When South Dakota School of Mines & Technology graduates James Tomich, Brett Trotter, and Josh Hammell decided to start a business, they didn't want to lay down roots elsewhere. As research scientists at the school, they helped set up manufacturing facilities in Virginia, Ohio, and Wisconsin, but quickly realized they were hemorrhaging their technology outside the state. Committed to bringing their technology in-house and helping boost the South Dakota economy, they entered the South Dakota Governor's Office's Giant Vision Business Plan Competition and took second place. That helped lay the groundwork for Endlas LC, the laser cladding company they formed in 2016.
Laser cladding is added to the surface of high-performance tools used to manufacture parts in order to improve their performance and increase longevity. Tools constantly break down and degrade as a result of corrosion, friction, thermal fatigue, and everyday wear and tear. "At Endlas, we strive to put the right material only where it needs to be. By doing this, we can significantly improve performance while balancing cost," says Tomich, Chief Operations Officer.
Endlas made the decision to target tools involved in extreme applications such as hot metal forming and casting applications—those that wear out in a matter of hours versus months. "Hot metal interaction is aggressive and can destroy tools in hours," Tomich explains. This is especially problematic in the automotive manufacturing industry, their primary market segment. "Our goal for auto customers is to get them tools that make it through more than one shift. If they don't have to stop the production line to exchange parts, they are able to make a lot more product, eliminating downtime. We are generating technology that keeps their machines running and trying to do it with the right value proposition."
There is no one-size-fits-all solution for their customers, so Endlas focuses on finding the right blend of material properties for each particular application. The money they earned from the Giant Vision competition, along with capital investments from Tomich's and Trotter's fathers, enabled them to purchase a laser and bring in a massive CNC (computer numerical control) machine that provides the capability to convert raw materials into delivered products, investments that allowed them to evolve from a midstream service provider into a complete one-stop shop. They still work with outside suppliers in some cases; other times, they machine the entire product themselves. It all depends on which method will get the finished product to the customer the quickest.
"Doing it all in-house is typically fastest," Tomich says. "It went from taking six to eight weeks with machine shops to three to four days in-house and allowed us to expand what we're doing."
Lasers and automation can get expensive and because the manufacturing world is so focused on the bottom line, Endlas can't pursue every possible opportunity. Instead, they have been strategic in deciding which companies to work with. Recently, they partnered with a senior metallurgist/tooling specialist with 30 years of experience working in Detroit. Business decisions like that will allow them to bring in a broader array of companies and products in need of servicing.
Another business decision they made early on was securing space in the Ascent Innovation incubator. Tomich was so passionate about opening an office there, he solicited the Rapid City Council personally, writing to each member individually and speaking to them on the day they were voting to relinquish their property. He cites the business advice and networking opportunities as key benefits. Endlas was originally called AME, but they were often confused with another business. "During an entrepreneur bootcamp hosted by SDSM&T and Elevate Rapid City [BHBDC at the time], we were taught that a company name should be whimsical and fanciful," he recalls. "As engineers, we don't talk in absolutes much. When you say something is 'endless,' that's an absolute. We could never make parts that are truly endless, but it's the whole concept of what we're doing. And 'las' is for 'laser,' so we came up with the name Endlas. We received great marketing advice on that."
Endlas was also able to tap into the on-campus talent pool at the SD Mines. Three of their employees started out as interns; two work part-time and the third will become a full-time employee. They were able to take advantage of the Dakota Seeds funding program to facilitate those hires.
In the future, Tomich hopes to work in the new Ascent Innovation campus in some capacity as the company continues to expand. It will be great for the engineering and software sides of Endlas; Tomich is particularly excited that the new building will have three-phase power available, something that local manufacturing companies often have challenges finding.
"The whole culture at Ascent is phenomenal," he says. "There's always good things going on!"
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