By Tom Ballard, Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurial Initiatives, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
“You can actually do things with additive manufacturing that you can only imagine doing with subtractive,” says Joe Crisp, President of Mountain Mold & Die in Sevierville.
The life-long Sevier County resident – Seymour to be exact – is a true believer in the emerging 3D printing technology and the impact it could have on the company he founded in 1986.
“I see this as a way to continue to be competitive,” Crisp says in explaining why he plans to invest a significant amount of capital in a new machine within the next year or two. “My goal is that we don’t choose the wrong technology.”
During our lively interview with Crisp and tour of his plant, we were impressed with the tenacity and commitment to innovation that he exhibited. After all, Crisp has seen the ups and downs of the industry.
At one time, Mountain Mold & Die had as many as 85 employees working five days a week. “It was a really, really busy time,” Crisp says. Among its customers was the Ford Motor Company for which it produced 10 million transponder keys a year.
Then the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into existence, and the dual effects of this law and competition from Chinese companies took their toll.
“We had to shrink our mold shop a lot,” Crisp says. The pain of the layoffs that occurred more than a decade ago is still vivid to the company’s owner.
“We tried to keep our people with work, but it did not go so well,” he explained. Employment dropped to about a dozen, although the innovative owner maintained his persistence and long-term view.
Crisp is clearly a small business owner, and his facility, which he built in 1991, sits in an industrial park off Highway 411, more commonly known as the Newport Highway. What caught our attention was the owner’s passion for technology, his knowledge of the industry, and the connections that he has made.
“I’ve been a mechanical geek all of my life,” Crisp says. The son of a minister is clearly not afraid of work. In fact, the year he graduated from Seymour High School, he also received seven W2s.
For the most part, Crisp’s formal education ended after high school. He took some computer programming courses, but that was it. In spite of not attending college, Crisp talked with pride about his daughter, who is a student in the University of Tennessee’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and his son, who just graduated from Yale with a Master’s degree and will soon start work on his doctorate.
So, how did a guy with some programming training end-up owning a mold and die shop?
“I learned mold making at TenTec,” Crisp explained. He worked at the Sevierville company for eight years before starting Mountain Mold & Die.
Initially, his company just built molds, but Crisp says it got into making products at the urging of its customers. The transponder keys are just one example. As we toured the plant, we saw a variety of products being made for the automotive sector, consumers, and even land surveyors.
“We started doing 3D milling in 1988,” Crisp says. “We were feeding our machines text code.”
As he looks to the future and a significant capital investment for a small company, Crisp is connecting with a number of resources to make sure he makes the right decision. One organization is the Manufacturing Development Facility that Oak Ridge National Laboratory operates. Another is a manufacturing center operated by Pennsylvania State University.
Describing himself as a “dirt bag mold maker,” Crisp says, “I’m excited about the future.”