Connect with Noah Graff:
Hey, it's Lisa Ryan. Welcome to the Manufacturer's Network podcast. I'm excited to introduce our guest today, Noah Graff. Noah is the host of SwarfCast, a podcast that helps professionals in precision machining excel in their careers. For more than ten years, he's been a used machine tool dealer, or treasure hunter, as he likes to call it, buying and selling used equipment worldwide.
He's also a blogger and editor for the website, Today's Machining World, directed at the Precision Machining Community. So, Noah, welcome to the show.
Noah Graff: Oh, thank you. It's fun to be interviewed rather than always doing the interviewing.
Lisa Ryan: So, share a little about your background and what led you to do what you're doing.
Noah Graff: One way you could put it would be nepotism. My grandfather, Leonard Graff, started Graff-Pinker, our used machine tool business, about 80 years ago. My father and my uncle went into the business. In school, I was a film and history major. My dad had started this blog. It was a print magazine called, Today's Machining World. Because he had a journalism masters in college, it had always been his dream. So he started this magazine about the precision machining industry, which is what we specialize in.
This was 2005, and he was trying to lure me in. He said, look, broadband is coming. We'll do video interviews, and he was right. He was about five years too early. But I went there and started working with the magazine, editing, writing, and then about 2011 or 12. Print was dying, so we decided we'd take the magazine online, and I would join the treasure-hunting business. We continued to blog, and then about four and a half, five years ago, we started SwarfCast, the podcast, which is an extension of Today's Machining World.
You might be wondering why we call it SwarfCast. The word swarf is a British word. It means the chips, grime, and oil in these machines' bellies. But, of course, we specialize in screw machines or other CNC machines. So usually, they'll have a chip conveyor at the bottom of the machine, or sometimes they call it swarf.
We had the magazine and then the blog. So we started calling it Swarf - Swarf was our column because it's getting down and dirty into what's happening behind the scenes and the belly of the machine.
Lisa Ryan: With all of this workaround precision machining, what are some of the topics you cover? You have a podcast and a magazine. Is there that much to talk about in precision machining?
Noah Graff: There's a lot to talk about. We've kept the podcast a little more niche. But with the blog, there's all kinds of stuff that our audiences would be interested in - everything from politics and economy to sports. My dad writes 50% of the blogs, and then I do a blog and a podcast every other week. But it's a springboard for things. But there are all kinds of things to talk about. Lately, the issues on people's minds are workforce development and people are always interested in technology.
People are interested in company culture, and we come at it with a different slant because we are selling used machines to all of our readers and listeners. We have ears in it. We're hearing what everybody is saying. It gives us an interesting viewpoint. We like to talk about dealer stuff - people we've done, done deals with, machinery types of things that people are buying now, and trends we're seeing. Today we published a blog about how we're helping certain companies buy and sell their companies when people have gotten older and they want to sell out. For some other companies, it's better to liquidate their machines. That's another thing we do. We'll do auctions, so that's the one-minute, two-minute scoop.
Lisa Ryan: One thing I enjoy about my speaking career and podcast is being around manufacturers and people passionate about something nobody else ever thinks about. There are many conversations around precision machining, and touching that niche market is cool. So when are you passionate about it for?
Noah Graff: For me, it's this normal thing because it's what I've always been around. But in case it's specified. It's often metalworking that we're talking about. And we sell turned parts. We specialize in a specific kind of machine called a screw machine, and they have CNC screw machines and cam mechanical screw machines.
We specialize in the CAM ones, which are great because you can rebuild them repeatedly. If a machine is from the eighties, that's a young screw machine. Oh wow. If I was alive while this machine was around, it's a cam screw machine. It's a young machine in screw machine years. Some of them we're selling might be in the sixties - that's not crazy.
Lisa Ryan: So when we talk about bringing younger talent and newer people into the industry in manufacturing. You have these kids walking into the plant, seeing machines 60 years old, 50 years old, 40 years old. What can you then convey to them with all the automation and new shiny toys? What is it about that, that you can continue to use equipment that's that old or young?
Noah Graff: No, you raise a good point. Getting people to use these machines is difficult. People don't realize that these mechanical screw machines are perfect for making certain kinds of parts. These are meant for parts you're making by the hundreds of thousands, and you can do a pretty precise job with them. And so, you might buy one of these machines. You might pay 30 grand or 80 grand for one of these machines.
You might pay a million dollars to buy the computer-controlled version. If you're a company that needs to make a hundred thousand parts a year, you're caught in this weird spot where I need money to pay for a million dollars for a CNC machine. And these other machines are going to be too slow, these CNC machines. So if they can find the talent, they want to buy these machines. But it is difficult to find young people that want to do it. I know one of our good customers has apprenticeship programs in his shop. In the apprenticeship program, he pays more for people who want to learn mechanical screw machines.
The machines are noisy. You're going to get dirty and younger people to want to push buttons and be in front of slick computers and screens and in cleaner shops that are quieter. It's a little harder, but certain people love it. It is possible to train people on these machines. Still, usually, people want to do the most cutting-edge technology, even if it may be different from the thing that's going to make the company the most money. That depends on the route these companies are taking. But you're seeing many phasing them out though they can't because they can't find the talent to run these machines.
Lisa Ryan: I was going to say because that would bring up things like the knowledge transfer of taking somebody who's been on that machine who knows it inherently because they've been working on it and fixing it for 30 years. Absolutely. And you are bringing somebody in and trying to teach that. How, besides the apprenticeship programs, are you seeing them do anything else, or is it just the luck of the draw that you find the right person who falls in love with it?
Noah Graff: If you want to work in a machining company, even if you've gone to trade school, the only way to learn is to be in the shop working on the machines in that environment. No matter who it is, they'll have to be trained by somebody, but fewer people will be there to train because everybody's retiring.
At Graff Pinker, we will refurbish the machines and make repairs. And that's the great thing about mechanical machines. You can keep making repairs. One guy is retired and comes back just because he likes it. That's what you're up against, people. People need help finding enough workers who want to run the slick stuff, let alone the dirty stuff. It's challenging, yet you can if you know how to do it. It can still be a great living.
Lisa Ryan: It just reminds me of fixing old cars and appliances versus fixing new things where everything is computerized.
Noah Graff: It takes a specialist to do so that. There's some saving grace regarding the mechanical when there are no computers. Think about it. Would you ever use a computer that is twenty years old? Could you even fathom it?
But these machines, some of them, some of the CNC machines, are made so well that you can use a machine from your 2000 that has a computer. But it's, and that's a skill set for the people that are repairing them. In our shop, we have a machine from 2007, and we have a guy, it's called an Emco CNC machine. We have a guy from the OEM that came to repair it. He's calling all around and trying to figure it out. It's an art to figure out an old computer,
Lisa Ryan: I have barely had an iPhone for over three years. Much less a computer for longer than that.
Noah Graff: And they won't repair the iPhone. They say, No, we're done.
Lisa Ryan: No, you pay a thousand dollars, and it's disposable. When it comes to the workforce, what are some trends you're seeing people doing to attract or keep people once they get them in there?
Noah Graff: It's important to, for the industry on the whole and for society to make the manufacturing and the machining business seem cool, seem like a good career. It's often more lucrative than doing something that you would spend a whole bunch of money at college to study. That's the first thing. I see a lot of business owners getting involved in the community. They get involved in schools, and they're gaining personally by it, and they're also just doing it as an altruistic thing. Were you asking about young people, or were you asking about all the employees?
Lisa Ryan: Anybody that you have, the workforce itself. It's hard enough to find people right now, to begin with. And then, once you get them in there, you must figure out how to keep them because they have lots of choices now as far as if they decide to stay with you or ghost you at lunch.
Noah Graff: This week, I interviewed somebody on Sunday who is a recruiter specializing in manufacturing. We talked a lot about this. She says that you must sell yourself if you are a manufacturing company. You need to treat these employees as though they're customers you're trying to push yourself to. So she's somebody people can go to find a recruiter that specializes in it. She also said networking, being on LinkedIn, is what she's doing.
That's a big deal. Many machining companies we talk to have the best results when they bring in other people. You can't always have that, but that's something important. Regarding retaining and making your place attractive, it's a lot of what you hear in other places, too, of work-life balance and having better hours.
Pay is significant, but everybody can offer that to the blue-collar industry by the hour. Traditionally, employee has little control over their hours. It was just, this is what you do and this, you work this many hours a day, and this is your overtime you can take.
I interviewed a machining company. They have had a lot of luck retaining and getting employees by giving people flexible hours, saying, Oh, you coach your son's team, so you can work these hours. So you can work earlier and get off later, or you have to take your son or daughter to daycare so you can come in at x time.
Or maybe they'll hire a student who can only work part-time. They're a talent, so they'll let them do that. They'll hire them even though they know maybe they'll leave. And sometimes those are the best possible people. The key is to have an open mind.
Lisa Ryan: There were a couple of things that you said that stood out number one during the interview process where you are selling them, there's no way that they are selling you on their skills and everything because we must bring sexy back to manufacturing and let people know the benefits of it.
There are a lot of people out there that are looking for opportunities. One of my clients, and one of the biggest signs they use, is to work with your hands. So it focuses on attracting people that get that intrinsic joy from working with their hands and getting into that.
The other thing that shows with manufacturing is the work-life balance. Not only open to flexible hours, but we also have to change our minds about that. But if you think about machining, that's something other than something that can be done at home. You have your time back. You're not working from home on the weekends and nights and all of these things.
It gives you a built-in opportunity to have a work-life balance while not having any student loan debt and being unable to do what you want and have a nice career out of it. It's interesting. The mind shift that manufacturers must have and the flexibility are huge.
Noah Graff: Yeah. Most of the time, it still needs to be more flexible. You still have to go in. It's a harder sell to people because it takes a lot of time to go in. People are used to being at home now, so it's a shift. But, in many respects, it's healthy to go into a workforce and not see the world remotely five days a week. It's a complicated issue, but I hear so many different ideas.
Lisa Ryan: We have the mom shift that I know a lot of manufacturers are talking about. Dads can do it too, but working from ten to two. The parents can get their kids off on the bus, then they go to work, and then they pick them up. The mom shift is a big one. I just spoke at FABTECH, and one of the guys in my audience said he has so many workers that get the benefits from their spouses that they don't need them. I'm not sure about all the ins and outs, but he allowed people to work fewer hours.
So he's offering them thirty-hour workweeks without benefits because they got them from their spouse. They could go from a five-day week to a seven-day week because employees had fewer hours. They had more time on their own. You ask questions that you have never asked before. Your employees worked seven days a week, or he had shifts going seven days.
They had shifts that he had shifts that went seven days a week instead of five days a week. So he could increase his staff by 30% and yet decrease the money he was paying for benefits. So it was an interesting concept. You think of things in ways we wouldn't have to consider before because flexibility and manufacturing usually don't go into the same sentence.
No, but if you say, how can I offer half shifts? We have a shift from six to 11. We have a shift from 6:00 AM to 11:00 AM. So just again, giving people shorter shifts, looking for ways to give them their time back, because that's after two and a half years of the pandemic. So that's what we're looking for.
So what, are there any other trends you're seeing regarding technology or the workforce?
Noah Graff: As far as workforce, again, in technology, lots of people are talking about automating putting in collaborative robots, cobots. We're hearing a lot about reshoring and nearshoring, where work is coming back to the United States, but it's coming back to Canada or Mexico. So it's not necessarily that specific work that once was there is now here. What's more, now they're quoting jobs, and I'm getting a job that would've been there. So that's what I hear from companies.
Lisa Ryan: What about some of the global trends you're seeing? So anything from across the sea, China, Europe, South America, or Asia?
Noah Graff: Sure. Traditionally we've done a lot of business with Europe. Buying and selling back and forth is a puzzle right now. I hear things from places. I've heard Italy is slowing down. People are complaining about energy prices over there. Energy prices in some European countries are like seven times what they were, what they are typical. Unfortunately, some of this stuff in my world, in the machinery dealer world, can be a small sample size. I was talking to some people I knew in Germany who had this expensive CNC multi-spindle they wanted. They complained that their automotive and energy prices had been a little difficult.
And then they're like, Oh, sorry, the guy can't sell the machine. Now he is got too much work for it. He's got a job. Let's see what else we're about to buy some machines in Japan. We're excited about that. Some CNC Swiss machines it's a kind of screw machine.
That market is still crazy. If you can get one of these machines, that new one would be about 250,000. If you can get one that's 12 years old, you should get a hundred grand for it, which is pretty good. It is making us go to Japan to get these machines.
We do crazy stuff like that. But of course, as we were negotiating for the machines, the yen suddenly popped up like 4%. So our margin is shrinking, but still, that's interesting. China is suffering because of the pandemic and different things that the government's done as far as shutting people, shutting them down, et cetera.
But in the interview I just did this week, I was talking to a guy who sells Swiss star machines. This is like one of the name brands of Swiss screw machines. He said that they buy more machines in China in a month than they'll sell to the US in a year. That's how much they're manufacturing. It blew me away.
Lisa Ryan: And are the machines that different? If you understand an American screw machine, is it easy to pick up a Japanese or a German model, or is it a new learning curve?
Noah Graff: Oh no, the machines this guy was selling, this is a star. These are made in Japan. Okay. They are a bunch of machines. This Swiss-style screw machine, some of the main ones are from Japan. There's one from Korea. There's one from Switzerland, very famous. It's called Tonos. They call it Swiss because the people who invented this machine made watch parts in Switzerland.
They needed a machine that could make long, narrow, precise parts in the United States. They have a few machine tools that they make Ho machines, which are very popular. They make them all over the place. There's a screw machine called a Davenport, one of the old-school screw machines. You could sell a machine from the seventies, and it would still be pretty good.
This is also called the machine that won World War ii. Because it can just make parts, you can make one part in two seconds. If you ask anybody around the world, even European people making fancy machines, the Europeans make a lot of expensive high-end screw machines. They'll say no, this machine won World War ii.
Lisa Ryan: So, talk about that. That's an interesting historical fact. So why did one machine win World War II?
Noah Graff: That was the logical question. The reason it won World War II is that this is a machine. It's called a multi-spindle. These machines make a hundred thousand parts a year or more. They usually...