Rickman Tool Focuses On A Niche Market

Rickman Tool, Inc. (Culver, Indiana) is a job shop specializing in CNC machining.

Columns From: 9/1/1999 Modern Machine Shop,

Rickman Tool, Inc. (Culver, Indiana) is a job shop specializing in CNC machining. The company runs two shifts and employs more than 30 people. According to Eddie Rickman, president of Rickman Tool, the key to the company's success has been identifying and serving a niche market. In the case of Rickman Tool, the niche market has been the medical industry.

Recently, I interviewed Eddie Rickman to learn a little more about his company.

Why did you decide to begin supplying complex parts to the medical industry?

We had extensive experience in cutting stainless steel and titanium, two materials that are common in the medical industry. We also had experience with small, complex parts, so we were able to handle the types of jobs these companies needed machined. It also helped that we were located very close to three or four large companies in this industry.

How did you get started with your first customer in the medical industry? 

We actually purchased a business that had done some work with a medical company before. We were fortunate enough to convince the company to give us a try on a very complicated part. We did something right, because we have worked for this company ever since.

What was the first medical part you produced? 

Our first job was a spinal hook. This is a small, complex part that is implanted into the spine. We machine this part from both titanium and stainless steel, which are the only materials approved for implants in the human body. Obviously, it is critical that such a part be machined accurately. There is no margin for error when it comes to operating on the human spine.

How do you reach new customers in the medical industry? 

In brief, it's word of mouth. We have been very fortunate because our customers are our best marketers.

How did you overcome the obstacles you initially encountered in machining parts for the medical industry? 

The medical industry's parts are typically quite small and complex. They are also ordered in low volumes. Therefore, we have to spend a great deal of time developing the best machining processes for these types of parts. To be successful, you have to do as much as possible in one operation or setup. To accomplish this, you need the right machines and must be able to design good fixturing. Also, because of the strict quality requirements in this field, you must be willing to provide ample training to your workforce.

What type of training have you provided to your workforce? 

We provided a lot of hands-on training so everyone knew how to use everything. At some time, even experienced machinists can use a refresher on the basics. We also spent time showing operators how to organize their work areas and effectively set up the machines.

How have you satisfied the demands of customers in the medical industry? 

Probably the most difficult demand is for short leadtimes on new products. Perhaps more than any other industry, medical companies must continuously improve their products to meet the demands of consumers. We have added four-axis CNC machines, which allow us to complete parts in fewer operations. These machines have really helped us to satisfy the short leadtime requirements of our customers.

Do you do work for customers in other industries? 

Presently, we only work for companies in the medical industry. This is the type of work we do well, and we're very busy.

What's in store for Rickman Tools? 

I think we will expand our business beyond the medical industry eventually. However, we will try to concentrate on small, complex parts as this is really the market niche for us.

Do you have any advice for companies on how they can find a niche market? 

Become good at doing something that is considered complex, rather than something that most other job shops can do easily. Once you have shown that you can do the things that others can't, word of mouth will carry you from there.

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