Failure, Then Start-Up, Now Success

Nov. 19, 2020
An entrepreneurial machinist credits his own setbacks and his mentors’ encouragement for developing the passion he brings to his business, his work, and the new opportunities he’s fostering.

Successful machining careers don’t usually start with 77 scrapped aerospace components in the first week on the job. Most machinists like that usually don’t get a second week. Alex Loper was not any young machinist however, and eventually a combination of his passion and others’ forgiveness were a springboard to opening a shop of his own. Blessed in his career with supportive mentors, he pays it forward now at Loper Machine LLC, teaching young machinists and guided by a personal code to carry “a little bit of perfection” wherever he goes. In a profession where tolerances are measured to the thousandths of an inch, they sometimes have to extend to a mile. Recognizing and encouraging passion for the trade are the perfect toolpaths for this shop’s success. 

“Embrace your employees and listen to them,” Loper said. “Remember back to when you were super passionate about it and try to embrace their passion. It keeps them super pumped up. It pumps me up. … [I tell them] if you’ve got another idea let me know, because it might be a better idea than mine.”

Alex Loper established Loper Machine LLC in Edgewood, Maryland, in 2017 with his brother-in-law, Kevin Smolenski. Their operation runs on Mastercam® CAD/CAM from CNC Software Inc., powering an array of machines that two Haas VF-0Es, a Haas VF-4B; a Matsuura RA-3GII PC2 and a Matsuura MC-500VS; and a FANUC RoboDrill in its Vertical Machining Center. Loper’s Horizontal Machining Center features two Matsuura CNCs: the ES-450HII-PC5 pallet mill and the H. Plus-300 PC11. Loper uses the Hexagon Tigo 565 CMM (coordinate measuring machine) in its Inspection Center. 

Loper’s partnership with Mastercam began when he was 19, following in his brother’s footsteps at a local tool and die shop their father managed, A&A Global Industries, Cockeysville, Maryland. For Loper, it wasn’t as direct a route into machining, but more of a door closing and a window opening. 

“I have dyslexia and a couple of other learning disabilities, and I struggled through school. I actually failed the written exam to get into (a machining program at a local) college,” he recalled. “I got a job lifeguarding for about a year until my mom called my dad saying, ‘We have to figure out something to do with Alex; he’s not doing anything with his life. So, I took a job working for him.”

Learning a trade -- Young Loper had two senior machinists as mentors, and they helped him become skilled in the manual tool and die equipment. A complicated and unused machine stood in the corner, and Loper’s natural curiosity and a desire to honor his brother’s athletic accomplishment compelled him to become its master. 

“We had a CNC machine in the shop that nobody knew how to use, and my brother finished an Ironman Triathlon,” Loper explained. “I wanted to make him an award and I needed to use the CNC machine to do the engraving on it. I knew I needed to use the software to do the engraving and I needed to figure out the machine. I got the machine manual out, and I figured out how to set work coordinates. We had a tutorial book for Mastercam, and I learned enough to run a contour with cutter compensation turned off and run a two-dimensional toolpath.

“It started off doing something for my brother, who I love, and during that project I really found my passion for machining. I was just so mesmerized by the programming, the CNC machining set-up — everything about it. That was when I got hooked on the machine shop.”

With the Ironman medal completed, Loper didn’t want to do anything else but drive a CNC machine. He viewed videos on YouTube and machine developers’ sites, and tutorials on the Mastercam site. A new, wider world had opened to him, much wider than tool and die. After applying to several companies, he landed at Sumatec Inc., an aerospace machine shop in White Marsh, Md.

“I got the job and after working there in my first week, I scrapped 77 parts,” he recalled with a chuckle. “Somewhere along the line I put the wrong sized drill in the machine, and I ended up making 77 parts that had a hole in it that was like 3/1000ths of an inch too big. And nobody caught it. Not even QC. I didn’t find out about it until my second week and I was certain I would get fired.”

Loper worked over a weekend to try to correct the parts. He was dreading Monday’s inevitable call into the supervisor’s office. What ensued was not a career-ending conversation. Rather, it ramped up his career track. 

Loper was partnered with the company’s lead machinist and CNC programmer who served as his personal professor for six months. Loper’s knowledge and skill rose to meet his passion for the trade, and an opportunity opened at Stanley Black & Decker, where he worked as a CNC machinist and programmer making parts for its DeWalt line of power tools. The company’s aspirations to ramp up parts production was held back by the CNC software program it used. Loper had the solution. 

“So, I said to the boss, ‘If you want to get this thing up as fast as you can, get Mastercam.’ We got a trial version and a pretty cool little part,” Loper said. “I made one extra and engraved ‘Mastercam’ on it, stuck it on his desk and he said ‘Wow! This is incredible!’ We ended up purchasing our first seat of Mastercam at Black & Decker.”

Growth begins -- About a year later, Black & Decker purchased an Okuma Multus 5-axis mill/turn machine and Loper was assigned to program and operate it. One machine grew to two, and driven by Loper’s suggestions the seats of Mastercam grew to 10. He was making an impact and the company’s productivity was rising.

But when he was passed over for a promotion to a lead position, Loper became disheartened. A heart-to-heart talk with his brother-in-law helped him overcome yet another career obstacle. This time, he’d be his own boss.

“My brother-in-law said, ‘You know, I think you can make a go of this stuff yourself. You’re a pretty incredible machinist.’ We took all of our savings and we bought a seat of Mastercam, our first CNC machine, and we just started going.”

Loper Machine’s first client was Gaithersburg, Md.-based Xometry Custom Manufacturing, whose client list includes automaker BMW and General Electric. In that first year, Xometry gave Loper all the work they could handle. One of the first job specifications stated “five-axis required” -- but they took the job anyway.

The unnamed part was machined on a four-axis Haas VF4 trunnion. “We used OptiRough toolpaths, resting all the way down to where there’s not much left of the part, and finished with scallops and flow lines.” OptiRough toolpaths use the entire flute length of the tool, but a small percentage of the tool’s diameter on the first cut, followed by several successive shorter cuts that bring the part into the net shape desired. The approach “yielded maximum efficiency,” Loper recalled.

Working with titanium was a new challenge too. “Working within Mastercam, you can just plug-in your feed-per-tooth and it will calculate your spindle speed or feed rate for you. I was able to pull up the tool I needed in the Tool Library and run according to its specifications. It was easy. As somebody who’d never worked with a certain material before, it helped me figure things out.”

Going beyond space -- Aerospace parts have been Loper Machine’s bread and butter, but the guys wanted to have a little fun, too. Smolenski suggested they machine an aerospace-grade wallet. “We were doing all this aerospace work and thought ‘how cool would it be to just have a little bit of that perfection everywhere we go?’,” Loper elaborated. They designed and programmed the job using high-speed, OptiRough toolpaths, using smaller tools to get down into the small fillets. 

“We machined it using a Pierson Workholding RotoVise, which allowed us to hit three sides of the part at one time,” recalled Loper. The two-step operation involved switching to a dovetail tool to machine the sides and face of the wallet. A lollipop tool was used to perform an undercut where a Fisher Space pen fits inside. The whole operation takes about 30 minutes.

Called the Non-Mag Wallet, the standard-size bi-fold edition is machined of 6061-T6 aluminum and 316, 301.5 stainless, and is hard-coat anodized. Sticking to their aerospace roots, the RFID-blocking wallet is machined to MIL-A-8624 Type III, Class 2 specifications. 

The quality and quantity of work attracted attention and soon a call came from an old advocate, and with that an opportunity to change Alex Loper’s professional life a second time. He didn’t even mention the 77 scrapped aerospace parts. 

“My old supervisor from Sumatec called and said he’d moved on to another company,” Loper said. “He told me he saw I started my own machine shop and said he had a lot of work to send our way if we wanted to take a look at it. That business helped build our infrastructure. Now we’ve got eight machines and in a matter of a year we went from 1,500 square feet to 6,000 square feet; from three machines to 10 machines.” 

Loper has faced and overcome several personal and professional challenges while building his own company. It’s not lost on him that the direct involvement of mentors and advocates helped him get to this point. He’s had a hand up many times and that’s why he created the MOE Jr. Internship, in memory of stepbrother Michael Otto Essig, Jr., who passed away suddenly at 26, in 2016.

“I knew that I wanted to create something to help other kids, other people that have kind of lost their way, that’s really the kind of people we’re looking for,” Loper explained. “I thought if I would’ve gotten him in a machine shop, maybe he would’ve been okay. It’s not just for young guys, it’s for people that want to turn their life around, too.” 

A mentor and a benefactor -- Loper found who shared his outlook and passion in Titan Gilroy, CEO of Mastercam Education Partner TITANS of CNC Inc., Rocklin, Calif., whose own journey to CNC success is something of a legend. Asked to complete a job requiring a tool he couldn’t afford, Loper entered TITAN’s Christmas ornament contest. His creation -- a ball in a box machined on a 4-axis machine – won him a $1000 prize, which he used to purchase the tool he needed.

Loper sent a Non-Mag wallet to Gilroy, in appreciation, and the TITANs of CNC’s Academy Building Blocks course is used by Loper interns to learn the basics of CNC.

In a lot of ways, Loper said, machining saved his life. It fueled his passion and gave him purpose. “It’s about extending tolerances. It’s about giving a mile when only a thousandth of an inch is expected. Like transforming a raw block of metal into an intricate, precisely machined part. It’s a milling process for machines and men.”