By Fran Eaton -
The 41 year old president of Diagrind Inc. in Orland Park is a man of contrasts.
On one hand, he’s an energetic runner, cyclist, boater and snowboarder, and on the other hand he takes great pride working on his company’s wood-framed visual grinder that was made in the 1940s.
Now in the third generation of tool making, Mike Sommer is proudly carrying on his family’s heritage, but is focused on taking Diagrind’s brand and products into the future.
“We provide the tools that finish dies and molds that other companies make,” Sommer said.
Diagrind Inc. specializes in small tools ranging from the largest at 3 inches, down to .0015 of an inch. Because of the size and the elements they use to manufacture the tools, most of Diagrind’s work is done by hand – the same way it has been done for decades.
In the 1960s, Ideal Carbide Die Company founder Ingolf Snevu developed Diagrind’s bonding system, joining the rigidity and precision of carbide with the toughness of diamond. Sommer’s grandfather and father bought Snevu’s bonding recipe in 1975 and started Diagrind.
Diagrind does offer a stock line of tools, but they specialize in making custom tools. And although other toolmakers use computers for manufacturing, Diagrind for the most part, uses time-tested techniques.
“It’s a simple process to make our tools,” Sommer said. “Making the rough tools is rudimentary – it’s heat and pressure. But it does take talent and skills to get the job done.”
Sommer graduated from college with a marketing degree, not planning on a career at Diagrind with his father and grandfather.
“My dad left the door open either way,” Sommer said, but after he spent some time at helping out at Diagrind, he came to appreciate the people that worked there. That, and the work itself drew him in.
Sommer worked at Diagrind 16 years before his father retired in 2010. He says his father’s discipline of separating work from home made an indelible impression on him.
“My dad never brought work home,” Sommer said. “We never knew how rough things were at times for him, and he wanted it that way. And although I enjoy my work here, I compartmentalize like my dad did, and I have lots – maybe too many – hobbies,” he chuckled.
On Sommer’s office wall hangs a worn-out mountain bike frame, bike wheels and spokes and gears. On another wall hangs photos of the prize boat he enjoys on Lake Michigan as much as possible.
Sommer says one of his biggest challenges was making the transition to Diagrind’s front office after his father retired.
“It took a while to get used to being the boss around the people I worked side by side with for years,” Sommer said. “But they were great, and it’s because of them that I’m able to have hobbies like these. I’ll be gone next week, and my foreman – who’s been with us for 40 years – will keep everything moving like clockwork.”
And while he’s working to train a group of new workers, he’s also updating and expanding the company’s outreach. One part of the expansion is moving Diagrind to catalogue more of their stock tools on the company’s website.
That move was to keep their tools available to their customers, because like every other American manufacturer, not only does Diagrind face Chinese competition for their business, others are trying laser cutting and EDN grinding technologies.
“Those two have taken some of our market share, but the cost makes those methods out of price range for most companies,” Sommer said. “There will always be grinding as long as there are machine parts,” he said. That direction may be where his business can expand the soonest and easiest. “I have plans to bring a jig grinder in here next year and use our tools here as our customers do,” he said, “Then we’ll work to figure out the best way to meet their needs before they have them.”
Sommer said he’s also had the task of bringing young blood into Diagrind. He’s hired five 20 year olds to learn the skills others at Diagrind soon to retire will take with them. Altogether, the company now has 12 fulltime employees. “I consider it my job to maintain the same adherence to Diagrind quality that my predecessors had,” he said. And it’s those that have worked machines before him that Sommer respects when he’s working on Diagrind’s two visual grinders that were designed and built in the 1940s.
“I really enjoyed working on this machine more than anything when I worked in the shop,” Sommer said.
“Despite all the computerized technology for so many other aspects of toolmaking, there are some things that just can’t be improved upon,” he said. “We use a conventional 1940s abrasive wheel on a visual grinder that works something like an Etch-a-Sketch. This one can do up to a 50 power magnification.”
To work the 70 year old grinder, one needs a lot of talent and patience. It’s not possible to use a computer to duplicate tools made on those machines, he said.
“How could we mechanize this, even in an advanced technological world like the one we live in? You just can’t,” Sommer said.
The company’s catalogue of electroplated mandrels, internal bonded diamond and CBN tools are available online at www.diagrind.com.
Printed with permission of TMA