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Q4 Manufacturing Solutions Looks to New Markets

BOARDMAN, Ohio — When he was a youngster who built things, Tom Watkins liked to go all out. He recalls a project in his junior high school wood shop class in which students had to construct small Soap Box Derby cars.

“The other kids whittled them out of little pieces of two-by-fours,” Watkins says. “I went home and used my dad’s lathe. I’ve been around it my whole life.”

Watkins’ grandfather was a machinist, as was his father. So the fact that he pursued the same trade didn’t surprise anyone. Today, Watkins and his wife, Wendy, own Q4 Manufacturing Solutions LLC at 8110 Southern Blvd. The company manufactures machined components for a variety of industries – most of them local customers.

After his family moved to Florida and he graduated from high school, Watkins found work at a small machine shop where he swept the floors, emptied the garbage and performed other maintenance tasks. By the age of 21, he was running the company’s entire CNC milling department. “I was good at it,” he remarks.

Watkins’ interest in the machining trades prompted him to earn his engineering degree. Eventually, he landed a lucrative position as vice president of an aerospace tooling company in Illinois. “I absolutely loved it,” he says. “But I was travelling constantly. I was burned out.”

Then, he and his wife made the bold decision to leave Illinois, return to the Mahoning Valley and pursue an opportunity to build their own business. “I came back because this was home,” he says. “I came back because I learned about all kinds of different manufacturing techniques that I wanted to bring here and try to implement.”

The opportunity to start that new business came nearly six years ago when Watkins purchased the assets of a defunct plastic mold manufacturer on Victoria Road in Austintown. His plan was to gradually sell off some of that equipment and reinvest the capital into buying new computer numerically controlled – or CNC – machines. After three years, the company opted to move to its location in Boardman.

Today, Q4 operates seven CNC milling and turning machines capable of producing precision parts for a variety of manufacturers, Wendy Watkins says. Among the more interesting projects was manufacturing complex engine parts for the “Buckeye Bullet,” an all-electric car developed at Ohio State University now being tested at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

“There are some components that Tom reverse engineers, too,” she says. “A customer will come in with a broken part and he’ll rebuild it.”

While Tom enjoys engineering and design work, the thrust of the business is production. “I want the pull-through,” he says. “We’re a contract manufacturer and what we do is make precision parts. Hopefully, a lot of them.”

The key is developing long-term relationships with customers, and, most important, having a keen understanding of those customers’ needs, Watkins says. “Our goals are the same. Our customers can’t be successful if we’re not,” he states.

As an example, Watkins relates how a customer texted him on a Wednesday evening about a part needed for a machine. The customer arrived at Q4 the next morning with the machine, Watkins made the proper measurements, and by 10:30 that morning had a design. “By two o’clock that day, he had a functioning part,” Watkins says. “He took it out to California the next week and sold three machines because we helped open up some doors for him.”

Q4also manufactures components for producers in the materials handling industry – large overhead cranes, for example, are a big market for the company – and for furniture and fixture manufacturers. “It’s a strong market for us,” he says.

Most of Q4’s business is with nearby fabricators and manufacturers, Watkins notes. As the business started to grow, the founder says he had to spend a substantial amount of time tending to the shop floor instead of new business development. Now that company employees have sufficient experience and training, and today can make production decisions to solve problems that might arise, it frees up more time for him to concentrate on expanding Q4’s reach. “My plan is not to serve just this area, but to spread out,” he remarks. “That’s been the most difficult transition.”

The company employs 11. One of the most difficult challenges shared by the manufacturing community, Watkins says, is developing young talent in the machine trades.

“They’re really trying to boost it in this area,” adds Wendy Watkins. “But you can only hire so many fresh out of school.”

She says that the trade schools in the area do a good job preparing their students for the first step. However, much of their education and proficiency come on the job where they gain valuable working experience. “It’s like any profession,” she observes. “You get your education and it’s a good starting point, but then the real-world experience needs to build.”

Josh Thompson, a CNC operator at Q4, says most of his training has come through on-the-job experience. “I did some schooling in New York for it, but I’ve been in the trade for about eight years,” he relates.

More recently, Watkins’ son, Tyler, joined the company and is the fourth generation of his family in the machinist trades.

CNC technology has enabled the company to produce high volumes of precision parts with very tight tolerances, Watkins says. The efficiencies this technology brings allow the company to be more competitive as well.

Business last year was very strong, Watkins reports, but orders so far this year are comparatively flat. “Next month, we have a nice backlog,” he says.

Part of the challenge is moving out of the shop more to accelerate sales on the road and outside of the area.

Another goal is to implement new technology such as automated pre-setting systems, Watkins says. This automation would help cut down production times at each CNC machine, but it is a technology that few machinists in this region fully grasp.

“It’s a paradigm shift on how workers think,” he says, noting it’s a departure from “old-school” machining. “It’s an investment. Some of the biggest challenges are the people and getting them to understand.”

Pictured: Tom and Wendy Watkins own Q4 Manufacturing Solutions, which makes machined components for local manufacturers.

Published by The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.