The Beginnings of Torchmate
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    Default The Beginnings of Torchmate

    It has been suggested to me that I post a personal account of how I started the Torchmate company, and my experiences prior to its sale to Lincoln Electric in 2011.

    While I can't provide any details that might be considered proprietary, I see no problem in sharing information from a personal point of view, as to how it all came about. This would be more from an entrepreneurial perspective than a technical one, so I'm not sure if there would be any interest, or if this forum is the proper place for it.

    I have never discussed any of this other than with family and friends, so it would be somewhat of a first for me. Please give me your reaction to the suggestion. If there is little interest, I won't be insulted.

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    I think it would be great.

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    I think it would be beneficial to many in the business and would make for an interesting read.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mrplasma View Post
    It has been suggested to me that I post a personal account of how I started the Torchmate company, and my experiences prior to its sale to Lincoln Electric in 2011.

    While I can't provide any details that might be considered proprietary, I see no problem in sharing information from a personal point of view, as to how it all came about. This would be more from an entrepreneurial perspective than a technical one, so I'm not sure if there would be any interest, or if this forum is the proper place for it.

    I have never discussed any of this other than with family and friends, so it would be somewhat of a first for me. Please give me your reaction to the suggestion. If there is little interest, I won't be insulted.
    Yes, I recall the original brochures, my weld shop owner friend kept one hanging on the wall for a long time, pestered me if I could help him build it. He knew it would take his business to the next level. He didn't have allot of money, so the kit was going to be a major purchase for him.

    Unfortunately it was allot more than I could understand at the time,(computers and CAD) so always declined him. It hurt me to turn him down.

    IIRC this was 1985-1988 time frame.

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    Quote Originally Posted by mrplasma View Post
    Please give me your reaction to the suggestion. If there is little interest, I won't be insulted.
    GO for it man!
    Any company history from humble beginnings is always an interesting topic.

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    If you post it, I'll read it.

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    I'd love to hear it.

    Sadly, when my boss went to Torchmate in 2017 when we were just starting out, he brought a flashdrive of small test files and a few pieces of steel and aluminum. They were unable to produce acceptable cuts.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Strostkovy View Post
    I'd love to hear it.

    Sadly, when my boss went to Torchmate in 2017 when we were just starting out, he brought a flashdrive of small test files and a few pieces of steel and aluminum. They were unable to produce acceptable cuts.
    Yes. but when they first came out, they were the only game in town unless you went with C&G
    or other very expensive (commercial) option.

    Or even an electric eye machine.

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    I think it would be a great read for many of us. It's always good to hear about the struggles and success stories of guys just like us who have followed a dream and made it a reality.

    Make Chips Boys !

    Ron

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    I can't wait to read all about it.

    Stan

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    I bought one of your kits it was fantastic.
    It helped my business go to the next level for sure.
    got plenty of help from Your company and spoke to you several times.
    Thank you

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    Default The Beginnings of Torchmate - Part I

    I am going to assume that anyone with the patience to read my story has an interest in starting and growing a business, or in comparing notes with someone else who has done so. I didn’t build the biggest business in the world (66 employees) or do it alone (my son and daughter worked with me). However, I never borrowed a cent, and the business, Torchmate, ultimately ended up exceeding all my expectations.

    In my view, and many of you may agree with me, you need several personality characteristics (obsessions might be a better word) to succeed in a manufacturing business. You must have an extreme motivation to make money. You must be willing to fail again and again, and pick up the pieces and try again. You must be able to look objectively at your mistakes and learn from them. You must have the ability to, and I hate the shop-worn phrase, “think outside the box.”

    If you are to succeed in the manufacturing business, your product must: be something available nowhere else OR be better than competing products OR be of equal quality, but cheaper than competing products; AND have a potentially large customer base. This probably applies to the service industry, as well.

    Now, on to my story. Let me start off by saying that Torchmate had two stages, separated by about 15 years. These were the pre-internet, pre-CNC period, and the CNC period.

    Pre-Internet, Pre-CNC Stage:

    Torchmate started in late 1979 as a one-man basement operation. At that time, I was a long-term hot rodder, trapped in a moderately well paying (for the time) Government job that had nothing to do with metal working.

    Having done a number of engine swaps and a couple of scratch builds, I was vaguely aware of the pantograph flame cutting machines of the time, but really didn’t know what they looked like or how they worked. I had always used an oxy-acetylene cutting torch and grinder to make motor mounts, frame brackets, etc.

    One day, I spotted an article in a car magazine that had a couple of good pictures of a pantograph machine being used. It looked reasonably simple: a pair of collapsible, folding arms supported a torch, the head of which was in direct line with an overhead magnetic rotor. As the rotor walked around the edge of a steel template, the torch duplicated the template shape below (see photo).

    In 1979 I was aware of only two small pantograph machines on the market, both of which cost in the neighborhood of $1,400. That was the equivalent of $5,000 in today’s dollars. I looked at the circulation figures for several “hands-on” car magazines, and reasoned that there were literally tens of thousands of car enthusiasts struggling along with a cutting torch and grinder, let alone fabrication shops, etc.

    Most of the potential customers for a low cost pantograph machine had the capability of building one. Therefore, I had to offer them something that they were unfamiliar with if they were to buy my machine rather than just make one. That piece of the puzzle was the motor and control box, and later the magnetic tracer.

    I knew nothing about electric motors or controls, but I had been a long-time model railroader. I put together a prototype machine using a Ford Granada windshield wiper motor and a train transformer. It had variable speed as well as forward and reverse. I had to pull the motor apart and center drill the shaft to accept a 1/8” shank rotary burr, which acted as the rotor. I had not yet come up with a workable magnetic tracer, so the rotor had to be held against the edge of the template as it went around the template.

    To make a long story short, a year after I first saw the magazine pictures, an article on my machine appeared in the same publication. I had sent them a machine, which they tried out and liked. This was a 1980 issue (no. 12) of Rod & Custom Quarterly. The author of the article was the late Tom Medley of Petersen Publications. A couple of photos from that article are below.

    I had some experience with swapping car parts and building headers for people, but had no real business experience. But I hated my Government job, and the 14 machines I sold the month after the article appeared prompted me to quit my job and pursue my Torchmate pipe dream.

    This was a gross miscalculation on my part. First, I assumed that there was a big enough customer base to support my business. This was true enough, but I failed to recognize the cost of reaching potential customers (marketing & advertising). The Rod & Custom article was a freebie (other than the machine I provided). Advertising was to come at a much higher price. Sales started to dwindle after the first month, and were all but gone by the end of the third month.

    I rented a garage bay and hired an employee (two additional mistakes) in hopes that advertising would rejuvenate my sales. I began to sell U-Weld-It Kits that let customers do part of the work. By this time I had scrapped the wiper motors and was using Graingers gearmotors. I came out with a magnetic tracer that used rare earth magnets (Sumarian Cobalt and later Iron Boron) stacked pancake style, and coated with a rubber film that made them somewhat unidentifiable.

    All of this was well and good, except for the cost of advertising. The only plausible advertising for me was in the form of magazine ads and direct mailings. This enabled me to reach customers, but the cost ate up virtually all my profits. I managed to get a few more magazine articles published, but they produced short-lived results. Direct mailings were done by renting mailing lists from Dunn & Bradstreet, and other mailing list providers, and stuffing thousands of envelopes. The mailings produced good results, but even with 4 cent stamps were too expensive to be profitable.

    Magazine articles worked fairly well, but it was difficult to keep track of the results produced by each magazine ad. I used department-keyed return addresses to associate inquiries with a particular magazine issue. Since it was common practice to go out with a series of successively more attractive offers to prospective customers, it was necessary to maintain good records of who had received which offers. This was done in hand written logs.

    Back then, in generating a magazine ad, you couldn’t just take a photo with a digital camera or smart phone and print ad copy out on your printer. You had to take an old fashioned picture, get it developed, get the ad type set, and have the ad copy produced by your local printer. If you wanted to make a last minute change in an ad, it took two or three days, and cost another $35 or $40.

    I experimented with selling new Torchmate configurations, different kinds of kits, and just the plans. I stuck it out for a year and a half, but ended up going back to work for the Government. I stayed there for the next fifteen years. I had sold perhaps a thousand or more pantograph Torchmates, but had gone broke in the process.

    I kept all my records of sales and expenses, and as my retirement age approached, I plugged all the information I had into a data base and analyzed it from every angle I could think of. What if I had done this or that differently? How would it have turned out if I had stayed with my job and did my Torchmate thing on the side? What if I had continued to work out of my house and not hired any employees?

    When I reached age 56, I retired from the Government, and started it all over again, trying to avoid my original mistakes. During the intervening fifteen years there had been a number of developments, in particular, the Internet and low cost CNC controls.

    To be continued ,,,

    Pictures 1 and 2 - Two photos from the original magazine article
    Picture 3 - Photo from a Stock Car Racing magazine article
    Picture 4 - An ad in Street Rodder
    Picture 5 - The 17th Torchmate I made back in 1979, taken in trade. I still have it.


    article-pic1b.jpgarticle-pic2b.jpgstock-car-racing.jpgstreet-rodder-ad.jpg1979_torchmate.jpg

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    Default A few more photos that wouldn't fit in the last post's limit:

    Photo 1 - 1980 article that appeared in a Chinese magazine
    Photo 2 - Welding Design & Fabrication Magazine 1980 Prize Product
    Photo 3 - A page from my sales log from 1980

    chinese-article.jpgwelding-design-fabrication.jpgtypical-sales-week_1980.jpg

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    Very good reading! Thanks for sharing all that info. I heard Tom Monaghan's story(Dominoes Pizza founder) some years ago and it was similar in working through failures and trying to figure out what would work.
    Last edited by Pete Deal; 02-09-2021 at 11:04 PM.

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    Good Stuff keep it coming. Always educational to hear about how businesses are built.

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    Keep 'er comin'.............

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    Default The Beginnings of Torchmate - Part 2

    After I reluctantly returned to my Government job, I continued to dabble in various part time activities to supplement my income. I bought up surplus small machinery, repainted it, and sold it out of a ship container. I got a real estate license, I bought and sold used motorcycles, accumulating as many as ten on one occasion. I continued to sell Torchmate pantograph plans, fabricated curling bars for an exercise equipment store and real estate sign frames for a local realtor, to name a few. Of course, I never made any real money at any of them.

    My analysis of my prior sales and expense records convinced me that if I avoided my previous mistakes, Torchmate could produce enough income to get by. This was all I hoped for. I had only the same product as before to offer, but surprisingly, no-one else was making similar machines even after a 15-year lapse.

    I retired, and this time I at least had a retirement annuity. I was aware of the fledgling Internet, but again advertised via magazines and direct mailings. My machine appeared in a couple more magazine articles, but pantograph machines had become somewhat passe’ by now. As I recall, I did about $30,000 in sales the first year, and $40,000 the second year. While this was considerably less than I was doing 15 years before, I generated some net income this time.

    I began toying with the possibility of coming up with an automated machine. I looked at what was available at the time, and low and behold, the cheapest plausible CNC machines available were in the $25,000 and up range. This was like deja-vu for me.

    The only drawback was that I knew absolutely nothing about CNC electronics and software, CNC machine configuration, or plasma cutting. All my previous Torchmates used oxy-fuel exclusively. I figured out a way to mount a plasma torch on my pantograph, and started promoting the machine’s plasma arc capabilities. I still had never used a plasma torch.

    I found a company that had available a low cost stepper motor based system that included the necessary electronics and what was essentially plotter software. I figured out how to use the pen up and pen down commands to turn a torch on and off under computer control. It would prove tricky getting an acetylene torch to move to a location, turn on the preheat for a couple of seconds, and then turn on the cutting oxygen using pen up/down code.

    I took apart a six pen plotter I had sitting around to see how it worked. It used thin wires wound around pulleys to produce the movement. That seemed a highly impractical method for moving a torch around. I studied photos of “electric eye” tables I clipped out of magazines, and found that there were two main types of configurations; cantilevered arm and gantry. The few large CNC tables I had seen also used one or the other of these two setups.

    I set about making a cantilevered arm machine using stepper motors along with Grainger gear motor gearboxes. The machine used a rack and pinion drive system. I pirated the weights out of my wife’s heirloom grandfather clock and hung them on the axes to take up the backlash from all that gearing.

    I had by this time acquired a Hypertherm Powermax 800 plasma cutter with a machine torch. I got rid of the grainger gearboxes and substituted a timing belt and pulley arrangement to obtain the necessary reduction. The timing belts also softened the movement of the stepper motors. The backlash went away.

    I went to a local farm supply store and bought a watering trough, which I located next the table, and placed a grate on it to support the material being cut. The thing worked, amazingly enough, and I practiced with it enough to become fairly proficient. The first complicated piece I cut out was a Harley Davidson logo (see picture).

    In 1998, the Internet was kind of like a library in a small town where there are some books, but where it is questionable that you will find one on any given subject. That was an advantage to someone wanting to use it to promote a product. The disadvantage was that many people didn’t use the Internet, and almost all of those who did used an ultra-slow dial-up connection.

    While I used the Internet on a daily basis, I had no idea of how to go about advertising on it. I was fortunate enough to have a friend who showed me how to create a web page in AOL. I had learned a bit of programming in BASIC, and picked up HTML (a web site programming language) fairly easily. There wasn’t much available yet in the way of web site development software.

    I put a few web pages together on the AOL server, and started advertising my new CNC Torchmate. I made sure the pricing was clearly displayed. The product met two of the three requirements for success (not available elsewhere, cheaper than the competition). if your product’s main attraction is its price, why in heaven’s name wouldn’t you show the pricing on your web site?

    Even though I had to pay retail price for the CNC components at first, there was going to be enough of a markup to easily absorb that. Just as the mystique of the motor/transformer/magnetic tracer deterred customers from making their own Torchmate 15 year earlier, the vastly greater complexity of the CNC build had an even stronger effect. Even today, still another 25 years later, many people still have trepidation about attempting a CNC machine project.

    I have always had the philosophy that the least expensive way to manufacture something is to use as many mass-produced components as possible from various sources and combine them into your product.

    It is impossible to manufacture a part on a small scale as cheaply as it can be obtained from a company that makes tens of thousands of them, even with a markup. The only components I produced myself on those original CNC machines were a dozen or so plasma cut brackets. Everything else, the electronics and motors, timing belts, pulleys, gears and gear racks, cam followers, nuts, bolts, steel rails, etc. were mass produced by other companies. All I did was keep all the parts in bins, pull them and box them with instructions, and ship them out. I had the heavy parts, such as the 8020 extrusions and rails, drop shipped to customers.

    At first I was concerned that if I could buy all these parts and combine them into a machine, so could my potential customers. However, the diversity of my suppliers made that rather difficult. Also, many of them were unwilling to sell directly to the end user. When I started getting volume discounts, that issue evaporated.

    The impact of the Internet, and my new CNC offering was clearly reflected in my sales figures. I came out with my new machine (by now a U-Weld-It gantry kit) and started advertising on the Internet in the latter part of 1998. That year, I did $97,000 worth of business. The following year I did $450,000 worth of business. My 2000 and 2001 sales each hovered around a million dollars. I found a source for Hypertherm plasma cutters and started selling them.

    I was still working by myself out of my basement and single car garage at this time (see photo). When you consider the web site development and maintenance, the photo shoots, the shipping and receiving, the accounting, and the tech. support, you can imagine I was pretty busy. With sales booming, I decided I needed some help.

    To be continued …

    Photo 1 - First Torchmate cantilevered arm prototype
    Photo 2 - First relatively complicated piece cut (hanging on my wall now)
    Photo 3 - Torchmate shop circa 1998
    Photo 4 - Jump forward to 2011. Wife and son in foreground


    1st-cnc-plasma-build-1998.jpgimg_8820.jpgfirstshop_2.jpgcirca-2011.jpg
    Last edited by mrplasma; 02-10-2021 at 08:00 PM.

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    This is a COOL story !!

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    Default The Beginnings of Torchmate - Part 3

    The Internet/CNC Stage:

    About the time that I decided I needed some help, my son expressed interested in joining me in the business. He had no fabrication experience, but had started and operated an unrelated business previously.

    I put him to work cutting out brackets for me. He lived in a remote area in Truckee, California, near the site of the failed Donner expedition in 1847. It was just about the worst possible location for a manufacturing operation. Bears raided his trash cans nightly.

    He had a ship container delivered to his property, and ran electricity to it. He cut out brackets there for a short while, before moving, and ending up in Sparks, Nevada. In Sparks, he bought a house with some outbuildings that was previously owned by a well digger. The buildings were crude, and being in a desert environment, had nightly visitors by scorpions. He fixed the place up some, and made one of the buildings usable for our purposes, at least for a while (see picture).

    The original Torchmate CNC machine had used driver software that was DOS based. It had to go, and I started working with another electronics and software supplier with a suitable Windows based system. I continued to use them for the remainder of the time I owned the company, and stay in touch with them to this day.

    I made an arrangement with one of my tech-savy customers to supply me with a torch height control that used proximity sensors to maintain proper torch height. We later switched to a version that used arc voltage to monitor and adjust torch height. He eventually started his own competing CNC table company. I worked out an agreement to continue to use the design of the unit, and found a Pennsylvania company to continue producing it.

    By this time, competitors started coming out of the woodwork, and I had to try to stay a couple of steps ahead of them. I had the advantage of a couple of years of momentum, with all my suppliers in place, and a reasonable customer base. I also capitalized on the fact that Torchmate dated back to 1979. By now I knew how to use the Internet, which most of my new competitors did not.

    In 1998, the Internet was kind of like California during the gold rush. There were a ton of opportunities there for those who could grasp them. States had yet to come up with plans for collecting out of State sales tax, so people were motivated to buy on-line and avoid tax.

    Internet providers had not yet figured out how to squeeze out the last dollar, and advertising was basically free via the search engines. The key to success was managing to come out on top in search engine results, and that became somewhat of a science.

    Google was just getting started, and the big search engines at the time were Alta Vista, HotBot, Lycos, Yahoo, Webcrawler, etc. Each had a different formula for prioritizing their search results, and it was necessary to get a handle on each of them. There were some criteria they all had in common, as well. Most users had dial-up connections, and it was necessary to make sure that each web page loaded fairly quickly. Picture size and quality had to be sacrificed to speed things up. Visitors would bail out rather than wait more than about ten or fifteen seconds for a page to come up.

    All the search engines used “spiders” that crept through the Internet and cataloged web page content. The key was to sprinkle relevant key words throughout your web pages, being careful not to do it to the point that it triggered spam guards. Words like PLASMA, PLASMA CUTTER, CNC PLASMA, AUTOMATED CUTTING, CNC CUTTING, THERMAL CUTTING would be used in meaningful sentences. It would work to your disadvantage if you just threw the words in there randomly. Key words that brought visitors to non-relevant web sites were frowned on, and in most cases rejected by the search engines. Businesses appeared on the scene that promised all of us fantastic search engine results, but I viewed them all with skepticism and never used them.

    Over time, the search engine companies figured out how to profit more fully from their services, and it became harder to stay at the top of search results. Having a large web site with many pages and many visitors helped, and we had an advantage over our competitors in that regard.

    Google came out with a tool called “Google Adwords” that helped us considerably. It provided advertisers with comprehensive reports on how many visitors a given page had on a specific day, how long they stayed on the page, how long they stayed on the web site, etc. The Adwords ads appeared on the right side of search results, and we paid a certain amount for each response to those ads. The amount charged depended on the popularity of the particular keyword used in that ad campaign. We had many ad campaigns.

    A visit using conventional search engine results (called an “organic” search) produced a somewhat greater probability of a sale than one from Adwords. However, Adwords was still a great tool for us. Analysis of Adwords reports was essential in both saving us advertising money, and orchestrating where it would be spent.

    An example of how such analysis paid off: Adwords, among other things, told us where each visitor was geographically located. We could determine what locations, i.e.; States, Cities, Countries, etc., were the most profitable. We found that we were spending over $5,000 a month for Adwords visitors from some obscure locale in South America. Yet, we had never had a single sale in that region. We blocked campaigns in that area, and saved $5,000 a month. The same tool could be used to determine locations where we should increase our presence.

    Please forgive my going into so much detail about our use of search engines, but I can’t over-emphasize the importance they played in our growth. We were, to some extent, in the right place at the right time, with the right product. I don’t think one could duplicate what we did today, in the same manner we did it. However, there are perhaps even greater opportunities out there now, for those who can identify and take advantage of them.

    As sales continued to grow, as our target audience expanded from car buffs and hobbyists to small shops and some fairly large businesses. In late 2001, we came out with a somewhat beefier machine called the Torchmate 2. The Torchmate 2 used aluminum extrusions from a company called 8020, and linear rails and roller cassettes from a Swedish company called Origa (now Parker-Origa). Torchmate 2 kits required substantially less fabrication on the part of the customer, and resulted in a more rigid gantry.

    We now offered everything necessary for a complete machine, including the extrusions, hardware, rails, brackets, electronics, software, etc. The customer merely had to bolt it all together. I located a Canadian company to supply us with a Torchmate branded Cad program that included a number of unique features including automating nesting of parts, direction of torch travel for inside and outside shapes, etc.

    By this time, my son had considerable experience with the machine, and had hired a couple of his old college friends. We settled on a division of labor in which the bracket cutting, shipping, and receiving would be done in his location, and I would handle the product development, marketing, sales, and technical support.

    We rapidly outgrew the Sparks, Nevada outbuilding, and started looking for industrial space.

    To be continued …

    Photo 1 - One of the first gantry's I experimented with
    Photo 2 - Completed Torchmate kit
    Photo 3 - Shop in Sparks, Nevada
    Photo 4 - Torchmate 2 supplied as a complete bolt-together unit.
    Photo 5 - Torchmate 2 using oxy-acetylene. This was supplied as a gantry kit.


    gantry.jpgcompleted-kit.jpgsparks-shop.jpgtorchmate-2.jpgtorchmate-2-oxy-fuel.jpg

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    Cool story! I remember your ads from the early 1980's, really wanted one but never could scratch together enough cash. For several years I kept that magazine with the page earmarked for the day I could afford one, think I lost it in a move or someone borrowed it and never returned it. At the point I could finally afford one, maybe late 80's, I could no longer find your ads.

  26. Likes digger doug, dkmc, bryan_machine liked this post

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