“What we have here is a really fun, creative and amazing family business,” said Jason LaRock.
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Owner of a precision machine shop called Sierra Manufacturing Solutions (SMS), LaRock is one of those entrepreneurs helping to keep manufacturing alive in this country.
The Cameron Park company had its start in the family garage in 1979. Now third-generation LaRock and his wife Janel own it after he bought out his parents in 2007.
LaRock said the firm, which employs anywhere from two to 15 people, takes on a variety of projects involving milling, lathe work, 3D printing, mating components and mechanical assembly.
“We’re a job shop,” he said, which is a short way of saying the firm handles custom or semi-custom manufacturing processes. His clients include high-tech companies such as Intel and Micron Technology as well as aerospace, medical, semi-conductor, analytical and oil companies. They also work with inventors who need help with either designing or prototyping their inventions.
He said the parts they make have to be within the “work envelope” or work area of their machines. “There are a lot of niches in manufacturing,” LaRock offered, “but generally ours are parts that can fit in a shoebox.”
Examples of what they have already produced fill a glass case mounted on the wall; however, scattered throughout the workshop were other products they are currently manufacturing.
Many are used in the health field including titanium bone screws, the outer casing of high-speed drills used by doctors to shave bones, and parts for devices used in colon probes and in vitro fertilization. More recently they assisted a Fortune 500 company design a next-generation wireless device and are currently working on a piece that will be used in robotic-assisted surgery.
“A lot of the time we don’t know the end use of the part,” said LaRock, who said his shop doesn’t do the mechanical innards of products he helps produce.
LaRock said his job begins with people — usually engineers — submitting drawings and models which the company bids on. They then produce the prototype as well as help with the design, when needed.
“We try to make the engineer happy because then they will refer our company to the buyers to do the actual production,” he said.
SMS uses a sophisticated 3D software called SolidWorks to design items before anything is manufactured. Among other things, the software instructs the milling and lathe machines on what tools to use and when multiple ones are often rotated in and out during the production process.
Then before anything is produced, the software is used to compare the initial design against production instructions in order to ensure there are no oversights in the design or conflicts in the different tools used to produce the item. It also ensures that all the tolerances are correct. LaRock noted that, “in many cases that tolerance is a fraction of the width of a human hair.”
Subtractive and additive manufacturing
LaRock said SMS has two sides to its manufacturing business: the subtractive side and the additive side.
The subtractive side uses milling or a lathe to manufacture a finished product by subtracting material. A newer process, one still coming into its own, is called 3D printing and is considered an additive process because a product is built instead by adding material one layer at a time.
The raw materials used in subtractive manufacturing generally consist of different plastics and metals, with aluminum and titanium being favorites.
Along one wall of LaRock’s shop were long and short bars of different metals just waiting to be cut and machined into shape with the shavings recycled for later use.
LaRock said the materials they use also have to be traceable in case there’s a structural failure.
“On 50 percent of our products we’re required to have traceability, but we do it on all our materials,” he said.
Additive manufacturing or 3D printing is a newer production process that makes three-dimensional objects from a digital model. Only it does so using what’s called fused deposition. A computer designed item is sent to the 3D machine, which then creates it by depositing one layer after another of material on a disposable base and then fusing the layers together with heat.
The one at SMS uses ABS+ plastic, but there are 3D machines that can produce metal objects. However at present it’s too expensive to print out large quantities of items made of metal. Three-deimensional printing has structural integrity limitations as well.
LaRock said his 3D printer can only accommodate small items and is primarily used for creating prototypes no bigger than 6x8x8. The printer is also time intensive and can take an hour to print one cubic inch of material.
However, LaRock said the industry is working on improving the speed and tolerances of 3D machines and the process is gaining wider acceptance in the making of prototypes and customized items.
One example of this is talk show host Jay Leno who loves restoring old cars. He will laser scan old car parts he can no longer buy and then repair them digitally using a computer program similar to one used by SMS. The repaired part is printed out of a 3D printer as a prototype, checked for fit and reproduction value, scanned back into the computer, and then finally machined out of metal.
LaRock said whole cars and the cockpits of airplanes are now being prototyped using additive manufacturing. There are even predictions that future uses may include harvesting adult stem cells and using a specialized 3D printer to build a scaffold in the shape of an organ so a new heart, kidney or set of lungs can be grown in a matter of days or weeks. However, that possibility is a long ways off.
In the meantime, manufacturing continues to be largely subtractive.
“The future of 3D printing may do away with a lot of subtractive manufacturing,” said LaRock. “There are fewer restrictions and what you see is what you get. But it will take a long time for that turnover to take place. I think that in the future, additive and subtractive manufacturing will be on a par.”
The longevity of quality
In the meantime, SMS continues to turn out high quality products using whatever technology is available. It has several patents to its credit including one for a dental articulator and another for a device that allows pilots to quickly consult a navigational map called a NavScroller. The prototypes for the device were made in the 3D printer, but the final product was manufactured out of metal and plastic using the subtractive process.
LaRock said he is very proud of the longevity of the family business and of being able to survive in California, especially with all the overseas competition.
“We produce quality products efficiently and have some good people, technology and processes. What we do is really difficult. It requires a lot of thought and finesse. I lose sleep over this business, but I give it what it needs to thrive.”
For more information about Sierra Manufacturing Solutions, people can go to its Website at mfg-solutions.com or call 916-933-4767.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.