By Mike Vieira | Aug 08, 2022
Short-run custom machined parts and prototyping
Taking the leap from the relative safety of a secure manufacturing design engineer job within the aerospace industry to start his own machining company was a difficult choice for Hernandez.
"Making that jump was the hardest decision I've had to make," he says. "I always knew I was going to do something on my own, but I didn't know exactly what. When I started looking 10 years down the road in my engineering job to see what it would look like, I could see that the bosses were not doing a lot of engineering. They were doing paperwork and managing people. They were very hands-off in terms of operations. I didn't want to go into a paper-pushing world. I wanted to do engineering."
This focus on success led Hernandez to teach himself the skills necessary for programming and operating CNC machines as he built his fledgling company from a single router in his garage, even while he continued his employment in the aerospace engineering field.
When he reached the point of complete commitment to his new business, Hernandez left his engineering job, purchased additional equipment, leased a 3,000-square-foot shop, and says he hasn't looked back since. "Being your own boss has its perks," he continues, "and it definitely comes with a lot of responsibility, but I welcome it. For me, it's a lot more fulfilling."
His deep understanding of mechanical engineering enables him to advise clients on the design and efficiency of their parts, giving the company a competitive edge. Presently, most of his team's projects are within the aerospace industry, with other major clients coming from the industrial, medical, and automotive areas.
Domestically sourced aerospace-grade steel and aluminum make up the majority of the raw materials the company uses for its fabrication, and because their work is generally prototype and short-run production, they do not normally purchase large quantities of material at once. That fact has allowed Hernandez to escape most of the supply chain issues that have been plaguing many larger companies in recent times, although he says a shortage in copper did cause them to be unable to take on a lucrative contract. Prices for all materials have risen substantially, but again -- because that cost is relatively small for the small runs the company normally does -- it isn't too much of a problem for them.
While Hernandez and his team concentrate on the actual machining in-house and do some light assembly work, they offer additional services for finishing and other processes through partner vendors.
Hernandez says, "Most customers won't just want a part. They'll need it plated, anodized, or whatever, and I do have very qualified vendors that I've worked with and known since my engineering time. They have all the certifications customers need. I try to think of what I used to want from companies when I was a buyer, and if I could have a shop that did everything, it was always nicer, so I do offer the complete services to get the job done." If necessary, the company will even expedite these outside services by personally delivering the work to and picking it up from the vendors in order to get same-day turnaround on the processes.
Hernandez is naturally the main sales representative for his company, and he says, "Most of my sales come from word-of-mouth and from the connections I have from when I was working in engineering. About 80 percent of our work is directly from customers, but we do have some third-party work that comes from companies that post available work, and we use those mostly as a filler when we're not too busy." It's a strategy that is paying off because the company continues to see steady growth in the number of customers as well as in volume.
Challenges: Being pretty much a prototype shop, Hernandez says it can be "feast or famine," and although they've been able to keep their workflow relatively steady, he'd like to expand into larger production runs that would allow a smoother flow. Working through the labyrinth of registration requirements for additional government military contracts to take advantage of the company's various quality certifications has also been a challenge, but they are making progress on that front and hope for their efforts to bear fruit in the near future.
Opportunities: "Every year, I'm trying to add some kind of capital investment to the company, and that usually comes in the form of a major equipment addition," Hernandez says. "Last year, we added a five-axis mill that was very capable. That just opened the door for us to tackle more complex work and really allowed us to pursue those higher ticket items. This year, we'll finish completely paying off our very first machine, so that will allow us to invest in another piece of equipment without increasing our overall debt. We'd like to get into lathe capabilities, because that will open us up to additional types of work and allow us to increase our volume in certain types of work."
Needs: Cisco Custom Engineering will continue to add more services and get the word out to its customers as its capabilities expand. As Hernandez says, "I look at it as if I was the customer, and I wanted to give my shop work. What would I expect? One thing we need also is to increase our capabilities for metrology, especially since we do aerospace work."