Manufacturing Startup Stays Agile to Meet Market Needs

Image from @vulcanmachines instagram

Vulcan Machine Co. (Vulcan), a new manufacturing start-up founded by recent James Madison University (JMU) graduates, has successfully pivoted twice to take advantage of market opportunities. Company founders were originally developing large-format, industrial 3D printers in JMU X-Labs after graduating from JMU three years ago. However, they discovered a major opportunity in the CNC milling market and pivoted to meet this market need. 

Through customer discovery and market research, they learned that many small manufacturers, makers, and startups often need increased production capabilities, but do not have the startup capital nor floorspace to purchase robust, industrial-strength milling machines for prototyping and small-batch production.

Specifically, there are large functionality and price gaps between high-end hobby and entry-level industrial milling machines. Too many companies buy low-end equipment because that is all they can afford, but soon find they need to retrofit their mills with upgrades or accessories to get the functional capabilities required. These companies felt they were adding deluxe options to those basic machines, and ended up spending just as much in the long run.

Vulcan has developed a compact, cast iron, precision CNC mill for micro-fabricators and small businesses that need to create professional-level parts in-house affordably. Their mill has many industrial capabilities that one would expect to see on more expensive machines, such as through-spindle-coolant, automatic tool changer, probing, rigid tapping, and conversational programming all coming standard on every mill.  While the rigid cast iron frame brings this machine to a massive 3,000 lbs., it’s designed to fit through a doorway, and plug into a standard 220v dryer outlet. The mill comes fully assembled, ready to go right out of the crate-- lowering the barrier to entry for manufacturing.

In December 2019, Vulcan curated a group of ten beta users with different work environments, use cases, and skill levels that Vulcan could test and validate. In January 2020, they ordered the first set of castings for the mill. These castings were scheduled to arrive at their production facility in Virginia mid-February, where they would undergo final assembly, quality, and performance testing, before shipping machines out into the field.

That’s when coronavirus hit. As fate would have it, the foundry Vulcan selected was located in Wuhan,  China, the virus epicenter. The castings were poured and set in the factory yard to cool, but were stuck there for the next two months while Wuhan was on lock-down. 

“We were familiar with seasonal viruses originating in Asia before, so we initially thought this wouldn’t be a huge deal for us,” said Chris Ashley, co-founder, Vulcan Machine Co. “As the virus spread globally, locking down supply chains, we realized that we were definitely caught in the middle of this unprecedented pandemic and were essentially stuck. We communicated with our beta users to keep them informed, and used the time to further flesh out our go-to-market strategy and begin thinking of ways to help aid the response to coronavirus.” 

While waiting for their castings to arrive, the Vulcan team uncovered and pursued another major opportunity—sourcing PPE for front line workers-- which ultimately led them to start a new, independent company manufacturing facemasks in Virginia. Between launching their new CNC mill and becoming part of the U.S. supply chain for PPE, the Vulcan team is hard at work bringing manufacturing back to the U.S.

Read more about how Vulcan Machine Co successfully addressed the national need for PPE while launching their CNC milling machine in the September / October print issue of AMT News.