Legacy Of Tapered Innovation

August 6, 2007
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WYOMING — With a flash of green light, a 2-inch-long carbide tapered end mill emerges from the laser engraving machine with the “Conical” brand freshly etched into its base.

A tapered end mill is something like a drill bit, but in the same way that a laser is like a flash light. This particular tapered end mill is bound for a sorting box in the inventory room, where there is a roughly 60 percent chance it will find its way into a CNC machine or other industrial cutting device within the coming weeks. Other tapered end mills fresh off the branding station are bound for ice-sculpting drills, defense suppliers, toymakers, tool and die firms — and practically every industrial sector.

“They go everywhere — any production job that needs parts cut, right down to the molds and dies,” said Dennis Avery, president of Conical Tool Co. “Nothing is straight these days. And the more intricate and high-performance the machinery gets, the more high-performance and innovative the tooling has to be.”

Computerized machining has advanced exponentially over the past 20 years, with the latest machines often limited by the tools used within them. Conical is working to close that gap.

“Standard tooling has taken a real curve. The machinery is ahead of the cutting tools and we have to innovate to match the new equipment,” said Conical Tool CEO David Melinn. “That, in turn, makes the molds cheaper and faster to use. The tools are stronger, faster and last longer. With the high-degree stuff, you’re making one cut instead of four or five.”

Company founder Kenneth Stanaback launched Conical Tool in 1944 to produce and market his patented line of tapered end mills. So named for the unique angle of the grinding grooves that run the length of the mill flutes, Stanaback’s invention changed the way dies are made and became a staple of the post-war tool and die industry.

Today, that legacy of innovation is driving rapid growth for the tool maker. Lifelong friends Avery and Melinn — classmates since kindergarten who grew up within blocks of Conical Tool’s 48,000-square-foot Buchanan Avenue headquarters — took over management of the company in 2002 and purchased the firm from the Stanaback family two years later. Since then, the company has more than doubled sales, projecting to break $2 million in revenue for the first time this year. It has invested nearly $1 million in new equipment purchases in that time, and this summer added a third full shift to meet demand.

“We’ve hit our five-year goal in three years; now we’re working to catch up with our growth,” said Avery.

Melinn attributes the success to a pairing of aggressive innovation and aggressive marketing. Conical has launched four new types of tools since 2003: automotive taper end mills, carbide miniature end mills, profile rib cutters and countersink end mills. Meanwhile, the firm has shifted its distribution almost entirely to large industrial catalogs, none of which listed Conical tools prior to 2004.

Much as Avery, a 24-year Conical veteran, and the dozen employees of 18-plus years on the job are responsible for the new product launches, Melinn, a one-time employee during the 1970s wholeft to launch his own firm, deserves credit for the new marketing strategy. Each catalog listing was the result of a year or more of Melinn’s constant pitching and salesmanship.

“We had never marketed it like this before, and I went right after it,” said Melinn. “It was a year of chasing guys down and presentations all over the country for each of them, but when we finally got our break, their customers were able to see the difference.”

Already surprised by the market’s overwhelming response to Conical products, Melinn is unable to speculate on what type of growth the now 17-employee company could see in the next year. One of its most exciting launches isn’t even listed in the distributor catalogs: The line of rib cutters designed for the removal of ribs and cutter marks left in mold cavities during machining operations won’t appear until the October printings.

While Conical has almost entirely shifted distribution to the catalogs, a handful of customers still order direct, particularly for custom orders. Chief among these are suppliers to the Department of Defense, to which Conical offers an unsolicited discount.

“We want to do our part,” Melinn said. “The sooner we can get things done over there, the better.”

Among many other products, Conical tools are used to make the armor plating currently bound for Humvees in Iraq.

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