A Passion For parts
BME’s Passion Leads To Success
Every weekend millions of race fans tune in to watch the speed and excitement of NASCAR. Among those fans are the employees of Bill Miller Engineering. They’re not just watching for the fun of it, though, hoping to see their favorite driver win. They’ve got an ulterior motive. They want to see if the parts they build, and the cars that use them, end up in Victory Lane.
Founded in 1975, Bill Miller Engineering (BME) “manufactures premium-quality engine parts for the hard-core racing community.” The company specializes in custom pistons, wrist pins and connecting rods for race teams. They may not be the largest piston manufacturer in the country, but they’re arguably one of the best – and they’ve got the track results to prove it.
Today, the company builds pistons and wrist pins for some of NASCAR’s top race teams, including Richard Childress Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing, Bill Davis Racing and Evernham Racing. Such NASCAR champions as Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Jeff Gordon and the late Dale Earnhardt have all driven cars with BME pistons. As if to drive the point home, the walls of the BME machine shop are covered with pictures of NASCAR vehicles that have run with BME pistons.
BME’s success, says Miller, comes from focusing on building the best, rather than on being the biggest. To illustrate his point, he invokes the words of Clint Eastwood in the classic Dirty Harry flick Magnum Force: “A man has got to know his limitations.” It’s a point Miller takes to heart.
“My passion is racecars,” says Bill Miller, president and owner. “I love racecars. I love making parts for racecars. It’s the passion of making a racecar part and seeing your part win on Sunday – it’s really cool. I just can’t express it to you.”
“If you want to be all things to all people, and make all sorts of products, then the products are going to suffer,” he says. “If you want to make a substandard part and make tons of them, then that’s pretty easy to do. If you want to make real quality parts, then you can command more money. The idea here is to make a million-dollar piston, not make a million pistons.
“What we’re doing here works so well that we don’t have to be greedy. If you get greedy,” Miller says, “then you will have problems. You can go for the money, but the passion of making racecar parts that are NASCAR championship quality is our reward of manufacturing.”
Bill Miller Engineering began making connecting rods in a tiny 1,200-square-foot factory in Long Beach, California, in June 1975. It wasn’t long before the company’s forged aluminum connecting rods became well-known in drag racing circles, with racers like Bill “Grumpy” Jenkins, Bob Glidden and Warren Johnson becoming staunch supporters and devoted customers. In 1981, BME fielded its first Top Fuel dragster.
BME got into the piston business when it purchased ForgedTrue Pistons in 1982, and began concentrating mainly on the piston needs of hard-core drag racers. By 1995, the BME Forged Racing Piston was so highly regarded that Richard Childress Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, two of the top teams in NASCAR Cup racing, switched to BME pistons. It wasn’t long before other NASCAR teams were ordering custom pistons from the company.
Although most of their customers are on the East Coast, BME is currently located in Carson City – Nevada’s state capital. “We moved up here because Los Angeles had worn me out,” says Miller. “I was born in the Los Angeles area and spent a lot of years there. But you get tired of the graffiti. You get tired of reading about the killings and the carjackings every day.”
Miller chose Carson City because it is relatively crime-free, and it’s affordable. As an extra benefit, the airport is just down the street, so Miller can easily fly off to race his Top Fuel dragster. “As long as you can manufacture parts and the UPS brown truck shows up every day, everyone wins,” says Miller.
Another advantage of moving to Nevada, adds Miller, was the cost of doing business. “This building is 18,000 square feet, and it costs me the same per month as it would cost for a 6,000-square-foot building in California. This one I own; the other one I was leasing. It wasn’t a hard call.”
For efficiency, the BME facility is arranged in three production lines – one for each product. The company began manufacturing its products with manual machines, but has added more than 25 CNC machine tools to improve quality and productivity.
“I have the same six guys in the rod shop,” says Miller, “and we’re producing twenty thousand rods a year now, where we used to produce fifteen thousand with the same number of guys. Not only that, but the quality of the part with a CNC machine is ten times better,” he says.
One particular machine that has helped BME increase production is the Mini Mill from Haas Automation – four of them, in fact. Shop foreman Craig Whitener explains: “These Mini Mills are cool. We used to have to do all these different operations on manual machines. We had three different mills with ten different fixtures. Now we have one mill, one fixture. We’re doing all the operations at once, instead of having to load and unload the part.”
The company has realized several other benefits with the Mini Mills, as well. “They’re cleaner than manual mills, because they’re self-contained,” says Whitener. “It’s a much neater package. When we had the manual mills, we’d have big piles of chips. Now, we just scoop out the chips. We can run full coolant, while before we could only run sprays.”
According to Whitener, the 500-ipm cutting feeds of the diminutive machines have also improved the quality of parts. “We’ve been able to increase the speeds and feeds,” he explains. “You don’t have the same rpm control on a manual machine, so we get a better finish with the Mini Mills.”
“The Mini Mill is a cool deal,” agrees Miller, “because it allows you to have a machine that has a very small footprint, does a very specific operation, and you don’t have to spend a hundred thousand dollars on it.”
In addition to the Mini Mills, BME also uses Haas turning centres to manufacture wrist pins – a product that is widely admired throughout the racing industry. The wrist pin joins a piston to the connecting rod. “We make a wrist pin now that is, hands down, the finest wrist pin manufactured,” states Miller. “It’s because we take the time and the trouble to do the best job we can.
We compete with companies that manufacture wrist pins over in Europe and import them. They [wrist pins] all go to one place to get diamond-like carbon coating. That company has told us that our pins are double the quality of anyone else’s. You can compare a BME pin with everyone else’s pin and it stands out.”
BME currently boasts a total of 23 Haas CNC machines. They purchased the first – a VF-0 – 12 years ago, and it’s still running in the shop. “It’s a great little machine for doing what you want it to do,” Miller says. “It’s been plugging along for a long time. That’s why there are a whole bunch of Haas machines in here. No one here has any problems running Haas machines, because the controls are the same on all the machines.”
“The control is very user-friendly,” adds Whitener. “I’ve been able to quickly train people [on a Haas] who have never used a CNC machine in their life.”
To maintain and service the machines, BME is fortunate to have a Haas-certified service technician on staff. And getting spare parts couldn’t be easier. “When you have a problem with a Haas machine, you can call the factory and the part will be here tomorrow,” says Miller. “You don’t have to go to Japan to get the part. You don’t have to go to Korea to get the part. And that’s a big, big plus. With imports, you’re going to have problems – maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but sometime.”
Unlike most companies, BME doesn’t employ a sales staff to sell their products. Instead, the engineering staff and Miller himself handle everything. “When a customer calls here they get to talk to the guy who owns the place,” Miller says. “It gives the customer a lot of power to be able to talk to the boss. If there is a problem, they can talk to me and we’ll fix it very quickly.
“Rarely do you get a call thanking you for making a nice part, but boy, they can be on your tail when something breaks,” Miller continues. “And if there is a problem, then I’ll be out in the shop in five minutes asking, ‘What are you trying to do here, kill me?’ We’re all on the same team working together, and it bonds everyone together.”
A little bonding is great, but when all is said and done, it still comes down to knowing that the part you make is in a car that’s seen by millions of race fans. “It’s fun to see it on TV when we win,” says Whitener. “Often times a machine shop is making parts and you never hear anything about them. But at BME, we make parts and get see how they’re doing. It’s very satisfying.”