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Since its inception, Austin Dynamics has embraced cutting-edge equipment and focused on the production of attractive, high-quality parts for the high-tech sector
When Craig Hobdy took a metal shop class during his high school days, something special took hold of him. “I had a fascination with taking a piece of metal and turning it into something precision and beautiful,” he said.
Soon after, at the age of 15, he began working at a machine shop. “It was infectious to me, and that was what set me on the path that I’ve been on my whole life.”
Hobdy is now the president and owner of Austin Dynamics (www.austindynamics.com), a precision machine shop specializing in multi-axis machining for clients in high-tech industries, and that same appreciation for the production of aesthetically appealing parts is infused into the heart and soul of the company he founded nearly a quarter century ago.
“Quality is something that radiates,” he said. “When you go look at a brand new Mercedes, it’s appealing to your eye, and we endeavor for our machine parts to have that same level of quality where it’s not only precision, but it’s also beautiful.”
From medical and aerospace to energy and semiconductor, Hobdy’s shop has adapted to a variety of high-tech fields and the parts unique to those industries. “We’ve done anything and everything when it comes to materials and industries,” he said.
Primarily a small parts manufacturer, Austin Dynamics has the ability to handle instrumentation parts, such as watch pins, that dip below 0.030 inch diameter. On the flip side, a 40- by 20-inch piece of material is the largest handled on the vertical mills, and on the lathe, 12-inch chuck machines can turn 16 inches or so depending on the part.
So where do those parts actually wind up?
During the Gulf War, Austin Dynamics worked on prototyping for a hologram table for use on the battlefield.
And when the space shuttle blew, Hobdy’s business was sought out to help build prototype screws for a patch kit that would be used by the astronauts to repair the tile damage before re-entry.
“Austin is just a hotbed of technology and innovation. It’s really been a great place for us to grow our brand and work on some really cool stuff over the years,” he said, and every industry and every customer is unique.
“From our conception, we said we want to win with technology, but we also want to be an environment for learning,” he added. “We’re always endeavoring to learn, and if we’re learning, we’re doing a good job.”
This passion for continuing education has been one of the keys to success as Austin Dynamics works to understand its customers and their products. “A lot of times, if you can get in there and work with the engineers and find out their expectations and find out what their product is all about, it just helps you be a better vendor for them,” he said.
And finding ways to stand out as a strong partner is crucial. Austin Dynamics isn’t going to benefit from government subsidized materials or dirt cheap labor, Hobdy said, so finding ways to better meet the individual needs of customers is a key strategy for differentiating the company within an increasingly competitive global market.
At one time, America was widely recognized for its manufacturing prowess, Hobdy explained, and some of today’s frontrunners were not. “In the old days we could say, ‘It’s Chinese, so it’s poor quality,’” he said. “You can’t really say that anymore.” And Singapore, he added, has done a great job of picking up a lot of manufacturing work as well.
When Hobdy headed over to a customer’s facility to meet with an engineer about a vacuum chamber assembly prototype project, for example, he was blown away by what felt like a ghost town. He soon learned that a large number of employees had been laid off and the production and assembly sent over to Singapore.
“You go through the legwork and details of helping tweak things and spotting mistakes in the design, and then once it gets debugged and works, they pull it and run overseas with it,” he said, “and that is one of the tough things we’re faced with.”
But this type of difficulty has only encouraged Hobdy to adjust and refine the company’s business model accordingly in order to attract product manufacturers willing to look beyond price alone. For many domestic suppliers, factors like closer proximity, shorter lead times, quality, and access to technology innovation can add up and ultimately tip the scales in favor of companies like Austin Dynamics.
“That’s another reason that we kind of pushed into the multi-axis and are trying to be more high-tech and trying to be more progressive with our capabilities,” he explained. A turning point for the company came back in 2010, when Hobdy attended a trade show in Chicago with the intention of buying another horizontal machining center.
After a couple days of checking out all the available equipment, he decided it was time to take the plunge and purchase the company’s first 5-axis mill, a DMG/Mori Seiki DMU-50. “It was definitely the right move,” he said, and the last three mills purchased by Austin Dynamics have all been 5-axis mills as well.
Many engineers are now making the geometries more complicated, so the ability to touch five sides of a part is a big plus. It enables the opportunity to put in angled holes, handle compound angles, and get inside with clearances that make it possible to machine parts much differently than a typical vertical or horizontal machine would. It also enables Austin Dynamics to process the most complicated parts in only two work holdings.
“A lot of times, if you’re taking a complicated part and you’re trying to manually manipulate it through five setups, you’re going to have a better chance at scratching the part or losing your access location or having some kind of a snafu that you don’t encounter on the 5-axis mill,” Hobdy said. With the push of one button, it is possible to take a part and check primarily every feature on it, which enhances quality and efficiency.
“Instead of saying we need to compete by buying cheaper machines, we’ve always looked at it in a totally different way and said we’re going to be able to lower our price because we’re buying a more expensive machine and we’re going to be able to be multifunctional,” Hobdy said.
This embracing of technology and investing in the capital equipment necessary to be competitive positions Austin Dynamics to play a prominent role in the reshoring of a lot of the highly complex work out there, according to Hobdy. “When people have complicated parts, close tolerances, and difficult geometry, they’re going to pay more money for that and that’s not going to be something that’s just commoditized and sent overseas on a whim,” he said.
“We’re going to continue to grow around the multi-axis platform,” he added. In addition to the three 5-axis mills, Austin Dynamics recently replaced its Mori Seiki SL-25Y with a Mori Seiki NTX2000SZM with 11-axis of control. “I think innovation is key to keeping America competitive in manufacturing,” Hobdy noted, “and having multi-axis capabilities is essential to us being competitive in a global market.”
The belief in state-of-the-art technology and equipment is nothing new for Hobdy and his company, which he began back in 1992 out of his garage using a 1956 Bridgeport milling machine and a 1967 Clausing lathe while chipping away and saving up for the first couple of years.
“Because I did really nice work and had great quality and aesthetics, I saw a leap in demand for my services,” he said, and that encouraged him to make his first big purchase. Though the company was still in its infancy, when the time came to buy a new CNC machine, he didn’t scrimp. The company’s first new mill was a Mori Seiki MV40, an option twice as expensive as alternatives on the market at that time.
He based the purchase on jobs the company had recently run, and amortized an 8-second tool change versus a 2-second tool change. Hobdy said he focused not on what the machine would cost him, but rather the ways in which it would add value to his customers and differentiate Austin Dynamics from the competition.
It set the tone for a philosophy that has never faded away. “For our business model, we thought if you get the good stuff, you’re never looking back over your shoulder three or four years later wishing you had purchased something different,” he said. “We’ve always tried to win with technology, and we’ve always tried to have superior capabilities from a technology standpoint.”
The timing couldn’t have been better. Applied Materials was moving into the Austin region from the Bay Area, and plenty of large companies came down as a result. At the time, Austin had more in the way of tool and die shops and mold oriented shops.
“There weren’t really any semiconductor manufacturing companies here in the Austin area,” he said, “so I saw it as a prime opportunity for me to draw on my experience and knowledge that I gained working at Texas Instruments in a semiconductor environment.”
It was after earning an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering technology at Texas State Technical College that Hobdy began an apprenticeship at Texas Instruments, which evolved into the start of his professional career as well. The training and experience he received over the course of those six-plus years at Texas Instruments has been invaluable to the success of Austin Dynamics.
“We have a huge emphasis on the philosophy of total quality control,” he said. “Cutting my teeth in that type of environment—in a semiconductor arena—really helped me understand how important aesthetics were to critical components, as well as tolerance. You can build a part, and it may meet all the specifications on the print, but if it doesn’t look beautiful, a lot of times it’s not going to be able to be used in a clean room environment.”
With that type of attentional to detail, aesthetics, and tolerance, Austin Dynamics was able to grow its brand quickly because customers could easily differentiate parts the company ran in comparison with parts they received from other suppliers.
“Our parts always looked nicer,” he explained. “They were always right on nominal tolerance, and that makes a difference to OEMs. When they’re going to put their products together, they want them to look beautiful and be accurate.”
The company has even run into a scenario where an OEM’s customer noticed the difference between parts that were made by Austin Dynamics and the OEM’s in-house manufacturing facility, and made a point of requesting parts from Hobdy’s shop as their preference.
Training Programs Needed
In addition to growing the brand, Hobdy has grown the staff size over time, which tends to hover around 25 employees in total. Several have engineering technology degrees, and the company’s programmers, he said, are essentially the engineering level employees. The majority, however, are machinists.
The importance of the company’s human resources has always been an area of emphasis, and most employees have been working out of Austin Dynamics’ 10,000 sq. ft. facility for over a decade. “We have a very educated, very tight, very close-knit workforce,” he said. “When you have very low turnover and guys are really embedded in your company’s ideology and mission, that shows in your product.”
As he peers into the future, Hobdy looks to his past for clues as to how America can again become recognized as the manufacturing powerhouse that it once was. For him, it all began with that interest sparked at a young age, and that spark later caught fire with the Texas Instruments apprenticeship opportunity.
But from his vantage point, these types of valuable learning opportunities just aren’t as prevalent in today’s climate. “Apprenticeships and training programs kind of crumbled and fell by the wayside, and that created a chasm of knowledge because you just didn’t see the same amount of kids going into this field,” he said.
And Hobdy speaks from first-hand experience. “We had a decent little apprenticeship going down here in the Austin area,” he said. “We partnered with a local school district and helped them procure equipment and put in a machine shop. We’d go there at night and teach our apprenticeship classes.”
Several of the individuals who went through the program offered at Austin Dynamics even went on to run other companies because of the high-quality training they received. Unfortunately, however, the program didn’t last.
After serving on the Central Texas Training and Manufacturing Association’s board of directors for roughly a decade, Hobdy watched as the program vanished. “It really broke my heart when we finally became defunct and shut the apprenticeship program down,” he said.
“America is in great need, and if we’re really going to onshore and elevate our place in the world manufacturing scheme of things,” he added, “we’re going to have to get serious about rolling up our sleeves and training people.”
Paul Nicolaus is a Wisconsin-based freelance writer.
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