By Eric Peterson | Jun 18, 2017
Prototyping and complex machined parts
Industry: Industrial & Contract
Products: Prototyping and complex machined parts
Shaver's dad, Dick, started the company as Commercial Pattern in the late 1960s, making patterns for the sand-casting industry."Samsonite was his biggest customer," says Shaver.
By the early 1980s, "The casting industry sort of disappeared," he continues. "The company had to make a shift. We got into modeling and prototyping."
With clients like Gerry Baby Products and Samsonite, the company evolved and innovated with the times. "In 1992, we got our first 3D printer," says Shaver. "They didn't call it that then." They called it stereolithography, and SpecMaster bought one of 3D Systems' initial SLA 250 units. "When we started, we were one of the first 300 in the world," says Shaver.
A decade later, however, they got out of the nascent space. "It became a commodity," he says. "Everybody started to have them."
After spinning off its 3D-printing operations, the company took the name of SpecMaster and refocused on CNC machining. "We chose to keep the machine shop," says Shaver. "The machines are all CNC now. . . . We decided to stay in the prototyping arena because it's what we know."
SpecMaster's bread and butter is now government contracts with NASA, the Department of Defense, and other agencies. Other clients include Lucent Technologies, Barber-Nichols, and University of Colorado.
Spanning the Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) system, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and the Multiscale Magnetospheric (MMS) mission, the NASA jobs stemmed from officials at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland seeing samples of SpecMaster's work on the company website in 2008. The finished parts are typically assemblies for ground-to-spacecraft communications, including antennae, RF generators, and reflectors.
It's all about a specific skill set. "Our niche market has always been producing products people can't or don't want to do -- really complex stuff," says Shaver. "Eighty percent of the stuff we currently do is communications-related."
One such job led to a new NASA patent. SpecMaster helped rethink an antenna component and cut about eight hours of soldering from the assembly. "We worked to actually machine it so there wasn't any post operation," says Shaver.
For another NASA project, SpecMaster was able to port a reflector from carbon fiber to aluminum, whittling a 970-pound billet to eight pounds of parts for the spacecraft.
Beyond the work for government agencies, SpecMaster makes enclosures for electronics manufacturers. "We do a lot of work with thermal management, because electronics components generate huge amounts of heat," says Shaver, noting that heat sinks are integrated into the enclosures. "If it's integrated, they don't have to worry about it falling off, plus it's better."
SpecMaster also takes on small jobs for a wide range of customers, including manufacturers of hydrogen fuel cell systems, aerial drones, and tunnel-boring machines, as well as parts for gear that calibrates NIST's atomic clock in Boulder. "They come here because of our reputation for quality," touts Shaver.
The company's 4,500-square-foot shop on the north side of Denver houses eight vertical CNC machines and an inspection room. Aluminum is a prominent material, but SpecMaster is also equipped to machine stainless steel, magnesium, titanium, plastic, and carbon fiber.
"We've spent a lot of time really making sure our processes are solid, from order entry to final shipping," says Shaver, highlighting a broad-based integration with JobBOSS software to handle logistics.
Growth "has been fairly steady” in recent years, he adds. "We were doing pretty well until the sequester hit. That dropped our sales by 50 percent [in 2013]."
SpecMaster's sales have since recovered to pre-sequestration levels. Sales hit $1.3 million in 2016, and the 2017 forecast is 15 percent growth to $1.5 million. It didn't hurt that the company has no debt and solid finances.
"You never know what's going to happen," says Shaver. "We're still here and we're back on track."
Challenges: "One of the things we're doing is trying to diversify of market base," says Shaver. "That's our focus right now." They're making inroads: The company's largest customer now accounts for about 20 percent of sales, down from 50 percent.
Another challenge: "Staying current," he says. "Technology's always moving."
Opportunities: "Our big opportunities are utilizing all the new processes and new technology," says Shaver. To this end, SpecMaster is in the process of getting its ISO 9001 certification largely to win more aerospace work. "It just streamlines that whole process," he adds.
Citing big targets like Ball Aerospace and Lockheed Martin, he notes, "If we position ourselves correctly, we should be able to expand more into aerospace and related industries. . . . We're trying to make sure our capabilities and infrastructure matches their requirements."
Needs: "Talent," says Terry Mason-Shaver, Shaver's wife and SpecMaster's communications director. Good CNC programmers and setup operations personnel are always in demand, she adds. "Once we get a machinist, they have to be trained the SpecMaster way" -- a process that typically takes six months to a year.
Shaver describes a manufacturing mindset that focuses on efficiency. "We try to figure out how to make them three, four, five parts at a time," he says. "It minimizes setup time and we can utilize personnel in different places. We don't have to have one guy standing in front of a machine."
And it wouldn't hurt if federal sequestration ended, he adds. "What would help people in my industry if there was a little more consistency."