THRIVING SMALL BUSINESSES IN WYOMING: Cody Firm Makes Parts for Space Rockets, Fighter Jets
Precision Machined Products looks to expand after big investments, strong growth
- Published In: Other News & Features
- Last Updated: May 15, 2023
y Ruffin Prevost
Special to the Wyoming Truth
CODY, Wyo. — The famous Renaissance artist Michelangelo said that the “sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there, I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”
If only the master sculptor from Florence, Italy had been able to work with a Mazak Variaxis 630-5X II, made in Florence, Kentucky.
That’s one of several state-of-the-art machines a Cody small business is using to fabricate parts for communications satellites, jet fighters and weapons systems like the Patriot missile.
Since 2006, Precision Machined Products has operated from a nondescript building near Big Horn Avenue. It’s one of a few shops along that industrial strip using computer numerical control (CNC) machines to drill, lathe, mill or otherwise process a solid sheet or block of raw material into a specific part, all guided by computer-generated instructions.
The difference is that Precision Machined Products’ approximately two dozen CNC machines are in a class all their own, often costing several hundreds of thousands of dollars. Some occupy a footprint the size of a delivery truck or larger, and are capable of creating parts to tolerances best measured in microns—or 1/25,000 of an inch.
Their clients include top aerospace companies and defense contractors like Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, and the company’s parts have been integral to cutting-edge communications platforms like DIRECTV and Starlink.
“It’s definitely got a cool factor to it,” said President Andy Newcomb of his company’s work. “Especially now. Every time you turn on the news, somebody’s blasting something into space.”
Operations Manager Heath Sorensen said the company has shipped parts to Elon Musk’s innovative SpaceX aerospace company and seen them launched into orbit a month later.
“We’ve watched the launch here, and everybody’s into it and excited,” said Sorensen, who has worked with Newcomb for 25 years, since before the company opened in Cody. “It’s kind of neat.”
“It’s fun to make something from nothing, just from a print and model and a piece of material,” Sorensen said, adding that he often takes for granted what the company does.
A surprising headline
But even Sorensen was surprised when news broke earlier this month that Ukrainian troops had reported using a newly acquired Patriot system to shoot down a hypersonic Russian missile which the Kremlin had previously hyped as invulnerable to American defenses.
“It’s just what we do every day,” Newcomb said last week, while guiding a tour of the facility.
He said Precision Machined Products has either just finished or is currently working on parts for: a SiriusXM radio satellite; NASA’s Artemis rocket, designed to send humans to the moon and beyond; the SpaceX Dragon spacecraft, which has completed dozens of missions carrying cargo and crew to the International Space Station; and a high-capacity communications satellite used by the U.S. government.
The process the company uses to create high-tech aerospace parts shares some fundamental similarities to how Michelangelo created sculptures like his 17-foot statue of David over 500 years ago. Both methods start with a solid block of material and involve painstakingly carving away all unwanted sections, leaving only the desired final product in a single piece.
But Michelangelo used his head and heart to guide a hammer and chisel over a span of three years to carve a block of marble. Precision Machined Products’ employees use computer-generated software models to instruct sophisticated machines on how to control hardened cutting bits, drills and other tools in an operation that transforms a block of aluminum or titanium into a finished part, all in a single day.
The company also works with copper, stainless steel and high-end plastics, Newcomb said. It sometimes uses exotic metal alloys like kovar, molybdenum and tantalum, prized for their thermal stability in applications like satellites, where materials are exposed to extreme temperature swings.
Some parts are even plated in gold, which doesn’t rust or corrode, and offers a superior level of electrical conductivity.
The company also maintains a facility it established in Fort Collins, Colo. before opening its Cody location, Newcomb said. But operating in Cody means lower expenses for utilities, construction services and taxes, among other factors.
Despite being 90 miles from the nearest interstate highway, shipping from Cody is still cost-effective for its high-value, low-weight parts.
The company fared well during the COVID-19 pandemic, Newcomb said, avoiding the foreign supply chain issues faced by many other manufacturers because its extensive work for Department of Defense projects mandates the use of American-made materials.
No pictures, please
Because of the sensitive nature of the company’s work, Newcomb couldn’t allow photographs of finished parts. Instead, he offered access to stacks of unprocessed titanium, several busy workers and an array of giant machines. Some of those machines are bolted to two-foot concrete slabs meant to prevent the tiniest of movements and isolate them from vibrations produced by other nearby equipment.
But even with all of its costly and sophisticated machinery, PMP still relies on highly skilled machinists, programmers and inspectors to deliver the goods. So the company works hard to hang on to workers who have learned its exacting manufacturing processes.
Workers enjoy a full benefits package and typically earn an hourly wage of at least $20, with experienced hands making up to the mid-$30-per-hour range, Newcomb said.
“Our retention has been pretty phenomenal over the years,” he said.
While some workers have backgrounds from community colleges or other programs that offer courses in operating machinery, the most important qualifications are a strong mechanical aptitude and willingness to learn, Sorensen said.
Newcomb said he always tries to recruit locally, and that a Cody High School student currently working part time will transition to full-time work this summer after graduating. But finding the right people can be challenging.
“That’s the only thing that holds our growth back, is just people,” he said. “But that’s also actually what’s grown us. As we get people, we just buy more equipment.”
In 2008, Precision Machined Products had eight employees, and it now has 22 people on payroll. Over the last four years, PMP has invested over $3 million in equipment for its Cody plant, Newcomb said.
Bruce Sauers, board chair for the nonprofit Forward Cody economic development organization, said the company represents the kind of business that can thrive in Wyoming under the right circumstances.
“We’re always interested in growing the local economy with quality jobs and developing a quality workforce,” he said. “This is a classic example of a success story that has worked well and is continuing to grow.”
For Newcomb, maximizing productivity from the company’s expensive machinery is an important key to stability, growth and continued profitability. So Precision Machined Products has added a second shift, and is looking to expand its existing Cody facility.
In that way, he may share the view of Michelangelo, who also said: “There is no greater harm than that of time wasted.”