Old school tool shop grinds on in Lake Oswego
Tucked away in Lake Oswego's blue-collar, B&R Machine is a thoroughly analog company that manages to thrive in the age of cloud computing and remote work.
The space smells of oil and dust, and is filled with the screech of metal being milled.
And they still use floppy disks.
This machine shop is at the back of the small business park Pilkington and Lower Boone's Ferry. You follow the wall past the old camper and a boat rack to a plain door. Inside the windowless shop, green and grey machines are crowded together with barely enough space for an operator to stand between them.
The technology might be old, but the four staff are young.
Dylan Teichroeb (pronounced Tike-robe) has run the shop floor for five years but last year things intensified. The founder, Terry Betts, died on April 4, 2020. Betts' daughter Alexis runs the business's financial side from the cleaner, slightly whiter collar office upstairs. Terry Betts had worked in more than 30 different tool shops in Los Angeles before moving to Oregon and joining B&R, a firm named after its founders, Bob and Russ.
Teichroeb, 27, got his start almost by accident. He went to Tigard High School, where they had no machine shop class, but when he was 17, he built a fence gate for his neighbor, Alexis. Her father, Terry, was so impressed he asked him to come to B&R and wash his truck. When Teichroeb arrived, it was raining, so instead, he swept the floor. "Then Terry asked me if I wanted to drive the forklift. Then he asked me if I wanted to weld…." Before long, he was a rubber mold apprentice, learning by doing from the boss.
He reorganized his 12th grade to take one class a day, then working at B&R.
"As a tool and die maker, you have to be able to run all the machines," Teichroeb told the Business Tribune on a recent tour of the shop. "You've got to be able to design in CAD (Computer Aided Design) and make a part from start to finish, all the grinding, the welding and machining. And that's what makes it more fun."
Old tech, new blood
Their biggest lathe, a green monster the size of a minivan, is from a U.S. Navy ship from 1944. "They had a machine shop on board. They weren't flying in parts." Almost more of a dinosaur is the 486 Pentium computer, with Windows 98, for running the CAD (drawing) program, BobCAD. It runs on DOS, and the file names have eight characters. The staff like it because it's simple drawing — almost like on paper — but with the measurements built-in. They can step back from a machine and refer to it at any moment when they need a measurement.
"We do have AutoDesk Fusion360 for sophisticated CAD/CAM work, but for small projects, we do like our BobCAD," he says.
And when the dust damages it, they go to Goodwill and Craigslist for parts.
The ethos at B&R is they can make anything out of metal, including machine parts and tools. One steady stream of work is from the aerospace industry, make metal molds for rubber parts. Since planes are pressurized, almost any cavity, even down to wiring housing, has a tight rubber seal. The hot rubber is squirted into steel molds and then squeezed in 100-ton presses.
Teichroeb says many of these molds are made in China and arrive at the destination already damaged or sub-par. They can be fixed, but it's quicker to fix them here than to wait for the Chinese factory to do it. Also, as the parts show wear, it's cheaper to have a small shop such as B&R fix them in small batches on an overnight turnaround. They also make metal jigs and fixtures so that companies can finish the molds, such as precisely drilling holes in them.
"They basically they buy the mold and then they pay us a pretty substantial amount to repair them," he explains. "And they're still under the cost of having been made here."
Dylan Teichroeb fell in love with this work. As he rose to the top spot last year after Terry Letts's death, he needed to deal with the pandemic slowdown while at the same time finding new blood for the workforce.
Supply chain shutdowns led to some quiet times, during which they just cleaned and maintained machines. Then along came Logan Richter, 23, who became Teichroeb's apprentice. Having earned his associate's degree in machine manufacturing technology from Portland Community College, he got a full-time job as a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) setup machinist. After two months, Richter realized he was bored just pressing buttons.
B&R was looking, and PCC sent their ad to the graduates. Richter came to B&R in the summer of 2020 and thrived, bringing computer savvy with an old-school willingness to get his hands dirty.
He stripped the EDM (Electrical Discharge Machining) machine and got it working again, geeking out on the ring binder full of circuit diagrams.
It's the sort of place where someone will walk in off the street asking for a part for their car, bike, or boat. One guy broke the wooden handrail from his boat and asked B&R to fix it. Richter used the EDM and took a block of stainless steel, submerged it in kerosene, and hooked it up to a graphite electrode. The machine carved out a hole in it by arcing or burning. The result was a loop of steel that perfectly fits the two broken ends of the wooden rail.
"I came here because I wanted to, like, be doing new stuff every day and use my brain a lot more. I actually like thinking and working with people."
The people at B&R see themselves as creative problem solvers — hacking, designing and fixing — more than cranking out widgets.
Teichroeb is an accomplished rock climber and mountaineer. His idea of fun is hiking up Mount St. Helens in February and skiing back down. He jokes that when he takes a vacation, he spends the first week removing metal splinters from his hands.
Although machines do the work, he and Richter draw a distinction between running a CAD and a manual mill or drill press.
"When I first started showing Logan the mill, he would ask me like, 'What speed are we running?' And I'm like, 'I don't know, we're two steps down on the belt, and I can hear it's running pretty fast.' So as a manual machinist, you learn based on the cutter you're using, how much material you're taking. You feel each tooth cutting, even if it's running at 2,000 RPM, that all runs through your hand."
He says he could close his eyes and feel if the cut is bad. That makes a worker more valuable when they move from a manual mill to a CNC machine.
"If you learn everything based on calculators and on the computer, you don't get the intuition unless you memorize it, and that's just different."
Lake Oswego has no shortage of people wanting custom parts. One job is from a company that sells strips of LED lights. They needed a die punch jig for making holes in the strips of lights. Another is a Lake Oswego client with a glass-fronted aluminum rail around the desk of his lakeside home.
Another staffer, Nathaniel Jeffries, works from architect drawings to construct the unique frames that hold the rails.
Now B&R's goal is to put one foot in the 21st Century and get their story out on social media. They are having their website redesigned and making videos for YouTube,Facebook, Pinterest, and TikTok.
It's an odd business where outside of contracts from aerospace and food processing clients, they often have to wait until someone comes to them wanting something specific made out of metal.
"We're trying," says Teichroeb. "We're getting our cameras on our machines and coming up with good stuff to see if we can get people flowing in. Or just to take an interest. And maybe one out of a thousand might call us."
B&R Machine Inc.
Privately owned tool and die shop running manual and computer numerical controlled machines.
Where: 17252 Pilkington Rd, Ste. B, Lake Oswego
Online: B&R Machine https://brmachinepdx.com
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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