By Eric Peterson | Aug 29, 2021
Deburring and chamfering machinery and contract manufacturing services
James Engineering has been making specialized manufacturing equipment from the beginning. The company is rooted in its founder's experience prior to the company's launch, building custom equipment for companies like 3M, and working on high-performance transmissions for auto racing teams.
Richards worked for a contract batch-marking shop in the late 1970s, then left the company to make custom machines to mark perishable foods and pharmaceuticals with expiration dates. "They became my number-one customer," he says.
In the 1980s, Richards started making deburring machines and never looked back. "I started deburring gears," he says. "That led to general deburring, then we got into surface finishing and deburring."
After selling machines to aerospace customers as well as Chrysler and GM in the 1980s and 1990s, James Engineering built a high-throughput gear-deburring machine for GM in 2007. "If you do automotive, you've got to do a part in 20 seconds," says Richards.
After delivering the custom machine to GM, Richards had something of an epiphany. "I've spent most of my life, starting back in the marking industry, basically making machines that people want, and they came and told me what they want," he says. "What I need to build is what my customer needs."
That line of thought led to the company's flagship MAX System, an industry-leading deburring machine with more than 7,500 parts. "I designed a machine that needed to be built," says Richards. "It could go back and do just about every last job I had designed a custom machine for."
Likening the gantry-style MAX to "a very flexible CNC machine," Richards highlights such innovations as a pressure-based system that thwarts abrasive wear, robotics on as many 15 axes, and the ability to save setups for specific parts.
"It's really patterned after a human," he says. "You've got a shoulder joint, a waist joint, an elbow and a wrist joint -- and a wrist that spins. It's really just a human extension, mechanically made." Because it's a gantry-based system, the MAX moves "on an X and a Y and a Z axis," he adds. "You put pitch and rotate and a couple proprietary axises that we do in the mix of things."
The resistance to wear might be the most ingenious feature. "Everybody has problems with tooling that wears," says Richards. "Stones will glaze up and they won't change that much, then you'll break the glaze and then they'll wear like crazy."
He continues, "We took a different approach to it. We found ways to apply consistent working pressure to the abrasive. We didn't care if [the abrasive] wore down fast or wore down slow, what we tried to do is put consistent pressure on it, and then control the time and pressure as we deburred things or did surface finishing. . . . By doing those things, we're gaining the ability to get unbelievable surface finishes and tolerances all at the same time."
Take polishing a sphere, for example. "It'll get a beautiful sphere when they're all done, but if you look at your imaging, it's all distorted because they polished heavier here and less there and things like that. To do precision polishing means you've got to put the polisher on it and control every aspect of the work energy going into the sphere all over it. And that's what we have learned how to do."
The first iteration of the MAX debuted on the market in 2008, then the line went idle in 2016 and Richards went back to the drawing board. The company released the latest generation of the MAX System to the market in 2021. "We're doing work every single day in automobile operations, high production," says Richards. "We're doing 17 operations on a part in 30 seconds."
"It was a very complicated machine to bring to life," says Richards. "It took me 14 months to bring the mechanics to life -- that's really my strength. Then getting the software to control all of this took almost four years and cost us a lot of money."
James Engineering's 10,000-square-foot facility in Broomfield features a 2,500-square-foot machine shop. "We manufacture everything in-house," says Richards. "We make all of our linear motion -- I don't buy linear motion. I've developed a very unique style of linear motion."
The in-house expertise led to recent diversification into contract manufacturing services on James' array of equipment. "With COVID, we went into job-shop work," says Richards. "We make a bunch of parts the size of your thumbnail."
"These are fairly expensive machines, maybe $500,000, or maybe $250,000 for a smaller machine," he continues. "All of the orders basically came to a standstill last year, so I said, 'We''ve got to get out job-shop work going.' What that does is it enhances our ability to make parts. It gives us the ability to take our internal parts manufacturing, because it allows us to have more machines and better machines. It also fills in the highs and lows of machine sales, because you're delivering things on a weekly basis or even daily basis."
Ultimately, Richards is a tinkerer at heart, leading him to name his son, Scott, as CEO and handle business development. "Scott's done a really good job of landing some really good customers in the last year, and they're happy with our work because we know how to make parts."
The business model ultimately results in a virtuous cycle for Richards and James Engineering. "All I do is design things," saye the elder Richards, describing his "mad engineering zone" at the company's base of operations. "I have a manufacturing base that allows me to design things I couldn't design if we didn't have the job-shop work. . . . That keeps us really sharp for making pieces for all of the things we do, too."
He's worked on a number of tools -- including a precision robotic gripper -- and other projects in the last year. But that doesn't mean the MAX isn't front and center, with numerous orders from Fortune 500 companies in the queue. "We're hungry to do both," says Richards.
Challenges: Marketing the MAX. "Our challenge right now is to bring this to manufacturers' awareness," says Richards. "Robots were designed to insert things, and pick and place things, and put little things into terminals, but they weren't really designed to machine like CNC machines. . . . We're somewhere in between that. We can cut metal, although that's not where we want to go with this technology. A robot can't cut metal. The flexing and repeatability of that arm makes it impossible to cut anything precision. We can cut things if we need to, but there's 150 companies out there that do nothing but cut metal. We're a surface-finishing and edge-deburring machine. If that edge needs us to cut off an eighth-inch of material, we can do that."
Time management is another challenge for Richards. While he has handed day-to-day operations over to his son, he's working on several new designs, including what he terms as a revolutionary auto transmission and engine. "It's some pretty wild stuff," he says.
"I'm a designer, so I'm going to keep designing more things, and one of my passions in life is performance racing and cars," says Richards. "I've designed and patented an engine design and a transmission design for cars. I'm in the process of bringing this technology to life."
Opportunities: Selling the new and improved MAX System and contract manufacturing services.
Richards also highlights the aforementioned automotive products, which he sees as having an 18-month runway to market, noting, "It's going to have some serious impacts on electric or gasoline- or diesel-powered cars."
To showcase the concepts to the broader market, Richards is making a high-performance vehicle that he also views as a market opportunity. "I'm building a technical demonstrator that's a product that has market value all by itself," he says. "GM and Ford and Honda and everyone are going to be interested. . . . I really see us eventually being an engine builder, a transmission builder."
Needs: On the MAX side, "We need marketing," says Richards. As a job shop, he highlights the need for James Engineering "to become a world-class parts manufacturer."