Frederick / Mead, Colorado

Owners D’Wayne and Stacee Cook have spurred dynamic growth at their machine shop with investments in cutting-edge equipment and a strategic pivot to aerospace work.

Photos Jonathan Castner

About three decades into a career in graphite manufacturing, D’Wayne oversaw his former employer’s buildout of a $300 million plant in Malaysia from 2007 to 2012. Instead of taking a follow-up assignment in China, the Cooks decided to buy a machine shop in Colorado, MBK Machine.

D’Wayne’s experience as a customer of machine shops gave him a good understanding of what he wanted to do with the company. “I had been on the other side, where I needed machine shops to make parts for me,” he says. “Sometimes, it was rather frustrating when the quality wasn’t at the level I wanted, the timing of delivery wasn’t what it should have been, and things like that.”

When the Cooks bought MBK Machine in 2014, the business was weighted heavily towards one customer — GE Water & Process Technologies, now owned by Suez Analytical Instruments — that accounted for about 90 percent of sales.

“One of the first things we tried to do was move away from that,” says D’Wayne. “We have grown with that customer as well, but they’re only 25 percent of our volume now.”

The Cooks diversified the company by moving into aerospace in a big way, earning ISO 9001 certification in 2015 and AS9100 certification in 2017. “Basically, we were acquiring aerospace customers and modernizing the shop,” says D’Wayne. “Every year, we purchase one to two pieces of equipment.”

That strategy has remained steady during the COVID-19 pandemic. New in 2020, MBK Machine’s 5-axis Mikron P 500 U is “the only piece of equipment like that in Colorado,” says D’Wayne. “It’s been a nice asset we’ve added to the business.”

The plan has paid off. Revenue was roughly $500,000 when the Cooks bought MBK in 2014. After six years of solid growth, D’Wayne forecasts $4 million for 2021, two-thirds of the total stemming from aerospace work. “We are making parts for NASA facilities,” says Stacee. “We’ve ended up on some Artemis missions.”

Capabilities with alloys like Invar and Kovar as well as plastics and ceramics is one calling card; the ability to hit tight tolerances is another. “Other machine shops will refer customers to us when it comes to exotic metals,” says D’Wayne.

Beyond contract manufacturing, MBK Machine also offers third-party inspection services to other manufacturers with the aid of “a very large CMM” and temperature-controlled QA room, says Stacee. “We have other machine shops that can’t quite measure their part, and they come to us and we will measure the part for them,” she explains.

MBK is also able to provide consulting services for design for manufacturability. “We have five degreed engineers,” adds D’Wayne, who is one of them himself. “Out of a staff of about 20, that’s a pretty high percentage.”

Adds Stacee: “That sets us apart, because they have the knowledge from both sides: They have the knowledge from machining and from the engineering perspective.”

D’Wayne’s background in graphite has dovetailed into a sister business, Innograf. “I had to sit out [of the graphite industry] for three years, so rather than twiddling my thumbs, I learned more about machining.”

In 2018, he started consulting for a company making graphite electrodes in China. “In the middle of 2019, the quality was good enough that I’d put my name on it, so then we took a lease on a second building and got two big pieces of equipment so we could do the machining, and I’ve been bringing product in from this company ever since then. We have exclusivity for North and South America.”

The steel industry uses graphite electrodes in the recycling process. “It’s a consumable,” says D’Wayne. “A typical furnace will use one stick every eight hours on each phase, and they usually run around the clock.”

Sales were initially strong, says D’Wayne. “January, February, March [2020], we shipped out eight truckloads,” he notes. “After that, COVID hit, so it’s much slower since then. We retooled the equipment, so we could do more aerospace work.”

The Cooks already have a succession plan in place, with their daughter and son-in-law, Haleigh and Joep Van Tilborg, now working for MBK Machine with tentative plans to take over day-to-day operations when D’Wayne and Stacee retire.

D’Wayne credits the entire MBK Machine team for the company’s success. “We’re fortunate that in the beginning we had one very talented machinist, and we’ve hired three others since then that lead the rest of them,” he says.

Challenges: In 2020, the big challenge was “uncertainty,” says D’Wayne. A year later, it’s finding skilled machinists and CNC programmers. “There is a gap there,” says D’Wayne. “There’s those who are starting to retire, then there’s a big gap between those young machinists coming out. They don’t have the machining skills, even though they can program well.”

QC professionals with aerospace experience are also hard to find, says Stacee. “We’re always hiring.”

Opportunities: More work on projects from NASA and aerospace companies. “I actually talked with NASA recently, and they provided more aerospace companies to work with, but we’re out of capacity and we’re out of talent,” says Stacee, noting that MBK also delivered suspension-related parts for Ed Carpenter Racing’s IndyCar team.

D’Wayne also identifies metal additive manufacturing for aerospace customers as a future sales driver. “Currently we do machine parts that are being 3D-printed by other companies, but most of our customers would like to see us take that from cradle to grave,” he says. “The fixturing can get very complex if they don’t know how we’re going to machine it.”

Needs: The company needs more space, more equipment, and more employees, says D’Wayne. “To secure the opportunities we have for growth, it really comes down to personnel,” he notes. “At some point, we will bottleneck on people more than equipment.”

By late 2021, MBK Machine will consolidate operations with Innograf in a 20,000-square-foot building in Mead; operations currently straddle that facility and a 10,000-square-foot building in Frederick.