We like our “Superstars” posts to give you a glimpse inside Rio, a close-up of the people who make us tick: the outstanding jewelers, customer service representatives, purchasing managers, machinists, strategists and others who together make Rio the company it is.
One of the things we are most proud of is the depth of the product lines we are able to offer jewelers. This depth is due largely to our in-house manufacturing teams, who create just about anything our product managers and directors can dream up. So this week we want to introduce you to Jeff Zirwas, our manufacturing technologist and one of the indispensible components of Rio Grande.
Think of one of the staple items on your bench. Is it an ear wire? A bead? Maybe it’s a tool or a piece of equipment. Whatever it is, if you order it from Rio, chances are that Jeff and his team of manufacturing wizards had a hand in making it. From the mammoth Neutec casting machines, which start out as nothing more than a piece of sheet metal, to the tiniest crimp beads, Jeff and his team make thousands of the items you see on our website.
And for the last 28 years, Jeff has been instrumental in conceptualizing and expanding our manufacturing capabilities.
“When I started here, there were just three or four machines in our shop,” he says, “but the Bells had a vision of what this place could be.” Today, he has lost count of how many machines the manufacturing area holds…nah, come to think of it, he probably knows each and every one and even has pet names for some.
Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts
When I first told Jeff we wanted him to be this month’s superstar, he immediately shook his head.
“I’m not a superstar,” he said. “I just surround myself with people who make me look like a superstar. I surround myself with the smartest people I can find. And they make me look good.”
The manufacturing teams at Rio truly embody “whole brain thinking,” the concept that any complex problem can be resolved faster and more effectively by bringing together the know-how of several experts. Wider ranges of experience and different ways of thinking working together reach the best possible solution in less time. This concept guides Rio Grande’s flat, participative management structure across the entire business, but nowhere is it more visible and more effective than in the manufacturing teams, where roughly 45 people come together to create some of our most innovative findings and equipment.
“There’s no one guy who solves a problem,” Jeff says of his manufacturing team. “It takes all of us to come up with a solution. I might think this way, and he thinks that way, and together we come up with the solution to a problem.”
When approaching a new problem—which is pretty much every day—he likes to remind himself of Occam’s razor, the principle that states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions is usually correct.
“The simplest solution is usually the best solution,” he says. “We have to remind ourselves not to overthink it all the time.”
This kind of team-based, focused thinking has inspired many of the most innovative processes and machines in manufacturing.
When he gives tours of manufacturing, Jeff gets excited about showing off the different machines and what those machines are capable of building. And his enthusiasm is infectious. Standing in manufacturing, surrounded by hulking old steel machines made in the 1920s and shiny new ones with glittering digital screens spewing rows of numbers, you can feel the energy and excitement vibrating off him.
“Ingenuity is what gets us excited down here,” he says. “That and someone telling us we can’t do something.” He’s showing me manufacturing’s latest innovation, a machine that makes full bead wire. “Everyone told me it couldn’t be done,” he says. “There’s a guy on the East Coast who has been telling me it can’t be done for years! And that just made us want to do it. Nothing motivates us like someone telling us we can’t.”
So, when Rio wanted to expand our line of bead wire, Jeff and his team jumped at the challenge. They pulled an old machine down from storage that was originally designed to make hollow beads and they set to work. Today a long coil of round copper wire is fed into the heart of the machine. From the other side, the wire emerges as fully formed, perfect full-bead wire, exactly what everyone told him he wouldn’t be able to do. It’s Jeff’s pride and joy.
Jeff and his team have also developed machines that make crimp beads, ear wires, settings and tiny hollow beads. One of the longest projects Jeff has worked on was a machine that automatically adds a bead and a coil to a hammered ear wire. It took more than two years to finish, and Jeff likes to joke that it gave him every gray hair on his head.
“I think one of our greatest processes is our ability to take a problem in any area, figure it out, and fix it,” Jeff says. “We never run out of new things to make.”
Heavy Metal Art
Machinists like Jeff and his team are not often compared to artists, but they do have many things in common. They both possess a vision for what is possible, and they both have the dedication and persistence to figure out how to bring that vision to life. They use nuts, bolts cogs, gears, and more to do it, instead of brushes, chisels, charcoal or pencil, and paper, but, like true artists, they will adapt any tool or material at hand to make it happen.
“It’s like Leonardo Da Vinci,” Jeff says. “He would make these incredible sculptures from stone. We’re kind of like that. But we take a hunk of metal and figure out how to run it through machines and turn it into something beautiful.”