The Real Life of a Precision Machinist: Swissomation’s Christian Welch Talks Tiny

by Rich Thomas
- Mar 23 2017 - 5 min read
Christian Welch Header
Images Courtesy Swissomation

In manufacturing, the little details often have the biggest impact. So when you’re a precision machinist, and your job is to manufacture parts that can sit atop a dime and still seem small, an eye for minutia is essential.

Christian Welch owns and operates Swissomation, a precision manufacturing business with offices in Virginia and Texas. It’s a job he’s held for two decades, in the business his family has been in for 70 years. Welch’s company micromachines tiny parts using Swiss-type CNC machines. Highly valued for precision applications—from electronics to aerospace—Swiss-type machines can make small complex parts faster and better than conventional CNC lathes. They can also perform simultaneous operations, employ 20 or more tools, and produce superior products.

A view of some of the tiny parts that Christian Welch and his team machines.
A sampling of the tiny parts that Christian Welch and his team machines. Courtesy Swissomation.

Although Welch’s office is about 100 feet from the front door of his house, he rarely gets to pop back home for a coffee and eats lunch at his desk most days. “I feel like I’m always behind,” he admits. But running a machine shop in 2017 is no easy task; it seems like every year, Welch sees more machining companies shut down, victims to the financial allure of overseas manufacturing.

Here, Welch talks about the pride—and struggle—of owning an American company; how an Apple iPhone and custom software have improved the way he runs his business; and what sets Swissomation, and its Swiss-type CNC machines, apart from the competition.

What professional fields do you provide parts for?
Many of the hobby industries, archery, firearms, military contracts, the dental industry, a lot in the RF communications sector. With 12 trade shows a year, we do parts for almost everything you can think of. We also do prototypes and parts for one of the largest mobile-phone manufacturers in the U.S.

What are some of the most difficult aspects of machining extremely small parts?
Tool breakage is a challenge, but the biggest challenge is handling the parts after they’re manufactured. That’s where the real magic is. There are many people out there with the same machines, but that doesn’t mean they can make the parts that we’re making. And it’s almost always because they cannot handle them afterward. How do you catch them? How do you separate them from the chips? When you’re making a part that’s the same size as the cutoff chips themselves, you’ve got to pull the parts out—things that people don’t even think about.

How much do Swiss machines cost?
The typical machine cost varies depending on whether you buy used or new, but new prices go from about $150,000 to $750,000 for some of the complicated ones.

Do they have to be regularly serviced by an efficient blond gentleman from Switzerland?
[Laughs.] All of our maintenance is done in-house. We purchase a lot of used machines, completely rebuild them, and add functionality that the factory doesn’t have, so we know many of our machines as well or better than the service people. In the 20 years that I’ve had this company, I’ve only had one maintenance guy for any of the Swiss machines come in—and that was when we bought six at one time, and there were some issues from the manufacturer we needed to get resolved quickly.

A view of 19 micromachined parts placed on the surface of a dime.
That’s 19 micromachined parts sitting on top of a dime. Courtesy Swissomation.

What is it about the Swiss and precision?
There’s definitely a commitment to quality with the Swiss. That being said, the Swiss kind of fell behind on the machine market years ago to the Japanese. Many of our machines are made by Citizen, which runs one of the largest machine shops in the world at, like, 2,600 machines. They’ve really refined the process and the machinery itself for the watch industry. They’re still called Swiss-type machines, but many of them are made in Japan.

What’s the hardest part about your job?
Never getting a day off. My wife and I work every day just trying to keep that efficiency. We run a low staff, which puts a lot more on our plate. Managing people is always challenging for me. I’m very good at machines, but managing people is one of my biggest struggles.

What piece of technology helps you the most?
Probably my iPhone. We have our own software for running the company from the ground up, and it’s very reliable. My IT issues are gone. With the custom FileMaker solutions we’ve written, we can track parts all the way through the shop from my iPhone. I can see how many lots we have in cleaning, how many are in secondary, and how many are complete and ready to ship. I can quote jobs and look up customer resource management software. All of that is all tied together, from the very start of the process to the very end.

Where Autodesk Fusion 360 has really come into play is through collaboration with customers and being able to open almost anybody’s format. We get a lot of STEP or occasionally STL files that come through—somebody wants a quote, but they haven’t gotten to the drawing stage yet, only the modeling stage, and they want feedback. How is this part made? What can you do here? Looking at all of that on my Mac, there really isn’t any other option to load all those files.

As the owner of a U.S. company, when you hear politicians talking about manufacturing jobs going overseas, what rings true and what’s white noise? What really affects your bottom line?
Raw materials are part of it—because you can buy steel products that come out of China, completely finished and painted, that cost less than the raw steel. The dollar being as strong as it is can hurt us. And, in some cases, when competing with European distributors, we can suffer when the Euro is weak. But manufacturing has been leaving the U.S. for years. You don’t see a lot of new startup machine shops. Many of the machine shops are shutting down, even the ones that have been here for 40–50 years.

Is it mostly because of the cost of goods?
Absolutely. And in many cases, there’s such a small margin between the manufacturing cost and the cost of the raw materials. You may only make 10 percent over the cost of the raw materials, so efficiency becomes a large factor in whether you can really compete.

Redshift’s “The Real Life” series reveals the trials, triumphs, and truths of being an architect, engineer, contractor, designer, or other creator/maker.

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