Texas is a hotbed for high tech manufacturing companies, especially machine shops. Colter Crossley, who owns and operates Blackstone Solutions and Technologies, prides himself on being a successful small business in the heart of a highly competitive market.
“Tormachs are great machines, but I live in Houston Texas,” he explains, “And the oil crash has not helped machine shops, so in this particular local market there are there are countless machine shops starving for work.”
Instead of just trying to compete in the market, Crossley looked to another interest of his to steer the business; controls. “This company was very largely machine-oriented, mechanical engineering type stuff, but I always loved electronics. I was very interested in firmware and software, and over the years I decided to start trying to self-educate myself in that area. What that has led to is Blackstone Solutions and Technologies, which has kind of become a control company, and a lot of industrial automation type controls.”
“I tried a lot of different things, and controls just seems to be where it keeps coming back to.” Crossley has done all sorts of interesting work in the world of controls, like a sand coloring company. It might surprise some, but there is an industry for coloring sand for various applications. Coloring sand requires the movement of the product between various hoppers, timed cycles of dying and agitating, and eventual packaging. Crossley developed a system to help a company automate the process.
Most of the companies that he might consider competitors in the realm of controls have to outsource a lot of their machining work. “That means much longer lead times,” Crossley explains. “A lot of machine shops want a minimum quantity order, or they’re going to charge you through the roof to run their machines.”
Crossley is able to stay agile and deliver customized, sometimes turnkey, products with less lead time. “When you talk to a customer and you say I don’t just do controls; if you’re having a problem interfacing this motor to your shaft and you don’t have any machine shops lined up, give me the dimensions I’ll make that happen,” he says. “If you want more of a turnkey application just shoot me your whole panel, I’ll cut it out, I’ll machine any brackets that need to be done, I’ll do it all so it’s just a turnkey package. My PCNC 1100 and 15L Slant-PRO lathe give me that opportunity.”
Crossley has also done a lot of work in the subsea industry. “Subsea work complicates everything,” he says. “You’re dealing with pressure. You’re dealing with more liability. If a factory goes down on land, you’ll be losing money every hour, but if something goes down subsea, you’re losing $50,000 an hour, $100,000 an hour, or more! So you really have to make sure that you’ve been diligent with testing and prototyping.”
Even as his business grows and may require some larger or faster machine tools, Crossley says that the Tormach machines will still be a part of his shop.
“The conversational stuff on PathPilot is fantastic, like the new update where you can rework all the conversational stuff and edit stuff – that’s a huge deal and it’s saved me a lot of time. The fact that you can drop CAM code into conversational … I find myself a lot less in CAD and CAM for quick brackets and things, and that’s a huge timesaver.”
When he started, Crossley was worried that because his business is based in a garage, it would be a turnoff to some of the companies looking for his expertise. “Some of the companies I work for are massive companies, and when they send me that book of terms and conditions they want me to sign I go through it and think there’s no way they’re going to use me, I’m a small-time operator,” he explains.
“I’d like to tell all the makers out there, if you have the skills to do what they need and nobody else does, they don’t care – they’ll still hire you. If you’re good at what you do, don’t be scared to be the small guy. Even the big guys started somewhere. People should be less afraid of trying, and just do.”