Silicon Valley Machining Firm Focuses on Taking Care of Customers First
Workers at Noron confirm that parts meet quality standards in a room separated from the production area. In this photo, a worker checks the depth of a hole using one of several height gauges. Photo courtesy of Noron Precision Machining, Sunnyvale, Calif.
For Noron Precision Machining, fast growth or big-time expansion isn’t part of the company’s business plan. It’s more about satisfying the needs of clients and protecting their interests.
By Mark Langlois
Noron Precision Machining, Inc., is a family-founded, family-run precision machine shop in Sunnyvale, California. The company specializes in small to medium-sized aluminum, stainless steel, and plastic parts that are used in medical equipment, telecommunications equipment, automotive and aircraft sensors, computer peripherals, and military electronics.
Owner and CEO Debbie Williams said Noron Precision Machining grows its business slowly, by taking excellent care of its customers. The third-generation firm arose from roots that Williams’s grandmother planted as an engraver making buttons.
“We have long standing, 30-plus year relationships with our oldest customers,” Williams said, speaking at the company’s new headquarters in Sunnyvale. “We insist on 100 percent on-time delivery, 100 percent quality, and excellent communications. We partner up with our customers and have an obligation to satisfy their demands and grow with them.”
For Noron, taking excellent care of its customers includes taking on new customers only when it won’t interfere with the work that Noron is already doing for clients. Before accepting new projects, Williams checks Noron’s workload to make sure the new business won’t slow delivery times or reduce quality for existing customers.
“We’re happy to help our customers from prototype to production,” Williams said. “It’s not about the money; it’s about the relationships. We’ve been through eight recessions in 40 years. I know who helped us survive in those recessions. The main goal is to please the buyer and give them a supplier they can count on.”
A good example was a battery housing that Noron machined from a 200-pound block of 6061 aluminum. The finished battery housing weighed 35 pounds and the electric car firm loved the part. Noron made 15 of them and won the contract to keep making the part, but Williams turned down the production work because it interfered with what Noron was doing for existing customers.
“We needed three guys just to put it into the machine. We craned it in,” Williams said. “They took 10 hours each. They loved our part, the quality, everything, but accepting larger orders at that time would have interfered with commitments already in place.”
One of the advantages that Noron enjoys, Williams said, is its location in Silicon Valley. Most of the company’s customers are within an hour or two of the plant.
“On most occasions, we drive parts to our customers,” Williams said. That eliminates the worry that a national freight carrier might take two days to deliver a package an hour and a half away. “It works for us to get parts to them on time, so we prefer to hand-deliver our parts. This also prevents damage to their parts as well.”
Williams’s father, Ron Root, worked in her grandmother’s business, BLR Engravers. He taught himself silk screen printing so that he could help customers who needed silk screening, as well as engraving, on panels and other industrial parts, and opened EVRON Silkscreen Printing. Eventually, the company was taken over by his son, Chris, and is now being run by his granddaughter, Jeannette. In 1977, Ron Root and Norman Gebing became partners in a machine shop business and named it Noron–a combination of their first names.
The family businesses eventually separated into three entities, all run by other family members, and Williams stayed with Noron to work with her father at Noron Precision Machining, Inc.
Its earliest products were microwave equipment used by the U.S. Navy–work that included machining, painting, engraving, and silk screening.
Over the years, Noron (https://noronprecision.com/) has provided machining services for diverse industries, from microwave to biotech to optical devices, according to the firm’s website. The company is capable of machining plastics, such as PEEK, ABS, and Delrin, as well as metals that include steel, stainless steel, aluminum, brass, bronze, and copper. Noron uses CNC machining, including 5-axis CNC milling and turning, and mill-turn machines, to make small-to-medium sized components like housings, lids, slides, gripper, levers, mounts, caps, and flow cells.
Slow and Steady
When Noron’s facility was sold in 2018, Williams moved the company to a similarly sized building in Sunnyvale with a long-term lease. The new plant is a thousand square feet larger than the one the company left. Noron employs 12 people, and Williams said fast growth or big-time expansion isn’t part of the company’s business plan. Customer and employee care remain the plan. Most of Noron’s employees have been with the company for over 20 years and are considered family, Williams said.
Noron recently invested in three more Haas VF-2SS milling machines. With the addition of a specialized table, one of the new machines has a Haas TRT160 turret, making it a 5-axis machine that gives the company additional 5-axis capacity. On its Haas UMC-750 5-axis machine, Noron has been able to reduce set-up time on repeat parts. On one in particular, it reduced setup time from 27 hours to three hours.
These copper plates will become part of a microwave application after being milled to within 0.005-inch tolerance. Photo courtesy of Noron Precision Machining, Sunnyvale, Calif.
“We’re able to save the customer money on set-up time. We have three operations instead of nine,” Williams said. “There’s less human interaction with a part.” She added that the new machine is easier to use, but it also maintains tolerances and reduces opportunities for worker-introduced error. It also helps Noron meet higher quantity demands. “Instead of needing 30 days to complete 100 parts, now we can manufacture it in a week,” Williams said. “Overall, we’re able to be more competitive.”
That’s a welcome development when designs are, as Williams said, “getting more and more complicated.”
“Engineers are leaning toward 5-axis design. Running those parts on a 5-axis is the only way to go because you have to be able to make it in one run–every side and any angle you can, without taking it out and putting it back in,” she said. “The complexity of parts steered us to buying a 5-axis.”
Months before moving into the new factory, Williams bought a Hwacheon Hi-TECH 230AL YMC combination mill turn machine. That happened because Williams bid a job for a customer, who then said her bid was half-again as high as a competitor’s bid.
That stumped Williams. She called her machine supplier, Selway Machine Tool Co., and asked how her competitor could make the part that inexpensively. Her contact at Selway told her about a 3-axis Hwacheon machine (live tool) that works as both a lathe and a mill. Williams called it a mill turn machine.
With knowledge gained from working with engineers at Selway, Noron purchased the Hwacheon and came in with a competitive bid. Noron’s team has since successfully fulfilled the qualifying order for this part and secured a 10-year order.
The new machine completes parts in almost half the time with this method. Before buying the 230 AL, Noron used a lathe first and then a mill–two machines and two setups. The new machine allows Noron to hold tolerances to plus or minus 0.0001.
Williams said the first bid was based on using older equipment that required four setups for four operations. The new machine cut that down to one setup for four operations. It finishes a product after each run. The other method wasn’t so simple.
“We’d put it on the lathe first, and then put it on the mill. It would be back and forth–extra setups and extra time,” Williams said. “Now they’re both done on one machine. It’s not two setups.” Williams added that this allows for more capacity in Noron’s CNC milling and lathe department.
Fewer Set-ups, More Payments
Williams said that while she likes what new machines accomplish, she looks forward to not having the machine payments. In five days, Noron makes 50 parts that used to take two weeks. That speed frees it up for a lot of different parts that require turning and milling.
Williams said her purchase of the three VF-2SS machines, plus the TRT160 rotating table, gave Noron more 5-axis capacity, which is becoming a requirement for doing business nowadays.
“They’re very productive machines. They run all day and all night,” Williams said. They replaced machines that required too much maintenance and more and more repair over the last three months. Williams said she didn’t like the lack of control she had over that situation. “They were getting older. There’s a whole lot of uncertainty with a machine that’s 20 or 25 years old.”
Williams said the new machines make it easier for Noron to satisfy customer demands from prototype to production. They allow the company to set up the same way, whether it’s going to make 1,000 parts, or only 20.
Williams said each day she works on meeting customer expectations, so the day starts with solving any problems that arose the night before. She communicates with a customer to understand the problem and find a solution.
A good example of that arose when she got a call from a panicked buyer.
The buyer forgot to order a part and only remembered it the day it was due. Taking the panic call, Williams talked it through with the customer. She realized that to make the unordered part, she’d have to remove another of the company’s jobs from a machine, stopping that job mid-stream. She’d run the missing part there. That would delay the part she removed.
She and the customer agreed on what parts the customer needed first and when. She sent along the parts that were already completed from the mid-stream job, took it down, set up the missing part, and started shipping parts as they were completed.
“If a buyer calls me and they’re in trouble, I jump in,” Williams said. “I did it because they were in trouble. I respond to customer demands.”
One way that Noron exceeds customer specifications is by having Noron’s personnel deburr by hand; they then use microscopes for quality assurance. “That’s how we ensure the finishes on parts are better than the specifications on the drawings,” Williams said.
Noron Quality Assurance Manager and Programmer Jose Mendoza oversees the company’s custom-designed tooling fixtures as well. The fixtures hold the part as it’s being milled to ensure the repeatability and tight tolerances that customers demand. Mendoza is self-taught, and said that after joining Noron as a janitor, he worked his way up by attending numerous classes, webinars, and machine training classes as new equipment arrived. He still takes classes at a local community college.
Mendoza figures out each fixture one by one. “The fixture is required when you have a part that’s impossible to hold with a machine,” he said. When Noron faces a new part and the question is how to manufacture it, Williams asks Mendoza.
Protecting Customers with Hard-Wired Machines
Although Noron uses leading-edge CAD/CAM software in its operations, it doesn’t export customers’ data to the cloud. Instead, the company has cybersecurity procedures in place and has hard-wired its IT department and manufacturing equipment, effectively shielding its customers’ data from prying eyes.
“Everything is hard-wired to protect our customers,” Mendoza said. “We don’t want to store anything [in the cloud].”
Williams said that protecting her clients’ manufacturing information is her responsibility, adding that clients have complimented her on Noron’s policy of avoiding the cloud for storage and hard wiring its computers and equipment.
One of the parts that Williams is most proud of is a cap for a mobile DNA testing kit that is used worldwide. Noron makes the fluid checking cap in PEEK plastic, which is machined and drilled with 0.040-inch holes that are 0.550-inch deep, holding tolerances of 0.001.
The part is a critical component in the device and allows medical professionals to perform emergency blood tests in remote villages without hospitals or elaborate equipment. At some sites, the machine samples blood to check for virus infections, including Ebola, HIV, and Zika. The machine can measure the amount of virus present in a person in seconds or minutes.
Noron received two consecutive bi-yearly Supplier of The Year Awards from the company in 2016 and 2018, in recognition of 100 percent on-time delivery and 100 percent quality, Williams said.
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