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When he was 8 years old, Andrew Counceller got in trouble because he had taken apart his father’s chain saw. Around the same time, he motorized his skateboard, drawing another parental lecture.
Today, his inquisitiveness and mechanical inclinations come in handy: Customers of First Metals & Plastic Technologies often come to him to take things apart — and to ask him to create tools to make more of whatever gadget they dragged into his shop on Jonesville Road, just past the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds.
First Metals focuses on low-volume production, customized tool making and diversity of processes, from stamping and machining to metal insert molding, welding and laser cutting.
Counceller, 40, who has lived in Columbus since age 1, said he has some big customers, including Cummins Inc. and Motorola, but he produces very few of any particular part, typically no more than 500 per week.
His machines’ versatility allows him to take apart and recreate just about anything you can think of, from police car bumpers to ankle prosthetics and disposable communion cups.
The company produces about 300 different products at any one point, Counceller said, but the database has hundreds of thousands of items First Metals has produced throughout the decades. Production of some of the pieces requires only one or two steps, Counceller said, but others might require dozens of steps — stamping, cutting, welding — and include a hundred parts.
Farmers sometimes come in with beat-up parts from an old combine for which they cannot find a replacement.
“Can you make me something?” is a question he often hears.
“We design what it takes to make the part,” said John Counceller, Andrew’s father, who serves as FMPT’s general manager.
FMPT’s employees figure out how to make the part, then design and build the tools to make the part and finally use the machines in the shop to recreate the piece.
The business provided just such a service to Columbus resident Bekir Kelceoglu, who has launched idTECHture, a business to make tiles for anything from bathrooms and floors to countertops and high-end bars and restaurants.
Kelceoglu needed a mold and a press to create some prototypes of his tiles, which are created by pouring various materials, including calcium carbonate, into a mold and fusing them together through high pressure. Unlike traditional tiles, Kelceoglu’s compound tiles do not require heating.
Kelceoglu had the design of the mold he needed, but no one to make it, until he ran into John Counceller. FMPT made an 8-inch-by-8-inch mold, and Kelceoglu has been using a 1963 75-ton HPM press at FMPT to create some tile prototypes. He plans to eventually produce his tiles in a separate building on the Councellers’ property.
“Everyone here (is) so helpful,” said Kelceoglu, who was an architect in his native Turkey and also is an adjunct professor at IUPUI.
Kelceoglu said the Councellers charged him “almost nothing” for the mold, and are letting him use the machine, which sat unused, for free. Keeping costs to a minimum is very helpful to a start-up business, he said.
FMPT’s cache of contraptions includes, on one end of the 70,000-square-foot building, a 4,000-watt laser that can cut metal up to 1 inch thick, and at the other end various types of welding machines. On a recent visit, sparks were flying at both ends of the plant. A few feet beneath the 36-foot-high ceiling, cogwheels with a diameter of several feet hammered home the business’ industrial pedigree. FMTP also has a machine shop, injection molding bay and painting area.
Some of the parts the business produces, such as a piece for an agricultural machine, are cut by laser, then by saw, welded, cut by another type of saw and broached. Another piece, which looked similar to a thin automobile wheel, was part of an assembly that cuts tomatoes. Some of the customers place an order of 20 parts of this or that every few years, Andrew Counceller said.
The diversity helped the company survive during the recession, he said.
That diversity just happened over the years, said John Counceller, since he bought the business with a partner in 1983, when it was Meadows Metal Products. The business was renamed in 1996 when it merged with the Councellers’ plastics business, formerly at 1600 Central Ave.
John Counceller grew up in Anderson, a town dominated by General Motors. The city and his father, a machinist at Delco Remy, influenced him to become a mechanical engineer.
Today, FMPT banks on diversity by design. Not all industries typically struggle at once, Andrew Counceller said. That means some revenue streams are likely to continue flowing even when others may slow to a trickle.
While revenues from the stamping side have declined in recent years, John Counceller said FMPT has seen significant growth in machining. Revenues dipped in the recession but have exceeded pre-recession levels for three years straight. FMPT generates about 40 percent of its revenues from machining, another 35 percent from general fabrication, and about 25 percent from stamping.
At age 66, John Counceller said he thinks about retiring every once in a while, but plans to work until 70. He still likes the work because it is interesting and challenging.
“Always have something to scratch your head over,” he said.
Andrew Counceller, who recently finished studies for his MBA from IUPUC, said he continues to enjoy taking things apart, putting them back together and figuring out how to recreate them. And although all of his six siblings have worked at the family business at one time or another, he looks to be the only one of his generation to continue the family’s machining/engineering tradition.
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