Trent Phippin

Aug 16, 2023 hireCNC

My CNC Story - Trent Phippin

Trent's CNC Story

hireCNC: How did you get started in CNC machining and why did you decide to pursue this as a career?

Trent: The reason I got into machining was my dad. He’s been a machinist for 40 years or something ridiculous. I didn't have any exposure to machining until I started working with him, and now he actually works for me. I was getting to the end of high school and didn't have any plans to go on to college, so I started working for my dad at a shop. It was a lot of manual machines, but I was always interested in the CNC side of things. So, I started out there- started learning. I ended up moving to another shop that was more CNC based and kind of had a knack for it. I learned quickly, moved up from the lathe department doing simple things to more complex things including live tooling.

Then I realized that I was getting pigeonholed into being the lathe guy and I wanted to learn mills. My wife and I refinanced our house - using some of the money to get this old beat-up Mazak mill. That was a learning experience. I had it shipped from Michigan to California. It was an absolute nightmare.

I didn't even have a garage. I parked it in my carport and got it all wired in and set up, got phase converters and ran it for about six months. And then it died on me. I learned a lot from that experience, which I'm super grateful for. It was just one of the steppingstones to moving on. I didn't look into getting another machine for a while. In fact, I was almost going to let it go, but I had somebody reach out to me that wanted some parts made.

I'm always such an optimist. I always dream of what it could be.

I saw the quantities that they wanted me to quote, and I was like, “I need to get another machine because this is a lot of money.”  And my wife and I agreed to refinance her car.

By this time, I had made some friends who told me to check out some auctions. I went to a local auction down in the Bay Area and found a Matsuura mill and picked it up dirt cheap. My buddy had an automotive shop at the time, so I was able to park it at an actual shop and that's where it really all started.

I started off small- just knocking on the doors of other shops, local shops, seeing if anybody needed work done, and started social media. That's important. I find your social media following and the people that you're reaching out to today is huge. Slowly word of mouth spread.

I also do a fair amount of work for a company called Xometry (xometry.com). It's perfect for a job shop. They post work on a job board, and you can take it or leave it.

That's where it all started for me. And now here I am almost six years later, and I've got five live tool lathes. Three of them are brand new. I've got my mill that I started out with. That thing's a bulletproof beast. I have a two-axis lathe, and I just got a five axis mill as well. We've progressed in the last six years quite a bit.


hireCNC: Are you specializing in any specific industry or is it more of a job shop?

Trent: We are a total job shop. Pretty much any parts that need to be done- we will do them. But we do specialize. I've done a ton of space and aerospace work over the years. I tend to gravitate towards those tighter tolerance, more difficult jobs.


hireCNC: How many machinists or programmers do you have working for you, and how often are you actually machining vs. managing now?

Trent: Managing is the goal right now. It's overwhelming currently because I had one guy move out of state and then we had to let another guy go. Right now, I have three other machinists besides me. I am interviewing another one today and have someone coming in on Saturday. We are definitely looking to hire because I'm on the shop floor making parts every day- which I'm good at, but that can't be my role anymore. I need to find the people that can set up, program, run out parts, et cetera, so that I can manage and grow the business. I'm experiencing growing pains at the moment.


hireCNC: You mentioned social media. You've got a presence and you’re relatively active, which is not the norm today for most machine shops. What has it meant for your business, being active on a platform like LinkedIn- in terms of either helping you get sales, helping you land employees, etc.

Trent: Being active on LinkedIn has been huge for me. When I put in my two weeks’ notice at my job to start doing this full time, I made a post about it, and it actually went viral. I got millions of views and just tons of people reaching out to me. It's how I got some of my first customers that are now long-term customers. It's funny because it was one of the first posts that I ever did on LinkedIn. It's like, “wow, this is amazing- does this happen all the time?” And then ever since, I've been trying to get a post that gets really popular, and it just doesn't happen.

But people have been supportive on LinkedIn and very helpful. If there's a time that I need a certain material that I can't find, I can reach out on LinkedIn. There's typically somebody knows where to get something. It's an awesome tool.


hireCNC: Any advice for somebody in school studying a machining program- in terms of getting into the trade? What's important in those first few years as you get started? What should you be looking for?

Trent: Just continue to learn and grow. I came in and I was hungry to learn. I stayed open minded, and I still stay open minded. When I hire somebody, it's not my way or the highway. It's what kind of value can they add to the shop? And so, I think just being teachable is important. Also, in this trade, it's all about attention to detail. So, look at the part, look at the print, make sure everything is perfect, because this trade is expecting perfection.


hireCNC: Is there anything that you found to be most successful in terms of a trait in someone that you're hiring? Are you trying to uncover how willing to learn and hardworking they are, or is there some other specific level of skill that's important for you when you're hiring?

Trent: I'm still learning that side. I haven't done a whole lot of hiring, but the thing I have learned is that experience isn't always everything. Obviously, it's nice, but people's work ethic- which is hard to gauge in an interview- is important. Everybody has different personalities, and it's an interesting balancing act to have a bunch of different guys in here. I'm a big people pleaser, so I try and make everybody happy.

There was a guy in here who was negative, and I didn't realize how much it brought the shop down until he ended up leaving. Then after he was gone, the vibe in the shop is much lighter. It's much more productive, and so it's interesting to see how that can affect everybody.

When I'm doing an interview, I try and pick up on their personality and their willingness to learn.

I set goals for the guys here. We get together and we set goals, and when they achieve those goals, they get pay increases. We don't do annual increases in pay or reviews. We set goals, and when they achieve those goals, that's when they get their pay increase. I have a guy that started here nine months ago, and he's increased his pay by $4 an hour since then.

I find that it's a lot more motivating, and you also give people the chance to be in control of their potential and their growth in the company.


hireCNC: What preconceived notions should we set straight regarding the CNC trade?

Trent: You don't just load the part and hit the button. There's much more to it- making accurate parts, holding tight tolerances and making sure that things are aligned properly. I get that a lot. I'll tell people that I run CNC machines and they say “That sounds easy. You just put the part in there, load the model and it just makes it.” And that's just not the case.


hireCNC: What are you excited about in terms of the industry and the technology in the next five to ten years?

Trent: On the machinery side, I would say probably more additive machining is perking my interest. It's getting more popular.

As far as the programming side, which I think will be more exciting, I'm interested to see where artificial intelligence is going to come in. It might end up being a lot more like what people think, where you just load that model, you hit the button and it knows everything.

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