FIRST Tech Challenge Team Duct Tape, celebrating Paul Markun in 2015, when he was recognized as FL FTC Mentor of the Year.

As we build out the Tampa Bay Advanced Manufacturing & Robotics Center, we’re working with a lot of great people and organizations, some new, like the ARM Institute, and some that we’ve known a long time, like Paul Markun at Tampa Technik in St. Petersburg.

Tampa Technik was actually the first local manufacturer FCDI had ever worked with, connecting with Paul for the first time, over ten years ago, when we were looking for good engineering mentors for our FIRST Tech Challenge team, Team Duct Tape.   He became that and more, ultimately becoming a mentor to individual team members who learned the fine art of classical mechanical engineering skills and techniques at his beautiful shop in Pinellas County.  

So we’re extremely happy to launch our new Meet the Manufacturer series with a look at Tampa Technik.  While Paul doesn’t consider himself a manufacturer, per se, the services he provides to other manufacturers is part of the critical supply and service chain needed to make our manufacturing communities run well.  Without further ado, meet Paul Markun!

After many many years of collecting tools and machines with an eye for having my own machine shop to fool around in someday I formed TampaTechnik in 2000 as my “personal hobby shop” where I could work on my own inventions with the possibility of manufacturing and marketing them. While working as a production supervisor for a local manufacturer to get some manufacturing experience I started making tools and machines for them and eventually was so successful at it that I no longer had the time to work for them and turned TTC into a full time business. Since then I have been solving manufacturing problems for a number of manufacturers in a wide variety of fields from aerospace to pharmaceutical manufacturing to making heat pumps.

My main business focus is designing and building tools and production machines for manufacturers of all kinds but I also do “walk in work” for just about anybody. I build prototypes for inventors, special fittings for homeowners, parts for yachts, gunsmithing for collectors, test equipment for racers and basically anything that requires a machine shop to build. TTC isn’t your normal machine shop. I don’t just machine parts I design and build complex tools and machines, too. I have experience in pneumatics, hydraulics, electrical control circuitry and other things that allow me to design and build complete products all under one roof.

TTC is a manual machine shop meaning I have no CNC equipment, just the basics like a lathe and vertical milling machine but I also have all the accessories for each machine making them very versatile. I also have band saws, grinders, sanders, drill presses , a media blast cabinet, welders, a 30 ton press and a wealth of hand and power tools. Just having all the machines and tools isn’t enough. You also need a supply of cutting tools like end mills, twist drills, taps and dies and saw blades in a variety of sizes and shapes. When you work with dimensions in thousandths of an inch you need to be able to accurately measure any of the parts capable of being made on the machines. This requires a bunch of specialized measuring equipment like micrometers, digital calipers (up to 40 inch capacity), gauge blocks, angle measuring tools, dial indicators, surface plates, height gauges and much more.

Almost everything I build I have never built before which makes every job a challenge. I especially like working with other inventors on their prototypes. I’ve been inventing stuff since I was a kid and had my own work bench with real tools when I was six. I still have some of those tools. One of my more interesting jobs was for the crew that was replacing the bearing plates under the Sunshine Skyway Bridge a few years ago. Some of the plates had been machined improperly so I had to re-manufacture them to fit. The work was done in the evening and involved jacking up the bridge to replace the pads while traffic was still moving on the bridge.

The most fun by far was building a rapid decompression chamber for my old employer. They needed to pressure test some of their products at pressures of up to 1600 PSI. I built a 4’ by 4’ by 8’ high aluminum framed cabinet with ¾” ballistic glass panels on 4 sides and the top. Pressure was provided by a large high pressure water pump that pressurized the components being tested. On the very first test for representatives of the company it worked perfectly and we blew up a PVC heat exchanger. Within seconds 2 of the attendees (they were all men) excitedly asked what else we had around to blow up. Guys love to blow stuff up. Plus there’s always that feeling when you fire up a new machine for the first time and it works. That’s always a nice surprise for me.

One of the biggest challenges facing manufacturers of all sizes is finding trained and responsible workers at all levels in the company. Although I’m not a manufacturer I suffer too. I’ve been lucky over the years to have found some exceptional people to work with me. I have been a FIRST robotics mentor for many years and have spent quite a bit of time with students building robots. This is great exposure to the field of engineering which is what Dean Kamen had in mind when he started this program. It’s working.

Several of the kids I’ve worked with have chosen engineering as their college major. In the meantime I get to learn along with the team. Although I have done some robotics work over the years I’ve never worked with anything as complex as the FIRST robots. This is great exposure for me that I can put to use in my business immediately. It also gives me a chance to watch the team at work and see who the leaders and responsible members are. I sometimes give them added attention and even use them as part time workers from time to time. It’s great for both of us—they get to continue their machine shop education and I get a worker who is already familiar with my tools and procedures

Over the years I’ve been involved in four other business startups with other partners. None of them were very successful. We always started out throwing money at the business hoping we could buy our way to success but it didn’t work.

There’s a classic way to start a business. In your garage, all by yourself, working part time at first. You put all your profits back into the business because you already have another job that supports you, right? After some time if all goes well you out grow the garage and move into larger more professional quarters. You keep this up for 2 or 3 years and before you know it you have a real business. That’s what I did with TTC, unknowingly at first but after 2 years I realized what was happening—I was growing a business the old fashioned way.

And the old fashioned way works.  Ask any of the students who have worked with, and been inspired by, Paul at Tampa Technik, and it’s pretty clear that this business, is a success!