Do or DYE

Bur-rup-rup -rup -rup -rup!

The burst is impossible to ignore, as it turns your whole world bright yellow.

Your splattered mask marks a loser, and no degree of head hanging can hide it.

Given that your shame came courtesy of a titanium Boomstick®, it might be possible to salvage some pride.

Then again, it might not.

Paintball is not now, nor has it ever been, a sport for the easily resigned.

The Evolution of Dave Youngblood Enterprises

We never cease to be amazed when “an idea whose time has come” appears on the horizon . . . and steamrolls everything in its path. Mere mortals don’t get it. We pay lip service to early birds and worms, or mothers of invention, but the power of “the big idea” lies outside our bounds of the barely imaginable. For a gifted thinker named Dave DeHaan, however, the powerful forces behind these tired clichés all converged one night in his garage, and propelled that modest owner of a single lathe and mill to the head of a multimillion-dollar manufacturing marvel.

v10-i34-Do-or-DYE_1.jpg

Dave DeHaan turned pro at age 16. His sport of choice: paintball – and before long he was a well-known champion. It was the mid ’80s, and even professional players didn’t wear nice uniforms with their names on the backs. Nicknames ruled the day, and for obvious reasons, but not particularly to his liking, the teenage Dave DeHaan became known as “Youngblood.”

Unless you’ve been hibernating for the last few years, you’ve most likely heard of paintball. You may not know the details of the game, but you have at least some inkling of its basic premise. While you’ve been napping, this game of high-tech hide-and-seek has become a cultural phenomenon, and the fastest growing extreme sport on the planet.

Fundamentally, paintballers shoot at each other with guns (the politically correct term is “markers”) that fire paint-filled plastic balls to prove who shot whom. And, yes, it hurts! Other equipment is needed as well, including protective clothing, eye shielding and a tank of pressurized gas. Beyond that, the sport is difficult to describe. As few as two people or as many as 500 can play, and the game can last from mere minutes to a day or more. The objective is to take something, find something or just be the last shooter standing. But regardless of the particulars, one thing is certain: The game is a guaranteed adrenaline rush.

After several years of tournament success, Dave “Youngblood” DeHaan became everyone’s favorite target. Adrenaline rush or not, he seriously needed to better his game. That spawned an idea: He’d make a better barrel for his gun. In fact, as the concept gelled, he imagined a much better barrel: one machined more accurately than any existing designs; one made using precision gun-drilling and honing techniques; one that would turn a simple plastic and aluminum paint-marker into a highly accurate, stainless-steel shooter. And that’s exactly what he built.

As it turned out, the technological history of the sport was on DeHaan’s side. Paintball’s roots reach back to the ’70s, when a small manufacturer adapted a Daisy® BB-gun design to make a pistol-shaped, industrial paintball marker. That little gun worked off of a 12-gram CO2 cartridge and shot a paint-filled, 68-caliber ball. It was designed specifically for the U. S. Forestry Service to allow their field rangers to quickly and easily mark trees. Clever cattle ranchers quickly picked up on the idea, too. “A lot of those guys worked on horseback, and they found it was simple to shoot trees to mark them for cutting, or to mark cattle that needed to be separated from the herd for some reason,” explains Dave. “And somehow, between that, and a bunch of guys kind of getting a little carried away, a sport was born.”

v10-i34-Do-or-DYE_2.jpg

Before long, all the established BB-gun manufacturers, including Daisy®, were manufacturing guns for the sport, alongside hundreds of other specialty manufacturers both large and small. That first marker lacked both range and accuracy, but it set the manufacturing standards for the soon-to-be sport. All paintball guns that followed used the same sized balls, and had barrels bored to a standard diameter. This fortunate turn of events allowed DeHaan to retrofit the special barrel he built to almost any paintball gun on the market.

Competitors, seeing Youngblood win tournaments with his spectacular stainless-steel barrel, wanted one too. “You know,” says DeHaan, “in so many sports, people assume that any success you have must be due to your equipment. But that’s okay,” he smiles, “that assumption helped us start a business. With so many people asking, ‘Where can I get a barrel like that,’ I decided to go in with a friend and make some more, and see if we could sell them.

“Really, there was no predetermined marketing plan,” remembers DeHaan. “I just picked the number 100 – it seemed almost possible that we could eventually sell that many. I was busy working as a part-time police officer, and also working for my father-in-law, so we subbed-out all the machining and just did the inspection, cleaning and packaging ourselves. I was really moonlighting it, out of my garage.

“We figured it would take us maybe a year to sell those 100 barrels,” DeHaan continues, “but by the time we got them assembled, we had them all sold! So we thought, ‘Well, let’s try just another 200.’ These barrels were really expensive for the time, so we thought maybe only 200 people – at most – would buy them. But, again, we sold out as quickly as we could turn them around. And the 200 run became 400, and the 400 run became 800, and before you know it, we were running several thousand at a time. Our name was becoming known, and people were calling constantly, wanting more.

v10-i34-Do-or-DYE3.jpg

“Before long, we couldn’t make barrels fast enough to keep up, so I thought, ‘We’ve got to get some good CNC equipment.’ I visited a local Haas dealer and explained our situation. They were very helpful, and really made it as painless as possible.”

With little machining experience and a product demanding tight tolerances, the Haas dealer recommended that the fledgling company start with a simple CNC lathe and a Haas VF-3 vertical machining center. “That was scary,” admits DeHaan. “I didn’t even know how to program that first machine we got. I tried – and crashed it several times. The Haas dealer spent a lot of time holding my hand those first couple of weeks.” But, with a lease for a 1500 sq-ft commercial space, one lathe and one Haas mill, Dave “Youngblood” Enterprises was officially launched. DYE Precision, as it would soon be known, was off and running.

Quickly, the steamroller gathered momentum. Despite the efforts of a couple competitors, demand for the superior DYE barrels grew every month. Soon, 1500 square feet wasn’t enough.

“When the guy behind us left, we knocked down the wall and brought in a couple more machines. Then a couple more after that, and then even more,” says DeHaan. They continued to go through walls and add equipment until, finally, DYE Precision occupied as much of the building as they could get: 16,000 square feet – most of it crammed full with Haas machines. Eventually, they were forced to move everything – lock, stock and barrel, so to speak – to a new building.

Today, DYE Precision operates from a purpose-built, 60,000-square-foot building just north of San Diego, California. “And still,” says DeHaan, “we’re crammed!” Already, the company is planning a new 120,000-square-foot facility a few miles away and hoping it will be big enough.

Explosive growth led the enterprise in some different directions. After buying out an established paintball gun company in 2003, DYE completely redesigned their existing product line and introduced a complete gun set to complement their aftermarket barrels and accessory products. About the same time, they also expanded into “soft goods” and began producing a wide-ranging line of clothing and protective gear for the game. The DYE brand is now known and marketed around the world, with active dealer networks spread from North America to Europe to Asia. Their catalogs list more than 10,000 different items. “It’s still kind of amazing,” muses DeHaan, half smiling, “there’s no end in sight.”

The big San Diego facility employs 140 people, and nearly a third are full-time machinists. “We need them,” explains DeHaan. “All told, we’re now up to about 40 Haas machines.” Just about every product in the Haas line can be found on the floor, from a TL-1 Toolroom Lathe to a row of small SL-10 lathes to a bank of EC-400 horizontal machining centers. At first glance, the floor could be mistaken for a giant Haas showroom.

Working in materials as varied as 303 stainless steel, 6061 aluminum and even titanium, the machinists carry out a broad range of precision turning and milling operations, as well as honing, deburring, tumbling, bead blasting and polishing. All the metalwork except anodizing is done in-house, and you’d be hard pressed to find an idle moment.

“I’ve never seen a shop running machines like we run them here,” says DeHaan. “We work them around the clock, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They run like crazy, and every second of machine time is accounted for,” he emphasizes. “That’s because in just the two gun lines alone, not including our barrels and accessory items, we need to produce more than 70,000 different parts each month to manufacture the final product.”

“You know,” adds General Manager Brian Benini, “each gun kit has up to 35 unique parts that have to come together at exactly the right time to build a complete unit. You begin looking very closely at the machine run-times, the capacity issues, and you try to stay ‘layered.’ It’s lean, just-in-time manufacturing, and it’s dicey.”

When asked about all the “do or die” clichés they must have heard, Benini adds, “Well, we do cut it close sometimes, but it’s certainly the most efficient way to manufacture. And to stay efficient, we’ve always got to be very close to that narrow window of having all the parts come together just when we need them. Yeah, ‘do or die’ describes it.”

Considering all the production going on, the shop floor doesn’t seem over-crowded with people. “It’s a big place, and the machinists are spread out,” notes Hung Pham, the shop manager. “We use fixtures and multiple setups as much as we can, so the machines run in pretty long cycles, and an operator can look after more than one machine. We do multiple operations with rotaries on many mills, and multiple parts on tombstones whenever we can,” he says. “Machining four or five parts at a time isn’t unusual. We save lots of loading time, and it’s more precise when we do it that way, instead of with separate operations.”

DYE’s horizontal machining centers – three Haas EC-400s and an older Haas HS-1RP– are dedicated to initial operations on the gun bodies and handle assemblies. “We load up the tombstones with four blocks of 6061 aluminum on each face,” Hung explains, “and we do three ops at one time. We get lots of work done with these machines.” The accuracy required for these components is tight: The front, back and bottom faces have to be flat within 2 thousandths. The HMCs also machine the cross hole, the bore, the thread and the pocket in the bodies.

When they come off the machines, though, they’re still basically just aluminum blocks. The contour machining that defines the gun’s beautiful, curvaceous shape is done on a small army of Haas Super-Speed vertical machining centers. Output from the four horizontals feeds a total of 11 Haas VF-2SS and VF-4SS verticals – all running 24/7 to keep up with demand.

DYE’s famous two-piece barrels, on the other hand, are, by necessity, produced one at a time. They start as aluminum, steel or titanium bars, which are first gun-drilled for the bore. Next, they are turned down to shape, cut to length and threaded on Haas SL-10 or SL-20 CNC lathes. The logo and detail machining is typically done on Haas Mini Mills or VF-2 VMCs equipped with Haas 5C indexers for full fourth-axis work. “We have a lot of different machines we can schedule for these ops,” says Hung, “so we have some welcome flexibility in this area.”

A major feature of the DYE barrel, besides its precision bore, is the engraved logo, says Hung. “The engraving is very deep,” he explains, “but with our setups, we can do it in a single op with a single tool. We hold tolerances within plus or minus two thousandths on both the turning and milling operations – even in the logo cuts. The engraving is so deep,” he adds, “that its precision is critical to the strength and performance of the barrel.”

And precision and performance are what DYE is all about. “Other turned parts, especially internal gun and reguRobotor components, are very critical,” Hung stresses. “The bolt, for example, needs to be held within two to three tenths. But we do that consistently – in large-quantity, around-the-clock production. Still, we’re constantly improving, and learning how best to set things up.”

“We’ll have a production meeting,” says DeHaan, “and Hung will say, ‘I’m doing good in my milling area, but we’re running the lathes like crazy, and still slowing down completion of the product.’ So we’ll say, ‘Let’s add a machine, let’s try to speed that up.’ That’s how we got into bar feeders on nearly all of our Haas lathes. It’s a simple addition that has really helped production. And keeping things simple,” he continues, “is always a good thing, no matter what you’re making. There are a lot of turned parts on the guns, and of all the machines we have, the lathes run absolutely the most. We have some Haas lathes that have run only one part since the day they were installed. We load material in them and they just run around the clock. They’re just amazingly reliable production machines.”

But Hung’s production planning can never get too comfortable, as the flexibility of DYE’s machining cells is tested again and again. Every year, DYE introduces new models, and fights a release-date backlog of new orders. “We have to keep changing,” adds DeHaan. “The people who buy our stuff expect it of us. We listen to the paintball players, we note their suggestions and we change.” Virtually all the managers and top people in the company go to the tournaments and attend the industry’s trade shows. Many are active professional players, and have been for years.

General Manager Brian Benini fits that description perfectly, and also wears the hats of Advertising Director and Research and Development Manager. He stays as closely integrated with the game as possible. “When you’re face to face with your customer, you take it personally,” he notes, “both their satisfaction and their problems.” Designs have to change, and production has to change with them.

“We can’t afford to lose touch,” adds DeHaan, “that’s why we stay in the game. Not losing touch is a big issue around here, and maybe that’s why we’re successful. We live, breathe and sleep paintball.”

“Successful” seems a barely adequate word to describe the DYE phenomenon: from a simple idea to a garage business to the largest high-end manufacturer in the industry – in less than a decade. Now at the top of the pyramid, the pressure is on DYE to stay there, to continue the growth, to constantly perform better. Like the “Youngblood” tag from the beginning, the “do-or die” cliché will always be there.

“The way I look at it,” says DeHaan philosophically, “we’ll make, or break, ourselves. Whether there’s competition pressure or not, we’re always going to improve our product, we’re always going to grow in what we do, and we’re always going to have the new idea. That’s just the way we approach business – like the way we approach the game.”