Businesses everywhere are having pandemic-driven supply-chain issues, but probably not quite like the recent hiccup for Chattanooga-based Precision Machining Services.
"We got a notification that a big crate of [our] warheads got lost," says Stephen Johnson, Precision's vice president for sales. "I mean, that's a 4-by-4-by-4 crate. You can't just walk around something that big and not notice it."
Precision has manufactured high-end parts for use in various industries, but Johnson says 99% of its work now involves making parts – including warheads, missile components and rocket motors – for large contractors in the defense industry.
"We've done other types of work," he says, "but it seems our true niche is in the defense realm."
Wayne Oettinger admits he might not have been thinking quite that big when he launched Precision in the garage of his Chattanooga home 40 years ago.
"I was thinking longer term," says Oettinger, the company's president and CEO, "but in the short term I was just trying to get a paycheck.
"My dad was a master tool maker. I learned from him, and my mom kept the books. We built dies for Roper, refurbished molds for Mueller and modified parts for the railroad," he says. "We believed that if you produce quality parts, everything else will follow."
Oettinger recalls that the business grew steadily and caught its big break in 1993, landing a contract with Fuji film. Precision relocated to new space that year, he says, and then got its foot in the door of the aerospace industry a couple of years later.
"We started off in a 1,000-square-foot garage," Oettinger says. "Now we're in 120,000 square feet with 85 employees." Precision now does $10 million to $12 million of business each year, Johnson adds.
Still, Precision hasn't been immune to the labor issues plaguing businesses of all stripes during the pandemic. Johnson says that, as of mid-November, the company was short 31 machinists and is "constantly hiring."
"Quality-control inspectors, too," he says. "We'd have serious conversations with people who have three to five years in machining, but we're also interested in people going to school.
From missiles to rocket motors, Precision Machining Services has growth in its crosshairs
"There's a learning curve at our facility, but one thing we're not afraid to do is put in time to train someone who's learning the skills and has that mechanical aptitude and attention to detail. We've turned general laborers into machinists in three years," Johnson says.
Oettinger adds that in 2021, Precision is using robots to operate about 20% of its equipment.
"We put robots in repetitive, high-volume processes," he says, "but that doesn't mean we don't have people behind those robots – you still have to have those people."
Notwithstanding staffing shortages and the pandemic itself, though, Precision has yet to pause, let alone stop, operations.
"We got a direct order in a letter from the U.S. undersecretary of defense, identifying us as an essential business," Oettinger says. "We've continued to report to work every day."
Precision Machining Services
* Address: 1009 Pineville Road
* Online: precisionmachiningservices.com
* Launched: 1981
* Employees: 85
That's a good thing for Precision's customers, given what Johnson calls the defense industry's "ever-evolving" technology, to say nothing of the nature of the world in general.
"As programs continue to evolve in the defense industry, it's increased the opportunities we've had to move on with newer technology," he says. "We've seen a lot in the news lately about funding for hypersonic [technology], especially with the Chinese and the Russians.
"People are saying we're behind in that arena. A lot of our customers are rushing to get to the front of the line, and we'll be right there to support them," Johnson says.
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