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Keeping scale locomotives on track: NorthWest Short Line expands product catalog

When Dave and Lynda Rygmyr purchased NorthWest Short Line in 2008, they became the new owners of the world's largest manufacturer of model railroad upgrade and repair parts. NorthWest Short Line manufactures wheels, axles, and gearboxes. If you've got a model locomotive that's 50 years old, odds are the Rygmyrs can help you find a spare part.

«I like to make things,» Dave said. «And I've always wanted to make mechanical things. I was the kid that tore apart radios and put them back together and made plastic model tanks and blew them up with fireworks. I have no idea why, but having my own factory is always something I wanted. After fourteen years as a Technical Director with Microsoft, model railroading sort of drew me in. I'm just one of those guys that if I see something out there where there's not one available or I'm not happy with what is out there, I'll try to make it myself and make it a little more practical.»

When the Rygmyrs moved the entire company from Seattle, Washington to Hamilton, Montana they brought a $100,000 knee mill home with them. «When we bought NorthWest Short Line it had a large Hurco knee mill,» Dave recalled. «I saw the machine and I thought, 'Hot dog, here we go!» However, the Rygmyrs' soon realized they were in the market for a replacement mill when the limitations of the old mill were fully realized: the outdated control was only capable of only running 100 lines of G-code and desperately in need of an expensive upgrade kit.

The Rygmyrs started their search for an affordable CNC mill online and quickly settled on a Tormach PCNC 1100. «The decision to buy a Tormach came from two things,» Dave said. «One was a search on our own to find a good balance of value and quality and the other was that Tormach offered a workshop class. I was thrilled that there was at least a class where I could go work with a PCNC mill hands on for a while before I bought it. And the truly appealing thing was that if I took the class, I got a discount on the machine.» By 2010, NorthWest Short Line had a PCNC 1100 up and running in Montana.

«We find ourselves in a variety of things, but certainly model railroading is where people look for us and where we sell most of our stuff. A number of our customers are what we call the 'high end' of the model train hobby, meaning that they build locomotives from scratch using our tools.»

Under the Rygmyrs’ leadership, Northwest Short Line has expanded their product line into broad spectrum of short run parts and tools, and now has a six-part online catalog. Dave added, «Another thing that's evolved over the years is that we manufacture a line of custom tools really suited for specific model railroad jobs. For example, pulling the wheels off axles and pushing the wheels back on again; allowing you to put a gear on an axle straight. These tools are definitely things you won’t find in a hardware store,» Dave continued. «The one thing we have the PCNC 1100 doing right now more than anything else is manufacturing these specialized tools. They're nothing fancy and they're made of Aluminum, but it's awfully nice to have CNC to do the repetitive tasks of making these tool parts. We do assemble the tools here and test them and everything else and of course the Tormach has made that a little bit easier too.»

«The PCNC 1100 has been such a good thing for us, because once we get a job setup and going, we'll make one, ten, or one hundred of something; it doesn't matter. We understand sliding scale and that way our customers aren't sitting on a lot of inventory they don't necessarily need and we don't even pretend to compete with the Chinese on price. We just price things as they need to be and that's what it is.»

For example, The Sensipress tool is a sensitive arbor press used for working with fine miniature models and parts, allowing for up to 250 pounds of pressure. «As far as the PCNC 1100 is concerned, the biggest help is on The Sensipress. We machine the aluminum base and drill holes across the top to hold the bits and accessories. This is something where we want the pieces to align nicely because that rod on the arbor press needs to go down into the hole nice and square,» Dave said.

With the expanded product line came a new group of customers. «What's interesting about our tools is that some of our best customers are architectural schools, especially for The Chopper Tool because students are required to build scale models of the buildings they're working on. So, we were sort of pleasantly surprised to get large orders from university bookstores and distributors in the educational trade,» Dave explained.

Future plans for the PCNC 1100 at NorthWest Short Line include getting into mold making and solid modeling with SprutCAM. «Because the plastic injection molds have to be so precise, I see this as an advanced usage for the mill,» Dave said. Using the video tutorials to learn both Alibre and SprutCAM, Rygmyr is making improvements to the Quarterer II, a tool for quartering steam locomotive drivers. «We're getting into the phase where we start in Alibre, go into SprutCAM, and then take it to the mill. I'm also cutting jigs to hold the workpieces so that everything is precise; we're actually stepping it up a notch and that will be good for us.»

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