalpel is upside down. The machine tool is blind and trusts that the human who loaded the tool did so correctly and that when we press the start button it can do the movements. The Caron technologies we deploy are to fill the gaps that can be created by human error so the machine can do its one job. All of our Okumas have probing, touch setters and high-pressure coolant. The probe can reach out and tell if the part is in the right place. Tool setters tell me that we have the correct tool and that it is the right length. The high-pressure coolant is like having the surgical assistant clearing away all the guts and blood and waste, so the workplace is clear. With all that we have half a chance of success, but we still don’t have a sense of touch. I could be cutting nothing or cutting to the bone.”

If you are tired of making “custom tools” the Caron TMAC system can help protect tooling, parts, and your valuable machines.

This is where the Caron TMAC (tool monitoring adaptive control) system comes into play. TMAC is additional sensors that are put on every important drive of the machine to give it a sense of touch. In the case of Nathan’s Okumas that means sensors on the milling head and on both lathe chucks. The simplified description is a super sensitive chart of your horsepower curve. Every second of every cut is shown live to the operator as well as recorded for later review. The same can be done with vibration, but Nathan’s focus today is on the more widely used HP. “It used to be that a master machinist could lean on the machine while you were talking with them and feel there was something out of place and make an adjustment,” describes Nathan. “Today’s machine tools are more isolated, enclosed, and equipped with high pressure coolant. They are closed off to sight, smell and sound, so it is much harder for a machinist to do that now. With Caron TMAC we get all that back and more. I “see” with a resolution that is better than any machinist ever could sense. We’ve done the game countless times with guys claiming they can tell by touch better than the sensors. They are quickly humbled when I tell them the machine just lost an insert and they didn’t notice. The point is that everything you can see you can automate against. Most of the time people think of precautionary uses for this kind of tech. If the insert fails shut down the machine and so forth. The Caron TMAC system also allows you to attack as well as defend. You can designate it to run at this exact HP and if you are over to slow the feed rate, but if you are under to crank things up and go faster. Tool life becomes better AND productivity becomes better, all by having fully customizable and automated feed rates based off the HP load. That is only one aspect, but one that can yield tremendous gains when deployed.”

Wolfram Manufacturing benefit from using the Caron TMAC system on everything ranging from a $20 piece of acrylic to high dollar super alloy mission critical parts.

Nathan is asked a lot if this is tech that can benefit the guy with a basic 3 axis CNC machine tool not running mission critical or high value parts. His answer might surprise you. “Anyone can benefit from the Caron system by the recording feature alone” touts Nathan. “When something inevitably goes wrong there is no guessing when it happened. You know exactly when it all went south by pulling up the charts for that exact tool and seeing that it happened Tuesday at 01:05:56 pm. We use the TMAC system on a $10,000 Inconel combustion chamber for a rocket and on a $20 piece of plastic. Naysayers scoff at technology like this because of they think it is only useful when cutting hard materials or in production. They don’t imagine that the Caron TMAC system has enough resolution to see finish cutting in acrylic, and that the second identical feature on the same part counts as production. Everyone is familiar with the machine’s load monitor bar and people see it move when they are cutting something hard, but don’t see it move when they are cutting something soft. The TMAC system has an incredibly sensitive multi-range transducer. The multi range part means it can focus on a certain range of HP and it break it down into 1000 increments.”

When asked what’s next, Nathan responds “we have been putting a lot of effort into our Wolfram Operating System called OnTakt and we plan to bring it to market this year. We optimize everything and the web app suite contains the tools we use to run our shop. In OnTakt the machines talk directly to our team through Slack and Microsoft Teams and let us know if they need help. Anything from not keeping up with production, a bad dimension trend, a fluid shortage, or a TMAC stop for a dull tool without a backup. Anyone can log in and see tool consumption, run rates, alarms, cut recordings, and dimensional data from anywhere. I have used a lot of systems and at a certain point it is hard to get them just right without living with them in a live shop.”

Manufacturing is in need of a PR makeover to appeal to the latest generations driven by technology. Even though computer is the first letter in CNC the stigma of it being dirty manual repetitive job still exists, that is if it is even thought of at all. How do you change that perceived notion? “I was IMTS at a big fancy dinner and guy next to me was talking about how hard it was to find people,” concludes Nathan. “He wanted super smart kids that dropped out of high school but were ultra-motivated and didn’t want a traditional path so that he could get them cheap. For whatever reason he thought this was a classic recipe for success. I have a different thought. If you want to make parts in this country, then you need to create a job that is suitable for the folks that this country is producing. You give them a fast feedback loop of learning, access to information, and they optimize really fast. We built Wolfram Manufacturing utilizing tools that are more appealing to young people in 2021. With TMAC and OnTakt, our shop is like a live action video game. Half our guys don’t have degrees, and none of them came to me as a trained machinist, but here we are utilizing the latest technology to make complex parts and training others to do the same. For all of us at Wolfram Manufacturing coming to work is fun, making parts is fun, using science and technology is fun, and dedicating our time together to making the next day even better keeps it going.”


Article by Sean Buur Photos Supplied by Wolfram Manufacturing