By Eric Peterson | Nov 07, 2022
Contract engineering, prototyping, and manufacturing; nozzles for candy manufacturing; other products
Before he started Eccentroid Engineering + Machining, Penniman was putting forest-surveying payloads on airplanes.
"It was a lot of fun in the early days, then it became a little bit more bureaucratic, so I started machining on the side," he says. "The machining felt like real, tangible work to me, and I could provide value to customers."
After launching Eccentroid in Boulder County, Penniman "escaped" to a 2,250-square-foot shop in Loveland in 2019. The company currently has an inventory of four CNC machines and metrology equipment, and relies on five contract machinists on a project-by-project basis.
Design for manufacturability underpins the business model, says Penniman. "I really enjoy providing feedback for the engineers and helping them to design things that are more manufacturable. A lot of times they'll just send off a design overseas and they'll never get any feedback, and the product will never become more manufacturable. It gets really expensive if your products aren't not manufacturable, so I figured I'd use all my machining experience to help my customers with that."
Aerospace now accounts for more than 40 percent of Eccentroid's business, including work for a high-profile Rocket Lab mission. "About four months ago, I machined parts for the first privately funded interplanetary mission that's going to Venus," says Penniman.
He's finding local aerospace jobs involving prototyping and machining aluminum parts, noting, "That's Colorado. It's kind of understated, but it has a booming aerospace industry."
Penniman says he prides himself on quality and competitive pricing. "I'm never going to turn my back on quality. We check every dimension that's susceptible to failure just out of default, even if the customer doesn't ask us to. I have to be prepared for a day when I'm not the cheapest alternative, but so far, customers have told me that we're very affordable compared to everyone else."
About 25 percent of sales come from stainless steel nozzles for candy-makers that Penniman originally developed for Boulder-based Wana Brands. "They had issues with their nozzles," he says. "They're from Germany, you would think that they're really amazing quality. They're actually very precise, but they were pressed together out of two pieces, and they sometimes fall apart. They also don't have the thermal conductivity to conduct the temperature from the candy depositor to the tip of the nozzle. The ones I developed for Wana are made out of one solid piece of stainless steel, and I've never had a single returned nozzle. The customers are very happy with them."
He's since taken the nozzles to Wana licensees around the country and the broader candy manufacturing market.
It's just page one in Eccentroid's project portfolio, which includes heat exchangers for chemical distillation, cold plates to cure camera lenses, industrial ovens, molecular stills, and packaging and manufacturing automation.
"I'm too versatile to turn things down," says Penniman. "For me, the holy grail is finding products to improve people's lives. It's very difficult to develop and launch products, very expensive, but I have a lot of time to do it and get it machined, and I keep on designing things, so I might as well keep on trying when I have extra time and money to gamble."
Penniman turns scrap metal into his business cards, and has also developed the $547 Dragonfly Wallet that is nearly indestructible. "I like things that last a long time and I've had wallets that lasted up to 16 years before," he says. With the Dragonfly, "People can have a wallet to block RFID. There was a lot of interest in it. My girlfriend was showing it to a bunch of rappers in L.A."
Challenges: "I'm debt-free, so I've never really stuck my neck out and taken the plunge financing all the fanciest, newest equipment," says Penniman. "For me, I guess the challenge is kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. How do you get to the point where you're AS9100-certified and you have all the latest and greatest machines and software? Do you start by pursuing certification first? Because if you do, it's probably going to make you less profitable in the near term until you're certified and you can charge higher prices.
"Or do you get a machine first, the machine would require financing and that would cut into the profit margin for a while. If I had fancy machinery to attract attention, it might not really generate a lot more sales. Maybe the customers just like my quality control and innovative fixturing and machining and I don't really need to change anything that fast."
Opportunities: "What's driving my growth is aerospace," says Penniman. "I'm just finding out that they have lots of interesting parts which require innovative machining processes -- which we're good at."
To facilitate more aerospace jobs, he's working towards ISO 9001 and AS9100 certifications, but notes, "That's going to take time and money."
Needs: For the first time ever, Penniman is considering outside investors to allow for a move into 5-axis machining. "I'm thinking of modernizing the shop in one fell swoop, so I'm working on a business plan for that," he says. "I might be ready to take a leap. It all depends on the conditions, too. It's no fun to have people breathing down your neck, but it seems necessary, especially for 5-axis."
Eccentroid also needs machining talent. "I'm looking to hire sometime in the next year," says Penniman. "I've had employees before to have someone there pick up parts, but if there's a lull, they're just draining my bank account. "One of the conundrums is Colorado doesn't seem to have very much higher-volume manufacturing, but high-volume manufacturing is exactly what I need to train new employees."