1977-1987… The Barn.
As we are now in our 40th year, we will devote one blog per quarter to each decade we have been in existence. Harbec started in two garages, belonging to Bob Bechtold and his brother Mike, in the village of Webster, NY. In the first few years they were both working full time jobs and the new business part was on the side. The majority of the work was odds and ends of machining work for friends who had machine shops, along with buying and repairing/rebuilding used machine tools. The money from these side jobs they did allowed them to buy more machines.
In the late 70’s, Bob found a farm on the edge of Webster that had magnificent barns and a house and in 1980 he was able to buy it. The space that the new barns provided was just what they needed to get serious about the business, but not without significant preparation. The reason that farm had been for sale was that it was a pig farm and the county was not allowing any more of them. So the last pig farm in Monroe County became the new home of Harbec, but not without a ton of work.
In 1982, Bob decided to leave his full time teaching job at Rochester Institute of Technology, to work at Harbec full time. His original intention was to have himself doing the work with part-time help. That did not work out as he thought it would because he could not get a consistent flow of work and a consistent flow of money for his family. When he was doing jobs for people, there were no new sales happening. Then, when the job was done he would have to find more opportunities, therefore no work was getting done, this meant no income. Bob recalls, “It was either feast or famine which definitely is not conducive to paying bills and raising kids.”
Eventually, Bob hired his first full-time employees, two young toolmakers from the area. Then, within a couple of years, they were up to 6 or 8 full and part-time people. They were able to build technical capabilities and equipment, as well as expand their customer base and the types of work they did.
They did some unusual work in those days including building two 20’ long cabbage harvesting machines that were nicknamed the ‘Head Masters’, for a local farmer. They were pulled along during the harvest and the pickers would set the heads on a conveyor near the ground where they were picking and automatically lift them up into the wooden boxes. Another thing they did during those early days was to mount a TIG welder in an old van and go to the area beer distributors to repair the rips and tears in their aluminum bodied delivery trucks (from the fork trucks loading and unloading the beer barrels and cases). They also had a full wood working shop and were doing pattern making for the local foundries. They continued to do this kind of work for a number of years, even after they moved to the current location. Unfortunately, this was the time when foundry work was moving overseas and eventually there was little or no pattern making work left.
Bob explains, “The skills used in pattern making are similar to those used in model making, so as the pattern work dried up, we replaced it with a new line of business. We got more and more involved in model making and were able to apply the precision and complex capabilities of the CNC to this work. It allowed us to become very competent at creating engineering models or models that were expected to be as close to production intent as was possible. This means the material type, dimensions, and all other characteristics had to be as exact as if they came from the injection or die-cast molding process.” This line of business was ready to take off and will be covered in the next decade’s blog.
The most significant job during this first decade was the ‘Glass Hubs’. During this period of time, the most high-tech computer memory was magnetic tape and a local company had a very high end product that was a glass sided tape reel that held one mile of tape. The reels were about 14” in diameter and two glass side discs were mounted to a precision aluminum hub. The hub was a die casting that Harbec would precision machine to the required tolerances. The accuracy of these was critical because if there was the slightest error, the tape would eventually get off center, then would not wind or unwind correctly.
While these were interesting and varied work types, the main goal Bob was trying to accomplish since starting the business, was to get involved in CNC machining. Bob had taught the subject when he was at RIT/NTID and through that experience, became convinced that this new technology would be the most dynamic opportunity for the advancement of manufacturing ever to happen. The biggest problem he had to overcome was that the machines were very expensive.
As you might imagine, it was difficult to convince a bank that Harbec was a good risk for a loan when they were asking for a very expensive, very accurate, very state of the art (at that time) machine, to put in a barn. Eventually they built the business and their bankability enough to get their first equipment loan for their first CNC milling machine. With this new capability in precision and complexity, Harbec was able to look for new areas of business to apply them to. One of these new areas was mold making, which required high precision and finishes. At the time, there were not many mold building shops that had CNC machines. They were able to eventually work their way into this line of business by doing complex mold details for other local mold shops.
“One of the really neat early mold details we did was to cut the cavity blocks for a new type of computer memory that was unknown at the time. During the early days of the personal computers there were two types of computers, Apple or PC. Both used a memory device called a floppy disk. Harbec was involved in a very confidential project where they cut the mold cavity blocks for…what was eventually to become the 3.5” memory disk. If you were to open one of those “three-and-a-halfs” you would notice fine ribs and shapes that contained and guided the spinning magnetic disk inside. The first mold details to create the prototypes of this new media were cut in the barn at Harbec,” remembers Bob.
There were many other interesting and diverse things they did in those days, and eventually they out grew the barn and needed to find a bigger home. In 1987, they moved to the current location, to begin the second decade of Harbec’s history. The barn continued to offer a birth place to other businesses including CNC Systems which Mike and Bob started, so that they could pool their talents and interests to get involved in this exciting new CNC industry. There was also a welding company that started in the same barns and an optics manufacturing company that became known as Optimax.
While work was not consistent in the early days, the vision and dedication to creating the business was. Bob and Mike Bechtold took chances, explored uncharted territory and embraced diverse potentials. They were good at not just finding, but creating opportunities. These are the things that would continue to allow Harbec to grow into the business it is today.