How a craft machining shop in Bloomington adapted its way to a fourth generation
You’ve heard a lot about the global supply chain over the past few years. This is a story about the Bloomington-Normal supply chain.
G3 Machining in Bloomington is a locally owned machine shop that can make just about anything. Custom bolts for the electric automaker Rivian. Brackets for wireless routers at State Farm. Tap handles for Bloomington-Normal’s craft breweries.
“You never know what we’re gonna be working on each day, which is fun,” said Brandon Kuppersmith, a fourth-generation craftsman who owns G3 with Steve Knecht.
G3’s place in the Bloomington-Normal economy is easily overlooked. You’ve probably driven by the shop on Oakland Avenue and Bunn Street countless times without even noticing it.
"Our bread and butter is, we ask for the deadline. You tell us what it is. We get it done."Brandon Kuppersmith, G3 Machining
But G3 offers a lesson in how a local economy can feed itself when it wants to.
G3 traces its roots to the former K&K Tool and Die, founded in 1945 by Kuppersmith’s great-grandfather (an engineer at Eureka in Bloomington) and grandfather. The business passed on to Kuppersmith’s father, who ran it for 35 years. Brandon and Steve run it today, with five employees.
“We’re pretty much the biggest shop here – in terms of machining – in Bloomington,” Kuppersmith said. “Us being independent too is very unique. Having the equipment that we do and not beholden to a large manufacturer really gives us the freedom to choose our customers. Being able to diversify who we do work for is something we really enjoy, so we’re not making the same widget over and over again.”
G3 is not a massive assembly-line operation. Low-volume custom jobs are welcomed.
“Quick turnarounds are mission critical these days in manufacturing, especially with the supply chain issues. Being able to turn something around quickly is very important. Our bread and butter is, we ask for the deadline. You tell us what it is. We get it done,” he said.
One reason they can do that is because they’ve invested in the right equipment at the right time.
They have two waterjets, a computer-guided tool that uses a high-pressure mix of water and sandlike garnet to precision-cut metal, plastic, glass or mirror.
“Typically, the setup is what kills you in small business,” Kuppersmith said. “That waterjet – if we go from cutting steel to plastic, it’s just a little parameter in the computer that we change. We can easily switch.”
Building the craft beer business
More recently, G3 bought a UV (ultra-violet) printer, which prints on creative designs on things like aluminum with a quick-drying UV-curable ink.
G3 put in that UV printer in part to keep up with demand from a growing part of their client list: craft breweries. It’s worked with over 20 breweries (including several in Bloomington-Normal) to make tap handles – what the bartender pulls when pouring you a draft beer – and “tin tacker” signage.
They saw an opening: A manufacturer in China that’s pushing thousands and thousands of units is not a great match for a small brewery that needs 50 tap handles.
“We saw a market there and really went after it,” Kuppersmith said.
The UV printer helps keep costs down.
“You gotta be competitive in this day and age,” Kuppersmith said. “For tap handles we’re between $20 and $25. Even on some of them coming from China in the thousands, our prices are very competitive even with that.”
G3 got its start in beer with Destihl, the first craft brewery to break through in Bloomington-Normal. Destihl has since outgrown G3, Kuppersmith said, but plenty of smaller breweries have emerged with a need to stand out in an increasingly crowded craft-beer scene. Kuppersmith works closely with Patty Young, a freelance graphic designer from Bloomington whose done a lot of eye-catching work for Lil Beaver Brewery (Bloomington) and Analytical Brewing (Lexington).
One of G3’s clients is White Oak Brewing in Normal, which opened its tap room in 2017. That includes tap handles and tin tackers, help with the canning line, plus any other concept that White Oak brings to G3 – like the bar sign with a rotating version of White Oak’s tree-and-saw blade logo.
“It’s nice that G3 can do all of that for us, and do it in town. And save on shipping,” said Bryan Ballard, a co-owner at White Oak who went to college with Kuppersmith. “And we get to work with a local community partner – someone that we know and appreciate. And that feels good too.”
Hiring for growth
Another local connection has been Rivian, which has turned to G3 for things like those custom bolts and other help as it sets up its new production lines at its Normal plant.
“They’ve given us quite a bit of work,” Kuppersmith said. “We could probably hire twice as many people as we have right now, if we could find them.”
The tight labor market has impacted many employers. Bloomington-Normal’s jobless rate is now just 3.4%, the lowest for any metro area in the state.
Kuppersmith says it’s been “almost impossible” for G3 to find the right employees.
“Back in 1945 when this business started, almost every boy knew how to use a wrench or at least knew what a wrench was. Half the time, now they don’t even know what that tool is,” he said.
It’s an industrywide problem for manufacturers.
“One of the problems we have in manufacturing is perception,” said Mark Denzler, president of the Illinois Manufacturers’ Association, during a recent bus tour stop in Bloomington. “Too many people think of manufacturing as dark, dirty and dangerous. When in effect, it’s actually sustainable and high-tech and diverse and automated. Too many people have that antiquated view of what manufacturing is, and we’re trying to do our best to showcase what modern manufacturing looks like.”
G3 has worked with local schools like Heartland Community College and the Bloomington Area Career Center, in hopes of expanding the worker pipeline, said Kuppersmith. G3’s needs are unique, he said, since high-volume repetition is not its bread and butter. It needs more creative thinkers and craftsmen.
Until recently, manufacturing felt like it was in freefall in Illinois, Kuppersmith said. Companies like Rivian and Brandt have changed that narrative in McLean County.
“It’s wonderful to have someone like Rivian come into town, and really get people looking at manufacturing again. It’s a slow process. But I do think the education is starting to get on board and hopefully in the years to come we’ll have a little bit better candidates to look at,” he said.