Living the Dream: A Tool & Die Engineer Controls His Own Destiny
From Soviet-era Moscow to Los Angeles came a Russian immigrant determined to make his own way in the world. Today, things are far from easy at the helm of a small manufacturing company that makes washers and stamped parts, but the obstacles are minor compared to what he’s endured.
The diameter of the hole in this flat washer, made of 0.010-inch thick, AISI 1095 steel in hardened condition (Rc 48-51), measures just 0.013 inch.
Photo courtesy of Mr. Washerman.
Somewhere back among the stark, grim buildings of the former Soviet Union 30 years ago, Boris Elbaum imagined a better life for himself. Not where he lived, in Moscow, but in America. The problem was he didn’t have the freedom to move from city to town, let alone from the U.S.S.R. to the United States, without fear of being put in jail.
“You had such a thing as assignment to the place where you live,” said Elbaum, the owner of Mr. Washerman, a manufacturer of washers and custom stampings in sunny South El Monte, California. “So if you decided to live in a different place, you could be put in jail because you broke the law of assignment to the property.”
In an interview, Elbaum recounted some of the restraints on individual freedom that weighed heavily on daily life in the Soviet Union. The communist-socialist system was structured in a way, he said, that could easily turn a person into a thief. Because the state owned the means of production, it was a crime to own a truck for the purpose of making deliveries, or machinery that would be used to make parts or products.
“You couldn’t buy a milling machine and set it up somewhere because it would be illegal for you to have it,” he said. “So you could not be in business. Products existed at the factories, but all factories belonged to the government, so you had no chance to buy them. You might try to steal them, but then you’re a thief.”
Opportunity of a Lifetime
Things began to change in the second half of the 1980s as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost (openness) and perestroika (restructuring) took hold, igniting reforms that eventually led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. For Elbaum, the path was cleared to make good on an opportunity that he could only imagine just a few years earlier.
“I came here to the U.S. to earn my bread,” he said of his arrival on American shore some twenty-five years ago, when he landed in Los Angeles without any significant financial resources.
It’s a long way from Soviet-era Moscow to the hot—but liberating—streets of Los Angeles. But today, Boris Elbaum is living his dream, earning his own bread at the helm of a small manufacturing company that makes parts mainly for the automotive aftermarket and aerospace industries.
At 0.036 inch, the wall thickness of these two washers (0.088-inch inside diameter and 0.158-inch outside diameter) equals their material thickness.
Photo courtesy of Mr. Washerman.
Three years after arriving in the U.S. in 1989, Elbaum started his own tool and die design company, Simon Engineering. A tool and die engineer by education and trade, Elbaum had the company designing tools, dies, and fixtures for stamping industry clients located mainly in southern California. Five years later, one of Simon Engineering’s clients offered to buy the company because they’d been growing and needed an engineering department. Elbaum took them up on the offer, selling the company and coming on board with his crew to provide engineering services. At the same time, the former client was bought by a bigger company from Northern California.
“We were working for a couple of years, and then came the dot-com craziness period—’97, ’98, ’99,” said Elbaum. “We expected that in just two months down the road, we were going to cash out and exercise our stock [options], and we’d all become millionaires in one shot,” he said, laughing. “And then the parent company went belly up and pulled us, too, into that.”
IN 2004, after working for another company for several years, Elbaum bought Del Smith Manufacturing, a South El Monte, Calif., provider of metal washers and metal stampings since 1966. Del Smith was making mostly washers at the time, but Elbaum expanded the company’s production capabilities, bringing more metal stampings into the mix and eventually doubling the size of the business. He also changed the name of the company to Mr. Washerman.
More than Washers
Today, Mr. Washerman employs 14 people at its12, 000 square-foot manufacturing plant in South El Monte, California, where they produce stampings ranging from very simple to complex shapes. The company makes a variety of washers, from standard to special—fender washers, SAE washers, Belleville washers; plus shims, spacers, and bushings—and works with “virtually every material available,” from low carbon steels to exotics like Hastelloy or phenolic. Part manufacturing capabilities include the ability to make parts out of stainless steel, copper, aluminum, brass, plastics—including nylon and PTFE (Teflon)—and rubber. The company can also manufacture parts that feature custom rubber overmolding.
Mr. Washerman’s work is split “about 50/50” between stampings and washers, Elbaum said, and roughly 85 to 90 percent of it involves custom parts. This is where Elbaum’s background as a tool and die engineer comes in handy, because the manufacture of custom stampings requires the ability to design a tool tailor-made for the specific part.
“Designing and building your own tools lets you control your destiny,” Elbaum said. “Anybody can buy presses and put them in a building; the difference in technology is defined by the tools. We have about 7000 tools in our stock, so there’s a high chance that we can modify one of them for you fast and economically.”
Mr. Washerman’s “ability to offer tools at low cost” is a major benefit for customers, Elbaum said. The shop has extensive internal design capabilities and can handle a broad range of tooling projects, from a simple blanking die to automated machinery that’s integrated into the stamping process to perform processes like tapping, riveting, inserting, machining, welding, or assembling.
The company serves a number of industries, with the largest percentage of its work devoted to the secondary automotive (aftermarket) and aerospace markets. Elbaum said that he’s also currently looking into other markets, including trailers and agricultural equipment. “We can stamp anything that fits into the envelope of 36 x 30 inches and needs 200 tons or less of power,” he said.
In addition to producing washers and spacers, Mr. Washerman specializes in manufacturing custom metal stampings to tight tolerances. Stampings shown here include a tube, fully formed from flat stock; a part bonded with rubber (top, second from right), and various custom brackets.
Photo courtesy of Mr. Washerman.
To produce the washers, Mr. Washerman has 14 punch presses that range in capacity from 22 to 200 tons and are capable of running single-stage, multiple-stage, compound, and progressive die processes. “We can produce washers from 0.090-inch OD to 15-inch OD, from 0.013-inch ID to 14.5 -inch ID, and from 0.001-inch thick to 5/16-inch thick,” Elbaum noted. Also in the house are 10 tumblers and a variety of machine tools—drill presses, vertical mills, lathes and tappers—for in-house secondary processes.
Secondary services provided by the company include a number of processes in addition to in-house tapping and machining. Plating, heat treating, grinding, and powder coating are offered as well.
It isn’t easy for a small manufacturer to stay competitive when faced with high taxes and labor costs, as well as restrictive regulatory requirements. In an effort to reduce costs, Elbaum said that he’s moving more and more toward minimizing physical labor. “Before, I would say, ‘Let’s put in another operation, let’s take another guy, let’s fire up the press, and do it,” he said. “Today, I’m shifting more and more toward unattended production because I need to minimize labor costs.”
Probably the company’s biggest strength overall, Elbaum said, is its ability to be flexible, adaptive, and responsive to changing customer demands—qualities that he attributes to Mr. Washerman’s unique blend of size, capability, and sheer commitment. And if there was ever a time to exercise these strengths, it’s now, as markets are becoming more and more dynamic.
“We’re big enough to tackle serious projects, yet small enough to be flexible and reactive,” said Elbaum. “We’re big enough so that we can dedicate some tool room and press room resources to the project, and small enough that there isn’t an administrative structure that you need to get through in order to talk to a decision maker.”
Elbaum says that customers often get to see Mr. Washerman’s “strongest side” when they’re under pressure to have a small quantity of custom, high-quality washers made in a short timeframe at a competitive price.
“The main thing is we’re ready to work with customers from the design stage of the project and be advisers on how to make the project cost-effective. Get us involved in the early stages and we’ll be happy to help you develop and manufacture the product in the most cost-effective way. So when the project materializes, we will hit the ground running.”
Cost effectiveness is important, Elbaum said, because American manufacturers pay higher labor costs and taxes than their overseas competitors. But the demand for American-made parts is high, he said, adding that “our people are typically very patriotic.” And some of his customers have come to him with projects that had previously been sourced offshore. “Price is a major factor, but they also look at reliability and trust,” he said. “We are price competitive, reliable, and we don’t cheat on them.”
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