Durango, Colorado

Co-founders Steve Owen and Ben Kneller have invested heavily in cutting-edge CNC technology to support manufacturers in the Four Corners region.

Photos Jerry McBride

Kneller connected with Owen as a customer before the duo launched Durango Machining Innovations (DMI) together in 2015. “I had a small machine shop here in Durango operating since 1990,” says Owen. “Ben was one of my clients. Through discussions we had, we enjoyed working with each other and there were some growth opportunities.”

At the time, Owen’s shop — then named Design Models Inc. — worked out of 900 square feet, outfitted with two CNC machines, a lathe, and a 3-axis mill. He focused on prototyping and one-offs, but didn’t have the capacity to do higher volumes. “We decided to join forces, enlarge the shop, and take advantage of the work that was available here in the Four Corners,” says Owen.

Kneller, who was previously working for Allied Pipeline Technologies, and Owen subsequently started up DMI and have since grown it to 12 CNC machines in 6,000 square feet. “It certainly has been a large investment in equipment,” says Owen. “We seem to have built-in customers as we grow.”

Allied remains a client, and some other clients predate the formation of DMI. StoneAge is one example: Owen has worked with the Durango-based manufacturer of waterblast tools for more than 20 years. Other customers include New Mexico-based Inject-O-Meter and Diaz Suspension Design in Durango.

“We try to stay diverse being in a small town here,” says Kneller. “We also try to keep with the capabilities of our machines. We have some in the oil and gas industry, StoneAge is a good client, we do projects for the recreation industry as well as agriculture.”

Kneller says DMI’s forte is “high-precision, complex parts” in runs from 200 to 10,000. “We’ve invested heavily in mill-turn equipment, 5-axis machines,” he says. “A lot of the stuff is a little harder to do, and we’re trying to move into the production realm with that.”

“We offer a unique capability in our shop with our mill-turn machines,” adds Owen. “There’s nothing like it in the Four Corners area.”

DMI is accustomed to working with tight tolerances within and can help come up with “very creative solutions” when it comes to design for manufacturability, he adds. “We work in a lot of exotic stainless steels — 17-4, 15-5. We heat-treat in-house. We regularly hit tolerances of 2/10,000th of an inch.”

The company has invested in automation to reduce the need for labor in material handling, testing and changing setups on machines. “Given the equipment and capabilities of our shop, a certain part that has machining on all sides of it could in the past take three or four sets on a machine, whereas now we’re able to make the completed part in one go,” says Kneller, noting that the company does some lights-out manufacturing on certain parts.

Annual growth has averaged 20 percent. “We’ve continually added new machines every year, and we’re constantly looking for employees,” says Owen. “Finding the work for our shop hasn’t been a problem. That has allowed us to keep investing in equipment and meeting the need that’s here.”

Adds Kneller: “Our clients like keeping it local if they can, and we offer a competitive price relative to other shops. Anytime we can keep stuff in the community, that is a bonus.”

Challenges: “Labor’s one of them,” says Kneller. “It’s also a market where we need to be competitive with our Midwestern competitors. Maintaining pricing on materials and availability of materials can be a challenge to us.”

Adds Owen: “We’re always looking for people that would like to come and live in our beautiful Durango area that are interested in manufacturing.”

Opportunities: The DMI strategy involves maintaining a varied customer base and not relying too heavily on any one industry. “We have a diverse clientele now,” says Owen, noting that DMI has been getting jobs from all over the country and even some international work.

Production jobs are the main target. “We’re always looking for the right customers,” says Kneller, noting that he would also like to position DMI to pursue AS9100 and other certifications in order to get into aerospace. “We are prepared to get them if we need to. We essentially certify in-house and keep records of quality control throughout our components.”

Needs: Beyond recruiting experienced machinists, “We would like to acquire more equipment and more space,” says Owen. “Our 6,000 square feet right now are limiting us adding more equipment. We’ve pretty much filled up our square footage at this point.”

DMI’s capital investments are always aimed at acquiring top-of-the-line machines. “We’re not skimping on that end,” says Kneller.