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December 27, 2016

Profiles
Factories

Meet the Maker: MDI Manufacturing Inc.

The MDI Manufacturing Inc. production floor in Lakewood, NJ.
Profiles
Factories

December 27, 2016

Mark Daugherty has always been good with his hands. He built a wildly innovative company by learning to manipulate sophisticated machinery, but his most precious tools are still the two he started out with.

“I didn’t come from money,” Mark said. “When I was a kid, I sold newspapers until I had enough cash to buy a dirt bike. Since I didn’t have the money to fix it when it broke, I had to learn how to fix it myself,” he said. “At 10 years old, I’d spend my time in the garage learning how to work with my hands, solve problems and improvise. It gave me a solid foundation for understanding mechanical stuff, which is very important to the machinist trade because you work with your hands and your head.”

Mark Daugherty (pictured above) can make anything. Whether he’s fashioning a simple shaft or satellite parts, he approaches each project with the same amount of wonder, enthusiasm and care.

Machinists are fundamental to manufacturing high-quality products. They take raw materials—usually metals, such as steel and aluminum—and produce the very parts and components that bring ideas to life.

“I’d always had a desire to make things, but it wasn’t until my dad shook me out of bed one day and had me go meet his friend at an engineering firm, that I realized there was a path for someone like me,” Mark said. “My dad’s friend was a brilliant inventor and an extremely talented designer. The firm specialized in building machinery for industrial use, and they gave me an opportunity to work there. They called me ‘The Kid.’”

After a year, The Kid was offered an apprenticeship and was taught the basics of machining metals and the mathematics relevant to producing components. Soon he began to learn his way around the machines and equipment.

“I had to be there for a year before they’d teach me anything, though. For a whole year I just swept the floors and did everyone’s dirty work. I had to prove myself and prove that I wanted to be there,” Mark said.

When assembling the tone arm, as pictured above, precision is everything.

The trade came naturally to Mark. He was a quick learner and showed competency each step of the way. With a little encouragement, he enrolled in a formal program, and the training further broadened his scope and mastery.

After the program, he started to bid on jobs and take on his own clients. Once again, Mark was back at the bottom.

“I bought a couple machines from my old firm and moved into a chicken coop. We had no heat, so I’d run the machines while wearing my goose down coat. I did that for a year before I got the opportunity to lease a building,” Mark said.

While he found much success and developed a diverse portfolio of clients quickly, Mark knew that to stay competitive, he needed to get his hands on a CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machine, which allows for automation.

“As soon as the bank approved my loan for a machine, I started my own business, officially,” Mark said. “It was 1985, and I’ve never looked back.”

Art and science and the machining of the platter (pictured above). 

Mark Daugherty Industries (MDI) is home to 33 thoughtful, precision-obsessed employees. The 25,000-square-foot factory, filled with state-of-the-art equipment, is a far stretch from the cold chicken coop where Mark first set out on his own, but at the heart of it all is still just a guy who gets a kick out of making cool things.

“We do it all here. From soup to nuts, from design to finishing,” Mark said. “We take on commercial projects, military projects and even artistic projects.”

Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s director of engineering went to Mark when they began their ambitious masterpiece, The Gates, in New York City. Mark built the machines and fixtures that made all the holes in their flamboyant saffron-colored structures. When Harry and Mat Weisfeld, of VPI, and Shinola decided to collaborate on The Runwell Turntable, they too went to Mark.

“VPI and I have had a very collaborative relationship for over 20 years.” Mark said. “Harry is not just an audiophile, he’s incredibly artistic. And, I’m pretty innovative. When he saw we had the machining capacity to make beautiful, high-end components, it inspired his creativity,” he said. “We’ve made a lot of things over the years that have required very intricate precision machining.”

The milling of the top plate (pictured above).

There have been times when Harry will draw something on a napkin over lunch, and Mark will head straight back to the factory, show it to his team and get to work making it.

“Before, I’d just run back and make it myself. Now we generate 3D CAD drawings and send them to Harry and Mat. If they like it, we make it. Sometimes we have to go back to the drawing board. It’s a process,” Mark said.

For The Runwell Turntable, MDI fabricated the top, the platter and the tone arm. “The platter is one of the most essential aspects of the turntable running correctly. It has to be perfectly round, flat and parallel. Its bearing component is machined within tenths of a thousandth of an inch. That’s a super-tight tolerance to the point where you have to take into account the temperature when it is being machined, or it may affect how it runs,” Mark said.

“For clarity of this super-tight tolerance, look at a hair from your head. This measures two thousandths of an inch. Divide your hair in half to get one thousandth of an inch. Now take that half and divide that by 10. These 10 pieces would be tenths of a thousandth of an inch, specified as .0001. Two or three of these tenths are what determine if the platter will run correctly,” he said.

“For great sound, according to VPI, the stylus should to do all the work and reflect what’s been imprinted on the vinyl. You don’t want the mechanical aspects of the turntable to give off any kind of sound,” Mark said. “The platter achieves that goal through its mass and substance not influencing what has been put on the vinyl.”

The tone arm, with its rigidity, tight tolerance and integrity does the same. All of this is mounted to a ¾-inch-thick aluminum plate, so there’s no vibration coming from the floor or resonance coming through the speakers.

The top plate (pictured above) inspected for quality.

“Engineering and prototyping is about developing a really high-quality product so that the customer gets a lot of value,” Mark said. “I grew up watching US manufacturing get sent overseas. I remember how my mom would buy a vacuum cleaner that would last 20 years, and now when you buy one, it’s designed to last a year so you’ll have to buy a new one,” he said. “So we like the idea of building things that last, right here in America. We buy innovative machines and operate with a high level of productivity so we can compete with the world market.”

Tools of the machinist trade.

“Believe it or not, the biggest industry problem for machine shops or fabricators is lack of talented people who want to get into the trades. There are gaping holes. Traditionally it was looked down upon as dirty work,” Mark said. “The way Shinola is promoting the industry and manufacturing, to me, is essential—and awesome! It’s what our country needs.”

Top plates (pictured above) being prepped for shipping.

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