Special Fabtech Edition with Al Bohlen, the President of Mazak Optonics – Dusty Jobs Podcast – S3 E9

May 4, 2023

This is the last episode we are recording at Fabtech Atlanta 2022 from our booth. For our last episode from Fabtech we got to get together with Al Bohlen the President of Mazak Optonics. He talks to Donovan about how he got into the industry and about what machine tools are. They also discuss how Mazak helps make the manufacturing process more efficient and what some of the future machines of Mazak will be.





Narrator: Welcome to the Dusty Jobs Podcast from Imperial Systems. Industry knowledge to make your job easier and safer.

Donovan: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Dusty Jobs podcast. We’re here at Fabtech for our last podcast we’re doing here live. And we’re here with Al Bohlen. Is that I said that right?

Al: That is correct. You got it right.

Donovan: And you’re the president at Mazak

Al: President of Mazak Optonics. That is correct. Yeah.

Donovan: Yeah. So we’re so excited to have you with us today.

Al: Thank you.

Donovan: And how long have you been with Mazak?

Al: I’ve been with Mazak 12 years. And I started in the industry over 30 years ago.

Donovan: Oh wow.

Al: Yeah, I’ve been in the industry literally since I graduated from college. So I started in electrical engineering. I went to an engineering school and got a degree in electrical engineering. And when I first graduated, I was just really looking for a way to apply my knowledge. And quite candidly didn’t know a whole lot about the machine tool industry. My dad and my brother, we all grew up in the car world. We owned auto body shops and did a lot of wrenching and we were mechanics and those kinds of things, but I really didn’t understand machine tools. But there was a job opening in a local area. I grew up in New England and that was Pratt & Whitney Aircraft, jet engines. So they actually build machine tools for manufacturing of jet engine parts. And I really got my first job straight out of college working on a machine tool, working in the jet industry, jet engine industry. And over a period of time, started to become more familiar with the different processes milling and machining and show my age a little bit. But back in those days, there were no laser cutting machines. So it was a lot of turning and milling kind of applications. Eventually found my way into another very large fabrication equipment company and just spent a greater part of my younger years being a service engineer in the field. So installing equipment, servicing equipment.

Donovan: Oh yeah.

Al: And actually spent time in the manufacturing sector, actually building those machine tools and a lot of electronics, a lot of servo drive motors, PLCs, controls, that kind of stuff. And just year by year, step by step, found my path to a higher level in the machine tool world and then found myself in Mazak.

Donovan: That’s great. So you not only have you been out, done the work on this equipment, you’ve kind of been in the industry in a lot of different facets. That’s exciting.

Al: Correct. Yeah, I mean, it’s, you know, it’s just, it’s my life, but I have a passion for it. I still enjoy it. I still like to wrench the machines. A lot of my guys now would rather me keep my hands off the equipment, but I enjoy it. So yeah, even now, if a new machine is being installed in our technology center, I like to participate in it because I still like to get my hands on it. But yeah, I’ve spent my entire career really being a hands-on, you know, participant in the creation of new machine tools.

Donovan: Yeah, yeah. So you’ve been talking about machine tools a lot. So anybody out there who’s maybe not familiar with Mazak, what is the piece of equipment that you guys make and what do they do?

Al: So Mazak is essentially the largest machine tool builder in the world. So we’re making equipment for metal processing. Metal processing can be many different categories, right? I mean we can cut it, we can weld it, we can bend it, we can remove metal, add metal, you know, machine it. But I like to also associate that, you know, again, because I’m a car guy, I like to kind of connect the dots to our world, right? So if you take a raw casting of metal and you want to make it an engine for a car, you’ve got a lot of metal to remove and then and then bring it to a very high tolerance, right? So whether it’s a jet engine part or whether it’s an automotive part, chassis suspension part, I think in our Midwest world, we see a lot of agriculture, right? So we see a lot of equipment being planting and seeding and harvesting and all this kind of stuff. And people can relate to that, they see it. They’re driving down the road and they see a combine pulling up corn, especially here in the fall. And all the parts associated with those combines our main and our kind of equipment.

Donovan: Or that tractor that they’ve been driving behind for the last 20 minutes. – Right, yeah.

Al: So that’s us.

Donovan: So you guys, basically there’s a raw piece of metal that goes into this side of the process, and you guys make it come out as something that can actually be used.

Al: Right, a finished product. – Yeah.

Donovan: Right.

Al: So you’re taking a raw piece of metal and saying, “Okay, what’s this gonna be? Is it gonna be an engine component? Is it gonna be a chassis component?” Or maybe something quite simple. It could be a sheet metal cover, a guard over something, or let’s talk about heating and ventilation, air conditioning, heating equipment, all of this stuff has a tremendous amount of sheet metal around it, right?

Donovan: Right.

Al: And you’ve gotta cut it to some shape or size, and then ultimately that might be bent or welded, and then eventually painted, and then assembled to the final product.

Donovan: So when we’re talking about cutting, cutting these pieces, what’s the process you guys use? If someone’s out there saying, I have this process that we’re looking at, What would Mazak come in and say, we can help you guys cut that with a laser, cut it with plasma, cut it with–

Al: Right, right. – So, you know, typically the type of customer that is approaching Mazak is probably looking for a very high accuracy part and a high quality part. Meaning, okay, yes, there’s many different ways to process a piece of metal, right?

Donovan: Right.

Al: I mean, you could physically, manually cut it by hand. You know, you could use a grinder and actually cut through a piece of metal with a handheld grinder that you bought at Home Depot.

Donovan: Right, right.

Al: But soon people graduate to, okay, I need a more sophisticated way to cut this part. I need it to be higher accuracy, right? And that first step probably is a thermal cutting process. It could be oxy settling torch. It could be a plasma table. Could be a water jet, high pressure water cutting with an abrasive. But those processes typically yield a less accurate part. and maybe the edge quality, the fit and finish of the part is a little bit lower. So it might be less expensive way to make the part, but a lot of handling.

Donovan: Yeah, okay, yeah.

Al: So they’ll come to us and say, look, we don’t wanna handle the part so many times, we wanna higher accuracy part, we wanna better quality part right off the machine. And they say, okay, do you make a machine that we don’t have to do five secondary operations to this part? We wanna go right from your machine, right onto the final assembly. Okay, so they’re looking for maybe a higher capital equipment investment, but less secondary operations.

Donovan: Right, so like in our shop, we do a lot of welding.

Al: Yep.

Donovan: And we have a laser cutter from you guys. And I know that when we started using the laser, the guys cut their weld time down tremendously.

Al: Right.

Donovan: Because it was so much easier because those cuts were so much closer.

Al: Correct.

Donovan: It just saved us a ton of time in our shop. And if our guys are welding less, that means they’re being exposed less and it’s healthier for them.

Al: Yeah, exactly. It’s all the downstream advantages of producing, again, a higher quality part and a better accurate part. So people say, okay, well, why do I need a more accurate part? Well, you just hit right on it. That’s a home run. My son happens to be a welder and in the shop that he works in, they don’t cut with a laser, they cut with a plasma table. It does the job. But when those parts arrive at the welding bay, the fit of those parts, so you may have several parts coming together, the fit of those parts is just not quite as good, right? So you have more gap, you might require more fixturing to hold these metal parts in place, ’cause they don’t fit as well as you’d like them to. So if you bring laser cut parts, there’s more consistency, accuracy, right? The fit is quicker, maybe you need less time jigging those parts, holding those parts for the welding process, right?

Donovan: Right.

Al: So now you’ve saved time there. and now it just moves down the line.

Donovan: Now, correct me if I’m wrong on this, but you guys also, not only can it be more accurate, but you get into a lot more automated systems. I know on our table, we’re able to just set it and it keeps loading and unloading the parts so that our operator can actually be standing there and working a lot more efficiently and things are coming out a lot faster too.

Al: Yeah, for example, we call it done in one, and that’s a kind of philosophy at Mazak, done in one, it’s a slogan we use. And what we mean by that is we want to do, bring more processes into the machine and less handling outside of the machine. So that when the part is done, it’s done in many ways. For example, we make machines that actually can do tapping operations, milling operations, not just thermal cutting. We can do many other secondary operations incorporated into that machine. Material handling is another aspect of that, right? So if a customer has a, what we call standalone machine, he’s going to have to manually, physically bring the material to the machine, maybe with a forklift and overhead crane or something like that. And that takes time, right? It takes time to load it, takes time to unload it. And there can be moments in time where the laser itself, the cutting device is not running because it’s waiting. It’s waiting for you to bring material to it. It’s waiting for you to remove material off of it. So if we can automate that process, we’re saving more time and that gives us more parts per hour.

Donovan: Now, and I’ve seen it in some shops where you’re able to load a skid of material on a cutting table and then that can even run when there’s nobody there.

Al: Correct, you know, we call it value added. Of course, everyone likes to use that term, but if you’ve got an operator that has to kind of babysit the machine, in other words, they have to stay there at every minute to make sure that it has the material it needs and make sure that it continues to run for extended periods of time, there’s nothing else he can do. The operator has to kind of man that machine.

Donovan: Right, and then handcuff too.

Al: Right, he’s handcuffed or shackled or whichever term he wants to use. He’s the can’t leave, right? Now, if we automate that process, we have a device that can load the material, unload the material for extended periods of time, two hours, three hours, five hours. That operator is afforded time to do something else. It is quite common to have the laser operator, once he gets the laser set up ready to run and it’s an automated machine, he can do something else. He could be bending parts. He could be doing some other operations in the shop and he does not have to be attending to the laser. Let it run. And then you can reassign that person to some other task in the shop. So you’re really getting a bonus round of time.

Donovan: I know for us, as we have been able to become, we’ve been growing and as we grow, we were able to do with the same amount of people because of technologies like this.

Al: Sure, sure.

Donovan: We’re able to just be a lot more efficient with the same group of people.

Al: Absolutely. You know, of course the common thread here is certainly, we wanna be a strong employer to the community and we love the idea of adding more people to our team, but we want a dynamic team. We want a team of people that can do lots of different things and we can move them around in our operation, use them for different things. Same thing goes in your shop, right? You may have welders, you have vendors, you have painters, You know, if you could say, hey, if we can save time over here and we can reassign that person to do some other role in our shop and that’s value to our company, right? Everybody wins.

Donovan: I know the other thing that the guys like in our shop is that when they’re running that piece of equipment, it’s clean. They’re not having to climb up on there, mess with the metal, knock parts off. It’s a real clean process. You can stand there and not feel like you’re getting choked out with smoke or anything

Al: I mean, there’s been an evolution, again, being in the industry for 30 years, I can really step back and look at what has changed. And when you think about 20, 30 years ago, we’d have burn tables, whether it’s oxy acetylene plasma tables, whatever, wide open, no dust collection, smoke billowing from it, just literally filling the shop with smoke. I worked in a shop where you couldn’t see more than maybe 500 yards down the other end of the shop because the smoke was just staggering. know, right, but the idea of operator safety, cleanliness, environment, you know, really taking care of not only the machines themselves, but the people that run them, right? Now we started to look to, okay, how can we capture the cutting process? How can we capture the particulate capture the smoke and debris that’s coming off of these machines, right? Okay. And we started to look at, you know, dust collection systems, what is available to us, right? And we didn’t even know what we needed. We didn’t know how much filter capacity we needed or how or couldn’t can it extract smoke? Can you filter smoke? What is the smoke? What is the DNA of what’s coming off that burn table? And it’s taken a lot of years to really perfect that in our partnership with Imperial is really highlighted what what that means because we develop a lot of new products, And when we start from the beginning, we’re not sure yet how much capacity we need, So having a partner like Imperial to work with us on a new product development and look at the kind of capacities, the particulate per hour, the filtration rates we need. We’re not an expert in that category. So we really need someone like Imperial to come inside and look at what we’re doing and advise us and kind of guide us on the proper solutions. And it’s been just a tremendous partnership.

Donovan: Oh, and we really appreciate working with you guys too. It’s been a great learning curve for us too, to learn all more about what you guys are doing. And I think you even have more new stuff coming up, isn’t that right?

Al: Yeah, I mean, of course we never sit still.

Donovan: Right.

Al: And I say even being this business for 30 years and with Mazak more than 10 years, it seems like the next day tomorrow is an exciting new day of what are we gonna develop, you know? Even the products that we brought here to Fabtech, super excited about those, but those machines were in development for the past two, three years. Okay? We’re already working on things that are gonna come in 2023 and 2024, we already know where it’s going. For example, we have a lot of new tube laser products. We’ve advanced our cutting portfolio to really look at tube laser cutting as a big growing market. It’s already been established. We already sell a lot of tube lasers in North America, but there’s an opportunity for growth in that sector with larger format machines, larger diameters, this kind of thing. And again, we’re gonna have to look at, Okay, different sizes, by the way, different metals. A lot of people are cutting now, aluminums and titanium and all sorts of things on these tube lasers. And we’re gonna have to look at new ways to collect that particulate, right? It’s taking a dust collector and a flat sheet laser does not translate to a tube laser, all right? So we have to start all over again and say, okay, what kind of collection system do we need for that? But we’re super excited. I mean, those are fun things to work on.

Donovan: Yeah, yeah.

Al: We love those challenges.

Donovan: Because in the end it’s going to make a cleaner environment for the end user, for the people who are using this, the guy who’s there running that laser.

Al: Absolutely.

Donovan: It’s going to make a great product because of the way it’s getting cut and the way it’s getting processed.

Al: A cleaner product. Yeah. A safer environment for the operators, safer environment for all of us. And let’s not forget, we live on this planet, we got to take good care of it.

Donovan: We do.

Al: And so it’s not, yes of course, high priority is our people and the surrounding areas. let’s be very open and transparent. This particulate that we’re trying to capture, if we don’t capture it, it’s going out into our world.

Donovan: It is.

Al: And we have a responsibility, not just for the immediate operator around that machine, but to our environment, right?

Donovan: To the neighbors.

Al: Absolutely. I mean, Mazak has a global commitment to really being eco-conscious to what we’re doing. So for example, even when we manufacture our own machines in our own factories, we look at how much energy we’re using. How can we do energy reduction, electricity use? How are we impacting the environment with coolants and debris and by the way, consumables, you know? We don’t wanna fill a landfill worth of debris in our manufacturing process, right? So we’re looking at not just creating machine tools, but being environmentally conscious as how do we go about doing it.

Donovan: That’s awesome, that’s great. I know for myself, I really appreciate that you guys take that approach. That’s another reason we love to be partners with you guys in this stuff because–

Al: I think if we are more like-minded and we can kind of bring awareness to what we’re doing, right? Like even we, okay, our machines at times will need service and we need consumables and we’ve got a parts department, right? So we’re packing parts every day and we’re putting them in a cardboard box and we’re shipping them off to the customer. We think, okay, out of sight, out of mind. We just ship the cardboard box. I don’t know where it’s gonna end up. Does it end up in a landfill?

Donovan: Right.

Al: Is it a recyclable material?

Donovan: Right.

Al: Are we using packaging materials that are environmentally friendly?

Donovan: Right.

Al: You don’t necessarily have to think about those things, but if you’re really a conscious contributor to manufacturing, you have to also think about those things.

Donovan: Right, right. And it’s phenomenal that you guys are doing that.

Al: So thank you. – Thank you.

Donovan: Well, is there anything else that you think is, you wanna share about, I mean, how was your show? You guys had a good show?

Al: Yeah, it’s been a fab tech that we hoped for. We had the attendance volume that we were hoping, that means people are busy, that means they’re still buying machine tools, the economy is strong.

Donovan: Right.

Al: Certainly everybody has their concerns about inflation and the rising costs of goods and supply chain challenges and all those kinds of things. But at the end of the day, manufacturing is strong. And I’m really encouraged because of course, I’m a big proponent of onshoring and building more and doing more here in the US. And we see that, we see an embrace, especially coming out of COVID, where we saw those vulnerabilities to having this global economy is great. And we certainly embrace the idea of a global economy, but we do need to understand our vulnerabilities when it is that supply chains are disrupted and manufacturing more here in the United States is something we’re very optimistic about. And I think that’s shows true here at the show. So, we’re really encouraged.

Donovan: So let me ask you one more question. So I’ve seen a lot of students walking around this show too. haven’t you? And so yeah, we have some of these young people that are out there and they’re walking around the show and a lot of them are here because they’re welders but I mean talking to you and seeing a lot of what’s going on I mean there might be a young person out there listening to the show or maybe someone looking to make a career shift. So I don’t like maybe learning more about cutting systems, lasers, that kind of technology might be a real opportunity.

Al: Making stuff is something you can be very proud of when you create something with your hands and say, I made that. And I think for a lot of years in our country, we certainly have embraced and encouraged higher education. And that’s absolutely an admirable thing, right? And I have children of my own and some of them are, gone to a way to universities and have multiple degrees. But I also have a welder in my house and he’s a certified welder and he makes stuff and he builds stuff and he’s proud of that. And I think that’s the main message is that, You know, we can have an opportunity to bring a young generation into our world. It is something you can be proud of, but also, by the way, earn a really good living. Yeah. OK, we are desperate to find highly skilled mechanics and engineers and welders and tradesmen. And the trades can be something that’s very rewarding, as well as, quite frankly, a very financially rewarding career. Yeah. So we want to encourage that, right? We want to embrace the idea that not every person is built to go to a four-year university and become a doctor or a lawyer.

Donovan: I know I wasn’t built to be an accountant. I know that for sure.

Al: As me as well.

Donovan: Yeah. So, I’m glad we have other people that are. Yeah.

Al: Yeah, we need them.

Donovan: We need them, but we’re going to do what we do.

Al: Right.

Donovan: Right. So, well, hey, Al, thanks so much for sharing with us.

Al: It’s great to be here. Great to be here.

Donovan: Taking some time to sit down. I know you guys are busy. You got a lot going on. You’ve given us a minute at the show.

Al: Thank you for allowing us to participate. We love the partnership.

Donovan: Yeah. Yeah. So everybody out there who’s listening, you can find Mazak on your guys’ website. I’m sure you guys also have social media. You guys on LinkedIn.

Al: All of it. Right. YouTube, Instagram, LinkedIn. You’ll find us everywhere.

Donovan: Right. So go on there, subscribe, get on their YouTube channel, see what the new stuff is they have coming out. And for us, same. Go on any social media platform. You can find us. Until we talk to you guys again next time, everybody out there stays healthy and stay safe and I just want to say thanks again for coming on.

Al: And also happy holidays, we’re coming up, right?

Donovan: That’s true.

Al: Happy holidays to everybody.

Donovan: Happy holidays to everybody. All right, thanks.

Al: Take care. Bye bye.

Narrator: Thanks for listening to the Dusty Jobs Podcast. Breathe better, work safer.