By Eric Peterson | Apr 13, 2021
Salt Lake City, Utah
Contract machining and manufacturing services
Rolf Salm, Rodney's father, came to the U.S. with his young family from Germany in 1957.
While Rolf was an experienced machinist, his credentials weren't recognized in his new homeland. "He had to go back to school, so to speak," says Rodney.
Not only did he go back to school, Rolf ended up teaching machining classes within a few years. He found work at a machine shop and rose to vice president of the company before going on his own and founding Aero-Spacing Tooling & Machining in the late 1970s.
"The company he was working for landed a more lucrative contract and was letting another one fall to the side," says Rodney. "So he made a deal to complete the contract. . . . That's how this company started."
While his initial target industry was mining, Rolf named the company Aero-Space Tooling & Machining based on where he wanted to go in the future. "He had the foresight," says Rodney.
The name choice proved prophetic as the company increasingly won aerospace jobs. The work stemmed largely from being a first mover when it comes to cutting-edge machines. "We've always tried to be at the forefront of things," says Rodney. That includes having the first "5-axis machine west of the Mississippi River" in 1984 and similarly early entries into EDM and CMM technology.
Rolf also teamed with SURFCAM to help develop 5-axis technology in the 1980s. "Whenever they came out with a new version of their software, they would allow us to be their test bed," says Rodney.
That bleeding-edge philosophy remains front and center at Aero-Space Tooling & Machining. "In this industry, the machinery changes so quickly, the software changes so quickly," says Rodney. "Every year, we're trying to keep up with the technological changes bringing in new machinery. That being said, we also make sure we take care of our old machinery, because there are a number of old machines here that are still very accurate and that we maintain and try to hold to a high standard."
Because the company excels at high precision and complex geometries, "A lot of the time, we get the jobs nobody else wants," says Rodney. "It's the tight-tolerance production work we specialize in."
But other jobs are ones most other machine shops would covet. The company has made flight hardware for the Atlas program, and supplies Northrop Grumman, L3 Communications, Sarcos, and other major aerospace players.
The company made directional drill bits to help in the 2010 rescue effort of 33 coal miners in Chile who were trapped more than 2,000 feet underground for 69 days. "Those directional drill bits and joints had been used to make the first contact with those miners," says Rodney.
That's a good example of Aero-Space's range. "We're a job shop," says Rodney. "We do work for every kind of industry: coal mining, the fuel industry, you name it, we do it. We work with all kinds of materials: stainless, titanium, obviously aluminum, graphite, carbon fiber."
At 87, Rolf is still involved with the family-owned company, with Rodney handling-day-to-day operations with three siblings (VP Peter, VP of Sales Perry, and Michelle heads up HR and accounting). "It's still his baby," says Rodney of his father. "He loves to look at the numbers."
The youngest of Rolf's children, Rodney started working for the company as a teenager and started running the QC room in 1999. "It was a learning curve for me to allow other people to learn that, because you're worried about people crashing the machines," he says. "But teaching people how to use that and allowing them to become more self-reliant -- rather than reliant on me to measure their parts for them -- it opened up a ton of time for myself to focus on other things that needed to be focused on."
The shop still has the original now-vintage manual Cadillac lathe Rolf bought when he founded the company. "He came home to my mom and said, 'I bought a white Cadillac.' She thought she was going to be cruising around in luxury, and it turned out to be the machine that started this company," says Rodney.
"It actually still gets used," he adds. "It's very far and few between that it gets used, but if somebody needs something roughed down real quick and they don't want to throw it in the CNC. Naturally, people with the ability to use that machine, that's waning, too. A lot of guys these days have no idea how to use that machine."
Challenges: Marketing. "It's time to be innovative in finding new connections," says Rodney. "It's my ambition to grow this company and take it to its next step."
Opportunities: "The growth that we're looking for is definitely within aerospace," says Rodney. "Right now, we're on a pretty good clip. For the past several months, we've actually surpassed out sales and production from the previous five years on a monthly basis, and we're continuing to see that grow."
Needs: "Motivated employees," says Rodney. "It's hard to find people who are truly motivated to learn."
While the company has 15,000 square feet at its facility and 25 rental storage units that average about 700 square feet apiece, he adds, "Space is always at a premium, and of course capital. You're always wanting to find ways to increase your capital and have liquid, fluid cash to invest back into your company."