1987-1997… Growing, Transforming and Embracing New Ideas
During Harbec’s second decade, many significant changes and opportunities were in store. By 1987 Harbec had outgrown the barn and it was time to come out into the open and find a real manufacturing space that could offer them a solid opportunity to grow and develop. The pursuit of a better space lead Bob Bechtold to an opportunity in nearby Ontario that was conveniently located and was an enormous, 10,000 square feet of space and coming from the 2000 square foot barn basement, this seemed like more space than it could ever use. Now the business was able to grow and expand and in only a couple of years they were already starting to add on to what would grow to over 50,000 square feet in the years to come.
This was also the decade of plastics for Harbec. During that time the company was called “Harbec Manufacturing”. It was doing general machining, pattern making and model making and enhancing these wherever possible with the strength and precision of CNC. They were also getting a taste of plastics through the rubber molding they did as part of their model making. Bob believed, “the business indicators at that time were offering much more consistent and positive growth in the plastics industry,” so he formed a second company named Harbec Plastics.
This is also the period when they completed their first addition to the building. They had a chance to mold clear plastic boxes for holding baseball cards. Initially they were successful producing a single box cube and from that the customer offered them the chance to mold the ‘triple cube’. The problem was that they did not have a big enough press or a place to put it. In the pursuit of opportunity, they took the job and while they were building the mold (6 or 8 weeks), they added an addition to the front of the building. They bought and installed the new (actually pretty old and used, but new to them) 400 ton injection molding machine and built the mold for the ‘triple cube’ sports card collector’s box.
That 9,000 square foot addition allowed them to put all the molding machines in the new area which meant they could dedicate the complete original front of the building to machining. Around this time they also decided to merge the original Harbec Manufacturing Co. into Harbec Plastics, Inc. and became one company which years later would become the present HARBEC, Inc.
CNC machining continued getting stronger and stronger but the pattern shop was diminishing and eventually faded away. The skills used in pattern making are similar to those used in model making so as the pattern work dried up, they replaced it with a new line of business. They developed their ability to make proof of concept , engineering models where precision and material type were required to be as close to production intent as possible. It was the pursuit of this ability that led them eventually to aluminum ‘bridge’ tooling and additive manufacturing.
Before they developed aluminum tool making, if the customer needed multiple plastic prototypes, the best they could offer them was to either CNC machine them, or to cast plastic parts from silicone rubber molds. This process required a ‘master’ of the needed part to be precision machined and then it was encapsulated in silicone rubber. After it hardened they would remove the machined ‘master’ and then pour liquid urethane into the void of the rubber mold cavity. They could usually get about 25 urethane parts from the rubber mold before it would fail. One of the most significant jobs they ever used this on was a virtual reality helmet. They produced over 100 units for the customer who then gave them to software developers so they could be using them to write the programs and games while the production tooling was being built.
They were constantly trying to find ways to improve their ability to produce engineering prototypes. This led them to investigate the potentials of a new technology that was being introduced called rapid prototyping or 3D printing. In the early days the 3D processes were Stereo Lithography (SLA) and Selective Laser Sintering (SLS). Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM) came shortly thereafter. While these processes were capable of doing some things well, they were not able to use the exact materials or produce the accuracies that you could get from a CNC machined part. Bob Bechtold shares, “We had confidence that these technologies would be of major importance in the future and we wanted to be part of it.”
They purchased their first 3D printing equipment in the mid 90’s and went through several different devices before they got the DTM brand SLS technology machine. This machine was able to produce, as an example, a nylon part to +/-.005″ tolerance and so they were able to use it to produce functional and accurate engineering prototypes. At about the same time they were trying to figure out a way to produce their molds faster and cheaper like the rubber molds but that could produce more parts per tool. Eventually they reversed their rubber mold making. They cut the opposite of the part (the cavity) into an easy to machine material which, after a number of different material experiments, was determined to be aluminum. This success gave them not only the ability to do more engineering prototypes better and cheaper, but it also gave them an excellent way to do low volume molding more cost effectively without sacrificing any precision or quality requirements.
This new ability opened their eyes to a completely new kind of customer. As they were products of their location, being near Rochester, they lived, learned, and grew up in a world of Kodak, Xerox and General Motors, etc. These were companies that made ‘millions’ of cameras, copiers and cars so everything they were involved with was affected by that huge volume kind of thinking. Unfortunately those “millions of” kind of companies did not last and if Harbec was to survive without them, they needed to find this new potential customer and learn how to think and act differently.
Developing their skills around faster, less expensive tooling capabilities that offered shorter life or lower quantities introduced them to different kinds of companies that had much more variety and product change over and whose products were produced in the thousands or tens of thousands instead of millions. These companies had great depth and variety of products. They also needed Harbec’s quicker lower cost tooling and molding capabilities to help them get to market faster and more cost effectively. This was the niche that they were looking for.
By the end of this second decade of Harbec, while some things ended, new and exciting opportunities emerged. Although the technology and concepts were new, Harbec would develop these new opportunities and potentials, like additive manufacturing and aluminum tooling, to become major portions of its capabilities. Harbec was working to “do it all”. From concept to completion, Harbec would be there every step of the way.
Watch for the next Blog in September discussing the next phase of Harbec’s growth and the preliminary planning that would lead them into their third decade and the 21st century. There’s more expansion and new endeavors ahead!