A machine shop finds a winning strategy as it learns that being competitive demands attentiveness, understanding, and the resources to be available for any type of opportunity.
The company’s name is simply put: Second to None Engineering. That just about describes what this high intensity CNC turning and milling job shop in Sebenza, Gauteng is about. The shop operates nine CNC turning and machining centres, typically producing over 100 different precision steel, stainless and non-ferrous components a month, in lot sizes of one or two offs up to a couple of thousand, for clients in a range of industries across the country.
But the fact that the shop and owner Kevin Fisher always believe that they are second to none in terms of machining quality, has led to the success of this 11-year-old business and is one of the most inspiring aspects of the company, and the reason why 15 of the company’s clients have been supporting Second to None since its inception.
Owner Kevin Fisher
With only 11 people employed, the shop provides complete CNC mill-turn services plus CNC milling, CNC turning, inspection, prototyping, production, welding, coating, sawing and, where necessary, assembly services.
Fisher trained as an aircraft engineer for five years at Field Aircrafts Services in what was known as Rhodesia at the time after completing his military service, before immigrating to South Africa in 1980. He believes that this is where his discipline in precision and the attitude of always striving to be the best at what you do, emanates from.
“There are no second chances if you make a mistake when servicing an aircraft,” Fisher quips.
However, the hands on attitude of Fisher, has also played an important part in the success of the business.
“When I arrived in South Africa I did not have any CNC machining experience, only conventional machining. My first position was with a company involved in pump engineering, supplying pumps and spares to a multitude of industries. I had to learn quickly or my options would be limited, but fortunately I had an engineering background.”
“Like any aspect in life, experience counts, and the only way you are going to gain the experience is by trying. It is philosophical but you learn by your mistakes.”
“I spent five years with the pump engineering company before moving on to a company manufacturing valves for four years, where I became Production Manager. During this period I was managing different types of machines, including CNC machines, which at the time were revolutionary in the field of machining.”
An Amada HA 250 horizontal automatic band saw is used for cutting steel and aluminium tube and rod sections
“I then went into business with a partner and when he left for Canada I started my own company in 2002 and I have not looked back. I had built up some good relationships with a few clients and they were prepared to support me. In fact those clients are still with me today so you could say they have been my clients for over 20 years.”
A customer from the start
“My first machine was a second hand Victor TNS 3 CNC lathe, which I was still using up until a few years ago. I have been a customer of Victor Fortune’s from the start and the majority of my machines are Victors. The only time I have purchased another brand is when Victor Fortune have not had stock and I have needed a machine urgently.”
The first new CNC that Second to None purchased was a Victor Vturn-26 lathe. The machine is still performing admirably today but it has got to be the most expensive machine that the company has ever purchased. At the time the prime-lending rate was 19 percent and Second to None had to pay that plus nine percent for the financing of the machine. That worked out at 28 percent
“I purchased my first new CNC in 2003. It was a Victor Vturn-26 lathe that has a bar capacity of 75 mm, a chuck size of 300 mm, distance between centres of 610 mm, a maximum machining diameter 370 mm and a swing over carriage of 350mm.”
Prime plus nine percent
“This machine is still performing admirably today but it has got to be the most expensive machine that I have ever purchased. At the time the prime-lending rate was 19 percent and I had to pay that plus nine percent for the financing of the machine. That worked out at 28 percent. I certainly don’t want to see those rates again.”
“That same year I purchased an Amada HA 250 horizontal automatic band saw, which assists us when preparing tubing and rod sections. We mainly cut steel and aluminium on this machine.”
A range of smaller components that the company has machined
“We machine and cut a variety of components and parts for a diverse range of clients in different industries. These include the mining, electrical, automotive, food and gas industries and of course there is general engineering. Nipples, cable and angle glands, sleeves, mechanical seals, lugs, extruder heads, vacuum brake and braking system components, mixer screws, blades and rods are the regular components that we are contracted to produce on a monthly basis.”
“They require a variety of operations on a single part, from milling, turning, drilling, threading and tapping to cross-hole drilling. Most work does not entail particularly tight tolerances but where necessary 0,005 tolerances are achieved. We machine from solid and castings supplied in by the local foundries and then we do bar and tube work. One of our biggest problems is finding a non-ferrous foundry (bronze, LG2, aluminium) that can supply quality flame-proof castings.”
“We regard ourselves as a medium sized shop in that none of our work entails large components because we do not have the machines to cope with the bigger sizes. However we are currently looking at going that route and purchasing a machine as we see opportunities in that area going forward. Currently we are restricted by the resources available to us.”
The company is versatile in the machining operations it performs and the metals it machines
“Most of our clients are involved in assembling and onward selling operations. For example, one client sells machinery for the chip (potato crisp) manufacturers and we can supply up to 15 different components to him. This is not unique to him though. Most of our clients require more than one component from us.”
“One of the bigger contracts we have is supplying four to five tons of brass extruder components and rods that require various machining operations to be performed. Brass and aluminium make up about 70 percent of our monthly material output. The rest is made up of steel and stainless steel.”
“I can’t deny that escalating steel and electricity prices, tight margins and an extremely competitive environment have taken their toll on the company during the last six months. The clients involved in the mining industry have been affected the most but then everyone feels the effects of weak demand.”
Some larger components the company has machined
“Everyone looks anxiously for something to build upon. Most recognise they must be versatile in both skills and strategies and be available and capable when circumstances change, or opportunities appear. With energy, technical skill, fiscal responsibility and a dedication to developing we can prosper. Now is not the time to panic.”
“We took measures by engaging with our clients. We sat them down and discussed ways of improving design and made changes where necessary, always thinking of saving on costs and turnaround time without compromising on quality. We do the same with new clients as well. They have certainly appreciated our input and as a result have remained loyal.”
Second to None has not lost any work to international outsourcing. As a businessman, Fisher admits he understands the move to offshore production. “It’s all about chasing cheap labour.” What he cannot understand is why manufacturers don’t see the downside of offshoring – long supply lines, theft of intellectual property, extended lead times, the frustratingly high number of substandard parts that arrive and must be returned to the source for reworking.
The company performs a variety of operations on a single part, from milling, turning, drilling, threading and tapping to cross-hole drilling
Another irritant of Fisher’s is the level of skill of machine operators. “I can rely on most of my guys. My shopfloor manager, for example, has been with me from the beginning and a number of the other operators have been here for a while. With the remainder I have to go into task simplification mode and watch them all the time. We are a relatively small company so can’t afford to send operators away for training for any extended period. I try my best to pass on my experience but they don’t show any initiative. I suppose this is not unique to my company.”
The majority of the CNC machines at Second to None are Victors
“Looking forward we have a reasonable order book and I am exploring the opportunity of investing in larger size machines. This should offer more opportunities for us.”
For further details contact Second to None Engineering on TEL: +27 (11) 452 9673
A view of the shopfloor