Laser Technology

Improvise, adapt, overcome

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Ultra light and credit card thin, WildCard is a bladed multitool designed to be the ultimate carryable.

Entrepreneur ignites production throughput for stainless steel, razor-thin, wallet-friendly utility tools

November 2017 - Television action hero MacGyver traveled light, armed with little more than a keen knowledge of science and the quintessential Swiss Army knife to get him out of a jam. Zootility Co. is equipping people to “MacGyver” their way out of life’s everyday problems with stainless steel multitools that are thin enough to fit in a wallet or a pocket. For shop owner Nate Barr, the epiphany came one night when he decided to “grab some pasta for dinner” and locked himself out of his apartment. “I had my wallet but no keys,” he says. “I thought to myself, if I just had something like a wallet-sized lock pick.”

The idea led to a crowdfunding campaign in 2012 for Barr’s first product, PocketMonkey. The young entrepreneur is as passionate about reinventing American manufacturing as he is about developing his product line. “Zootility fabricates everything in-house at its 8,000 sq.-ft. shop in Portland, Maine. Hundreds of thousands of Barr’s clever multitaskers have already made their way into pockets, purses and backpacks around the world. 

FFJ 1117 laser image1

Zootility cuts very small features on light-gauge materials at high speeds with good edge quality.

Pocket Monkey is roughly the size of a credit card but has 12 functions. The TSA-compliant tool is a bottle opener, a flat screwdriver, a Philips screwdriver, a micro screwdriver, a phone kickstand, bottle opener, letter opener, door latch slip, a set of Hex wrenches, a ruler, a headphone wrap, a straightedge and an orange peeler. But, because he wasn’t interested in a “one-trick monkey,” Barr began exploring concepts for other items with a slim profile and the ability to do lots of things. He soon developed Headgehog, a credit-card size, multifunction comb, WildCard, a heat-treated stainless steel knife that does much more than cut things and a series of bottle openers.

Controls check

Barr initially looked to reach commercial production levels with vendors he sought through Thomas Net, but he found the process tedious. “I would describe my project, send drawings, answer questions and wait,” he says. “More often than not I would be referred to another fabricator because the project wasn’t a fit.”

Deciding he needed to control his supply chain, Barr determined to bring operations in-house. “I studied mechanical engineering and had a basic understanding of physical processes and general manufacturing practices,” he says. “But mechanical engineering doesn’t teach you how to make things.”

Barr began attending trade shows like IMTS with prototypes in hand to talk to vendors about the “how-to’s” of fabrication. “I didn’t want to source my products from China, so I reverse-engineered my operation starting with a packaging machine,” he says.

FFJ 1117 laser image2

Zootility’s PocketMonkey has 12 functions ranging from opening bottles to adjusting screws, yet fits in a wallet.

A laser engraver followed. Issues with part finishes led to the purchase of tumbling equipment.  “I had to consider a laser cutter when we started production on the WildCard,” he explains. “No one could meet the tolerances I needed for that product.”

Instead of jumpstarting Barr’s business though, Zootility experienced a net loss with the laser due to downtime and other issues with the machine. “We couldn’t keep up with demand because the laser wasn’t reliable,” he says. “The only way to salvage the business was to double down and buy another laser.”

“I learned two things from that experience,” Barr adds. “Vet your vendors before you buy something and don’t believe everything people tell you.”

Picking partners

It was the reputation of Assembly Automation Alternatives Inc., and its owner and CEO Mehdi Soghrati, P.Eng., that first sparked Barr’s interest in the Ontario, Canada-based company. “Third-party sources said Mehdi was someone you could trust and that he would stand by you,” Barr says. “That got my attention because we couldn’t get service with the other machine.”

Barr and his team prepared a lengthy list of questions, “things we hadn’t thought to ask the first time.” A two-hour phone call followed with Barr asking for references. “We tested Mehdi with questions we already knew the answers to,” Barr admits. “He told me some things I didn’t want to hear but that made me more likely to buy from him.”

FFJ 1117 laser image34

Nate Barr is committed to making his Zootility products in America.

After looking at other OEMs, Zootility installed an Assembly Automation 1kW FLC-4848-1000-PE laser in 2016. The machine cuts stainless sheet in thicknesses ranging from .040 in. to .080 in. 10 hours a day. “It runs well,” says Barr. “We’re growing again. We’ve been able to double the number of products we offer.”

“Nate needed to cut very small features on small gauge materials at relatively high speeds with good edge quality,” says Soghrati. “With that type of processing, a user can typically experience flying slag that can cause a gap sensor to trip. The part can also suffer warpage of the substrate.”

Assembly Automation married enhanced optics and a programmable assist gas system in their RubyLaser with a specialty power control algorithm to minimize the heat-affected zone and eliminate warpage. “This combination guaranteed the accuracy and edge quality vital to Nate’s application,” Soghrati explained.

Material thickness also dictated the model choice and size. “The FLC-4848-1000-PE was a cost-effective choice for Nate based on the material thickness of his parts and the throughput expectations he had,” Soghrati noted.

The laser’s ability to cut complex parts quickly means Zootility doesn’t have to stock a large inventory and “hope it sells.” Consumable costs are significantly lower. “Consumable costs with the previous laser we had ranged between $30,000 and $40,000 a year. We were paying more for nitrogen gas then the loan payment on the machine.”

FFJ 1117 laser image4

Headgehog, Zootility’s 7-plus function utility comb can also be used as a hexagonal wrench. The tool retails for $12.

Assembly Automation’s laser turns the gas on when needed during the cutting cycle. Specialty nozzle and optics in the cutting head minimizes consumption of the assist gases. “The laser toggles on and off during piercing and cutting operations,” says Barr.

With Zootility approaching its busiest quarter of the year, the Assembly Automation laser has proved its repeatability. “There haven’t been any major problems and Mehdi’s group has been right on top of being accessible,” Barr observes.

The OEM designs and builds its equipment with components that are rated at the longest mean time between failure (MTBF). The quality standard measures the reliability of hardware products and components. For most components MTBF represents thousands to tens of thousands of hours before failure.

“Our technical support team is trained to respond to customers immediately,” Soghrati says. “A lot of issues can be addressed right away on the phone or via remote connection to the lasers. We also stock vital parts and can ship them overnight.”

Assembly Automation has helped Barr achieve his “Made In America” goal. And his useful multitools are appealing to the urban scout and outdoor adventurer that resides in all of us from the soccer mom, construction worker and millennial to the executive that prefers “camping” in a hotel.

“We aren’t trying to squeeze margins in every way possible,” Barr says. “We want to provide a high quality product at a fair price. This isn’t a short term strategy. We’re in this with our customers for the long haul. I saw the same things in Mehdi. That’s why we wanted to partner with Assembly Automation.” FFJ



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