Mound House machine shop bores into specialty manufacturing niche

Vineburg Machining Inc. has fingers in a lot of products. The Mound House shop turns out parts for everything from race cars, surgical units, military medical units, locks and pet products to Humvee repair kit parts.


"We go through a million pounds of metal a year," says company owner Gerd G. Poppinga. His son, Gerd E. Poppinga, director of operations, tells how the company needed 12 flatbed trailers to move Vineburg's massive milling machines from Sonoma five years back.


For decades, the company turned out parts with those 15 Acme multi-spindle machines that dated from the World War II era.


And while those workhorses still pull their weight, since moving to Mound House the shop floor has seen dramatic change with the addition of eight CNC - Computerized Numeric Control - machines, costing about $250,000 each.


For Vineburg, the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 provided the impetus for change. The resulting economic seizure combined with the trend toward outsourcing work to China to deliver a devastating double punch.


"With the general economy not going so well, we needed to cut costs and look at a different business model," says the elder Poppinga. "I looked at where manufacturing would be in five to 10 years. We thought of specialty markets within the greater machine industry."


He was proved right. However, the move from mass milling to specialty provider meant shrinking the company, which employed 100 at its peak, to just 25.


The move to Mound House was a further cost-cutting move. But it delivered a pleasant plus in the form of a reliable power grid, says the younger Poppinga.


Of Vineburg's 25 employees in Sonoma, 18 chose to move their families to Nevada. "I never readjusted their pay," says Poppinga, which sweetened the deal.


But those longtime machinists were familiar with the manual Acme machines, used for high-volume runs. The company's move to the more precise runs required for specialty medical and automotive parts required more workers on the computerized machines.


For the most part, the younger Poppinga, who has a degree in strategic business, trained that manpower in-house. Training remains an ongoing issue, as each new job comes into the shop.


The best way to confront the shortage of skilled workers in Northern Nevada, says the company's founder, is to keep existing employees on board.


"Treat them like a family member," he says. "We provide everything: Above-average income and training and pension. We pay bonuses when we're doing well. And we hold company lunches, picnics and outings." Finally, he adds, "I trust them, I don't look over their shoulders."


The old guard machinists, those able to set up a job by hand, are retiring - and the dearth of young people entering the trades has left a void. But new grads holding computer degrees also need mechanical aptitude, says the younger Poppinga, as well as the ability to visualize in three dimensions.


Competition from China remains tough, but the Mound House company contends that turnaround time for a job at Vineburg is four weeks compared to six months for work sent overseas.


An overseas order must be big enough to fill a shipping container, and an independent inspector often is needed on-site to oversee offshore manufacturing. However, the elder Poppinga points to a neighboring company that had to junk 60 percent of an order, incorrectly made. "Yet it's still cheaper for them to outsource to China," he says.


While the company has kept some former customers whose jobs run on the old Acme machines, it still needs to find new customers. The company's owner makes cold calls from manufacturing guides. Of his firm's success, the founder, who as a young man immigrated from Germany, says, "Only in America."

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