If a knack for hard work isn’t a skill, it’s the next best thing. If you have a good work ethic, skill, and youth to boot, there’s no limit to where your energy might take you. For Bryan Schmidt of TGS Precision, his appetite for hard work took him to rural Tennessee, to run a CNC machine shop 6 days a week, and drive his boat or hunt deer on his days off.
Greenback, Tennessee is an unlikely location to find a flourishing machining business. With a population barely into four figures, it’s an unlikely place to find much at all. But this is leisure and tourism country. Several lakes and a network of waterways, including the Tennessee River, make the area the perfect playground for boating enthusiasts. A number of state historic parks and recreation areas are within easy reach, as are the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Nantahala National Forest, which means it’s great for hunters, too.
As a boy, TGS Precision founder Bryan Schmidt would come to Tennessee with his parents for summer vacations. When he founded his company, just two years ago, the 23-year-old came back, drawn by the outdoor lifestyle as much as the state tax incentives.
Mr. Schmidt is the third generation in his family to ply his trade as a machinist. His grandfather and father started a machine shop in New York State that is still trading to this day. Bryan studied mechanical engineering at university before he followed in the family footsteps. Just 24 months later, his business has 21 employees, a healthy order book, and 12 Haas CNC machine tools.
“We have eight VF-2 Haas vertical machining centers, a VF-4, and a VF-3YT,” he says. “We also have Haas ST-10 and ST-20 turning centers. The Haas machines are the foundation of the business, and play a significant role in the work we do for the boating sector and other industries, including some well known names in food processing.”
TGS has also diversified into sectors such as automotive and medical, which means the Haas machines are cutting metals ranging from aluminum and carbon steel 1045, through to tough alloys such as Hastelloy?, Inconel?, and P20 tool steel.
Visitors to the shop will witness the camaraderie and sense of shared destiny that many companies try, and often fail, to achieve. Bryan’s brother also works for the business, and his mother is frequently on hand to offer words of encouragement.
“We have an awesome group of guys,” says Bryan. “We work across two shifts, from 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. I’m here for most of that, working from 7:30 right through to closing time, six days a week. The first seven or eight hours I spend in the office. After that, I’m on the shop floor running a shift and overseeing three or four Haas machines.” People might wince at those sorts of hours, but there’s no holding back youth.
With a fresh and eager team averaging 60 to 70 hours a week each, the TGS work ethic is clear for all the company’s customers to see. And although TGS employees work hard, Mr. Schmidt makes sure he gives back. Days off for hunting excursions, for example, are a common way for the team to unwind together outside company walls. Lunch often consists of a large tray of cured venison, which everyone shares.
“With our determination, teamwork, and the Haas machines, we can push work out quickly, which gives us an advantage,” says Bryan. “People want their parts yesterday, and they want them right – first time. Every single part is checked here for accuracy and aesthetics. If you mess up, you don’t get a second chance; but I’ve been in business two years, and I’m very proud to say, we’ve never had a part rejected.”
Mr. Schmidt says the fragile economy is fueling the “last-minute” trend, with nervous customers waiting until the last possible moment before committing to orders, by which time deadlines are close at hand.
“We’re flexible,” says Mr. Schmidt, “not just in terms of manpower, but with the Haas machines, which allow quick set-up times. What’s more, our four-axis tables offer the capability to reduce the number of operations for a part and reduce cycle times. Each of our guys is familiar with the Haas control, so they can move around the machines.”
Batch sizes at TGS Precision range from 1- or 2-off, up to several thousand. Fixtures play a vital role in processing larger runs, accommodating between 8 and 42 workpieces at once. Simply having two vises set up alongside one another allows the company to perform first and second machining operations at the same time.
“The Haas machines will do anything! And they hold tolerance all day and all night,” Mr. Schmidt notes. “Providing you don’t abuse them and don’t crash them, they’ll last forever, which is incredible, considering the price. What we pay for a Haas machining center is half what others pay for certain Japanese models, and this has been a contributory factor in our rapid growth.”
At the time of my visit, all the Haas machines are busy. One of the VF-2 vertical machining centers is engaged on a run of 4000 parts for a medical industry application. It will run for 10 days producing the same part. Other components being machined at the time include gearbox base plates and hydraulic cylinder manifolds for the boating industry.
“The work around here is unlimited,” states Mr. Schmidt. “We’ve done some parts for an automotive customer, but they could get them a lot cheaper overseas. The problem, however, is that lead times are six or seven weeks, and if it’s wrong it has to be reworked. I’ll do it in a weekend and it will be spot on.”
There is a big automotive community in Tennessee. Volkswagen, for example, has a large plant nearby in Chattanooga. By complete coincidence, Bryan Schmidt’s uncle was a VP for many years at VW in Germany.
“I want to reach the point where my guys are trained to do my job and I don’t have to be here,” he concludes. “Instead, I can be on the road finding more work. I think our biggest hurdle to getting contracts with VW, for example, will be getting our foot in the door. We already have the technology, we have the ability, and we’re not afraid of hard work. All we need is the introduction.”