Thinking Outside the Basin

Jason Harris dials in on a boring bar at a silver mine in Utah.
Jason Harris dials in a boring bar on a piece of heavy equipment.

Two Gillette Guys Find Opportunity Out of Disruption

The machine looks a lot like a miniature R2D2, according to Jason Harris and David “Moon” Mullins, and apparently sounds a lot like him, too. When it flies, it fits in the overhead compartment. Not quite own-seat status, but pretty darn close. Unlike the famed Star Wars figure, however, this faux robot has a distinct purpose and high-tech skillset other than just spinning its head and looking cool.

It’s actually not a robot, Mullins clarified, but rather a FARO coordinating measuring machine (CMM) that does 3-D measurements to allow for high-precision, measurement and analysis in construction and engineering. What this means in simple terms is that it allows them to align gears and other bits and pieces on mining and specialized equipment within a hair’s distance.

This helps to optimize performance and longevity. In days past, establishing such perfect alignment would have required a crew of seasoned machinists. Now, these two guys can do the work in four hours that formerly would have taken two teams working back-to-back, 12-hour shifts.

But let’s back up for a minute. The real story is the way in which the two Gillette innovators have harnessed the technology to launch their own startup – Blue Ridge Inspections – this past June.

David "Moon" Mullins performs a perpendicularity check on a shovel.
David “Moon” Mullins performs a perpendicularity check on a shovel.

Along with fine-tuning gears and electric motors and other pieces of heavy equipment, they also provide services such as mechanical integrity inspections and other highly specialized offerings involving lots of complex acronyms and next-level geometry acumen.

They like to get dirty and climb around on heavy equipment that most people never see, which to them is the equivalent of the grease-monkey’s playground. As far as they’re concerned, the dirtier and more intricate the machinery, the better, which explains why in the first year after launching a new business in the middle of a pandemic they’ve managed to double their original sales goal.

What they do is a bit hard for the layperson to understand, so Moon pulled up a diagram on his computer at their office in the Energy Capital Economic Development FUEL Business Incubator in Gillette to try to explain. The 3-D image was of a heat exchanger in a chemical plant on which they recently performed a mechanical integrity inspection to make sure the equipment is running at its most optimal.

Given the high price tag of these machines, the goal is to make sure they don’t wear out too quickly or break down.

This is where Blue Ridge Inspections comes in. The pair dumb it down as they explain the mathematical and engineering skills required to analyze their integrity tests, but it’s clear that a lot of know-how – and years of on-the-job training – come to play in these calculations.

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Both guys started their careers as welders and have worked their way up the ranks to learn the business from the ground up.

For Moon that meant scheduling and managing major equipment outages as part of Cloud Peak Energy’s asset management team. Over his roughly six years with the company, he ran into Harris, who worked for Dragline Service Specialties (DSS), a division of Wyoming Machinery Company, which has had several owners during his tenure.

A 3-D view of the car body using Blue Ridge Inspection's measurement software.
Blue Ridge uses software to create 3-D views of the components.

Like Moon, Harris started welding equipment before advancing to equipment manager and eventually outside sales. After leaving Cloud Peak in the wake of the downturn in coal, Moon ended up working with Harris at DSS where they struck up a friendship.

Oddly, the two Gillette natives now in their late 30s were one year apart at Campbell County High School, but didn’t know each other. Moon joked that no one knew him because he rarely went to school to which Harris shrugged. He wasn’t that into it either.

This is perhaps the greatest lesson for both of them looking back is that to be successful, you don’t necessarily have to do well in school. Instead, you just need to be curious and motivated and willing to put in the time to work your way up.

A second cool thing about the duo is that they’d only known each for about six months before launching their new business venture together. It began with a casual conversation over beers in January during which they both lamented their current employer’s hesitancy to embrace the FARO technology, which in their mind was a game changer, allowing greater accuracy in a much shorter time without the need for a lot manpower.

As Moon explained, their ‘R2D2’ allows them to do onsite measurements while providing precise engineering schematics, saving machinists time by precisely dialing in their equipment using digital methods rather than analog. In some instances, it shortens jobs that would normally take days down to mere hours.

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This heat exchanger was one of the components they inspected this past year.
This heat exchanger was one of the components they inspected this past year.

In short, they saw an opening and went for it. How do two guys who barely know each other decide to take the leap to becoming partners? Meetings over beers and coffee, hashing out a plan together and producing a list of pros and cons for a start. The two then did some investigating on the other through work colleagues and received nothing but praise about their future business partner.

At the time, both were still working at DSS, so they set a quit date and applied for an office at FUEL. Using only their savings, they set mid-June as their launch date, and less than a week later, they were on the road for their first job aligning a 10,000 horse-power asynchronous electric motor at a steel mill in California. Soon the jobs began piling up – everything from doing welding inspections, integrity tests of tanks and other pieces of heavy equipment – as they traveled across the country for the past several months.

Oddly, starting a new business in the middle of a pandemic didn’t prove to have much of a drag. Initially, Moon was trepidatious, but Harris spurred him along.

A 3-D image of the heat exchanger.
A 3-D image of a heat exchanger.

“I was terrified,” Moon said. “It was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done.”

Harris didn’t so much as pause, reassuring Moon that out of great disruptions come opportunities, so the two plunged forward.

“You just gotta throw some elbows and get your chunk of it,” Harris said philosophically.

The first taste of success propelled them along, Moon admitted, and by the end of year, they’d doubled their sales goal, and now, home on a rare break from the road this month, they’re getting ready to head out again on another job.

Theirs is a story of how you parlay skills learned in the coal industry and grow them into a business in the Powder River Basin and beyond, Moon noted.

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You can learn things here that you can’t in other places and use those skills to find opportunities even as the coal industry continues to decline, Harris pointed out, but ultimately, it requires a leap of faith and fearlessness.

“You just got to go for it,” he said simply. “That’s the biggest thing.”