171. Hero: Daniel Herrington – CEO of Voxel Innovations Transcript

00:00 Chris: 

Welcome back to our holidays with our heroes series here on EECO Asks Why. As you know by now, between here and Christmas, you going to hear inspiring stories week in and week out from our heroes as we celebrate this wonderful time of year together. And there’s a big surprise coming on the week of Christmas. And you do not want to miss it.

Now on this particular episode, I sat down with Daniel Herrington from Voxel Innovations. And you may remember Daniel from episode 160, where he talked about pulse electrochemical machining. That was such an interesting episode, because it’s a technology that’s completely new to me and many of our listeners. And you’re going to find out in this episode that Daniel’s story started in his garage and has taken him all the way to Voxel. And it’s an absolutely incredible story. 

Now, speaking of stories, we are getting those war stories and they are incredible. We’re getting the good, we’re getting the funny or getting the inspirational. And remember, those are the stories that you sit around and you tell at the dinner table, maybe you tell them at a cocktail party, right? So get those to us. Check out the show notes for the links and you can figure out how to get that directly to us via DM on Instagram or Facebook. Now it’s time to get some insight into Daniel. Herrington’s amazing journey. Que the music.

Welcome to EECO Asks Why. Today we have a hero episode. I’m very excited to have with me, Mr. Daniel Herrington. Who’s the CEO at Voxel Innovation. So welcome Daniel! 

01:41 Daniel: 

Hey Chris. Thanks for having me. 

01:42 Chris: 

How are you doing, man? 

01:44 Daniel: 

Great. 

01:45 Chris:

Now you are located in Raleigh. I got to come see your shop a few months ago. It was such a eye opening experience for me. I had to invite you on, you know, so excited to hear more about your story here today and just thank you for taking the time with us.

02:00 Daniel: 

Yeah. I’m excited to talk to you guys. 

02:02 Chris: 

Very cool. Very cool. Now we love these hero conversations, Daniel, and we’d like to get them started with just hearing about your journey to where you’re at now.

02:10 Daniel: 

Sure. Yeah. So, I’m currently the CEO of Voxel Innovations and I started that company about five years ago, but if you’ve kind of rolled back the clock a little ways. I started really in Raleigh here, I would go to NC State to get my undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. Yeah. Go pack. Unfortunately, I’m here on Tarheel drive right now. So got a mechanical engineering degree there and graduated in 2009. But actually, while I was an undergraduate and after graduate school or undergraduate school, I was a professional race car driver as well.

And so I was doing that in tandem with my school. And then continued that professionally for a few years afterwards. It turns out in 2010, it’s pretty hard to raise sponsorship dollars in the resession. And I had all this passion for engineering, manufacturing technology, and ultimately went back to graduate school at Duke University, got a degree in engineering management.

And it’s kind of like an MBA for engineers. A really compact accelerated one year program. That was a great fit for me. Left and went to work at the department of energy agency called ARPA-E, which is the advanced research projects agency for energy. It’s a mouthful as acronyms are. And that was a fantastic experience.

I learned a lot about different technologies that people are working on to improve energy efficiency or develop a new type of turbine or new transportation mode. But really inspired me to think a little bit about how those manufacturing or those innovations came to be and really manufacturing is that a corporate, lots of them and, you know, without manufacturing and you couldn’t even dream up some of these ideas that were being proposed and developed and in fact, if you could create an innovations around manufacturing, now you can help drive new innovations in energy technology or transportation or wherever. 

So that probably got my passion going for it. At this manufacturing space, I started doing some consulting and worked for a while with a company called Metem in New Jersey. They drill cooling holes, industrial gas, turbine blades. They’re now part of GE power. And it was at that company where I was introduced to this electric chemical machine process. And it really was inspired about the value of this technology, how underutilized it was in the US and long story short, I ended up starting a business here in the US to really focus on that technology.

I saw it as an underserved opportunity. I had five years ago, I started the business myself and a garage hired one other guy, you know, six or nine months later and slowly been growing since then build our own equipment and find a new applications for this technology. 

05:09 Chris: 

Wow. That’s really cool story, man. Now we got unpack some of it here before we go any further. So Wolfpack undergrad, Duke grad and Voxel is on tarheel drive. So man, you are all over the place, right? But one more thing. I got to go here, man. Cause I’m I used to dabble in racecars myself. So I got to unpack this for our listeners. What type of racing were you doing? 

05:33 Daniel: 

Anything that would let me drive, but mostly I was focused on indie lights. So it’s a step, a little indie car. 

05:41 Chris: 

Open wheel?

05:43 Daniel:

 Open wheel cars. And I did sports cars as well. So at the time it was grandam series, which is now IMSA and really just fishing for any sort of ride I could get, you know, but the wheel cars was where I spent most of my time. Went through a couple of different ladder series started with it was called formula BMW and then formula Mazda. And then indie lights slowly progressing along the way, won a few races here and there, but I’d be lying if I told you I didn’t miss it from time to time. 

06:12 Chris: 

The bet. I mean, we, I used to do a lot with late models, NASCAR, trucks, and we never got into the higher levels, but yeah, man fun stuff there.

06:20 Daniel: 

Yeah. It’s. Learning experience as well. I mean, it’s our set me up for business in some ways, and that, you know, that is a hyper competitive environment and you see right in front of your eyes, a team that’s doing better than you. And you try to understand what they’re doing better, how they can change their operation or your company to out-compete them the next time. And it’s immediate feedback for how well you’re doing both personally, but also in a team environment and your competitiveness in that industry. 

06:49 Chris: 

There are a lot of business analogies and ties that you can make racing that’s for sure. Very cool. Now, Voxel, you’ve been doing that for five years, so you’re probably still cranking quite a few energy drinks and keeping things going, but it seems like you guys are really making some strides. And I’m curious, what are you seeing right now? Some of the biggest challenges for your industry? 

07:11 Daniel: 

Yeah. So, you know, we are facing two challenges. Primarily one is just education about what electrochemical and pulsed electric chemical machining is. That’s a big piece of what we’re trying to do here is educate the US market that A) this process exists and B) it’s got these value propositions and C) we can help you do it, you know?

And so without people understanding the processes or even knowing it exists, it’s going to be really hard for them to spec your process into their operation or to their component design. So there’s an education piece. That’s a big challenge for us. 

And the second is just scale. You know, we’re still a small business, you know, just under 10 people here growing, we have aspirations and plans to be quite a bit bigger than that. We’re small. And so that means if you go talk to a GE or Pratt and Whitney, your small peanuts them so you got to really impress them with technology. And that’s really been our focus, trying to develop innovative valuable processes and technologies so that they can overlook people that you can bring something to table that they can’t ignore.

Whether you’re two people or 500 people. The value of the technology is really what shines through in some of these spaces. So that’s been our focus here. 

08:28 Chris: 

Okay. I mean, very common challenges. You’ll get that scale. No doubt. Cause you guys have a wonderful solution and you just gotta find that right partnerships, get those in place. And I know things will be, you know, take off for you guys. And we love Daniel to give to people listening advice for their careers and somebody sees you as the CEO of box and they want to embrace that entrepreneurial spirit and take that road themselves. What advice would you offer up to someone listening? 

08:56 Daniel: 

Don’t think too hard about it. You kind of just gotta jump in. I like to tell people that I was just dumb enough to start a business. If you told me all the things, I know now five years ago I might not have started yet. You kind of have to take it on faith that there’s an opportunity here. That’s kinda what it’s all about. You believe that there’s an opportunity and you’ll figure out the problems on the way, but if you know what all the problems are and spend too much time finding them, it might discourage you. So that’s maybe one piece of advice.

And the second is to really focus on what you’re passionate about. Manufacturing has really grown to be a passion of mine. You’ll find all my social media, all I do look at manufacturing related things. There’s something about making a physical, tangible object. That’s really appeals to me. And there’s no replacing that. You won’t be able to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. If you don’t have that passion for what you’re doing and you’ll just have to, that’s kind of part of it. And then third, find some trusted friends, advisers, mentors, you know, someone to keep you grounded during that time.

I ended up starting the business by myself. I think it’s very common for you to start with partners. I think if I’d do it all over again, I might’ve tried to find two other partners to start the business with because you’ve constantly got that sort of network of people that are in the day-to-day weeds with you, that you can lean on that I don’t have right now. But I, in fact, I’d make up for that was really good mentors and advisors that they can tell me whether crazy or I’m on the right path. Some perspective is also always helpful. 

10:38 Chris: 

And that does help. Now how about those mentors? Cause we love to hear about them. I am curious because as a CEO, you know, who do you let speak into your life and to do career to the business there. So any anything you’d like to share there around mentors? 

Yeah, sure. I mean, you’ll see, some of them listed on our website there, but my first one was one of my professors at Duke University also had some entrepreneurial experience as well. You know, first I’d say the common theme along all my mentors is I’ve been lucky enough that they have, they’re just genuinely interested in my success. And that’s what you want. They’d probably give you advice, pick up the phone no matter what, you know, whether you’re formerly one of their advisors or not. That’s the most critical thing is to make sure that they are passionate about seeing you succeed. No matter what happens.

And really it’s just been some of my mentors or people that I’ve looked up to. They started businesses in the past manufacturing businesses. They were successful. They sold them to GE or presently. And I’ve just blindly called them and reached out to him and say, Hey, I’m doing a similar track to you. I want to learn a little bit about what you did, what did, and didn’t work. Just pick your brain a bit and start a relationship that way, you know 

Good for you. Did that, does that work? Because I love to hear people say that because some people challenged me on that, but there’s nothing better than just being purely, you know, humble and just asking for advice.

12:04 Daniel: 

I mean first, the worst thing that could say no, there’s kind of no risk there. And second I’m constantly trying to learn. It’d be foolish for me to think that I haven’t started a business until I started this one. So it’s not like I was born with some innate know-how of how to run a business, so I need to go learn from people and, you know, but it’s also important to recognize that every business has its own path and you’re on your own journey. So listen to their advice. They probably have good advice, but you still have to make your own decision. Then a day in it, it might be different. 

And the most interesting and rewarding thing that I’ve found over time is that those advisors also appreciate you making your own decisions and they’ll support you. You come with good reasons to say, listen, I heard what you said I think we’re gonna go this direction, they might say, yeah, I agree. I think that’s a good reason to go, so I can reach out to people all the time, whether it’s on technology or business or whatever, you know, I’m constantly trying to learn something new.

13:12 Chris: 

Great. Now you’re doing a lot of that through social media or different areas, linkedIn, I’m just curious on where do you find it works the best for the listener that they want to start doing that more where they just don’t know where to start. 

13:23 Daniel: 

Yeah. Yeah. I’m trying to think how I’ve met some of these people. Some of them I’ve scoured the internet and found their email somewhere and just blindly email them, got lucky that way. Some I’ve approached at conferences, you know, industry conferences I’ve gone up to and I grab five minutes of their time. Start talking about what we’re doing and ask them a few questions.

I’ve used LinkedIn a time or two, but often people that are mentors are quite busy and they get lots of LinkedIn messages. And so, you might just be adding to their clutter and to some extent you can also just call the office. Sometimes they’ve got an assistant plead your case with the assistant you might get a shot or at least be able to leave a message, you know? 

14:05 Chris: 

People forget we can still pick up the phone and call people. It’s just amazing. 

14:09 Daniel: 

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s, in some ways the best way to get hold of people these days, because people are getting hundreds of emails a day, they’re getting bombarded on LinkedIn. You know, a phone call means a lot more than anonymous email message. That’s right. That can be a real value. 

14:25 Chris: 

Well, thank you for sharing that because I don’t think we’ve really walked down that path from a mentor standpoint for our listeners. So that’s some great points, some great advice. Now, a lot of times when you’re in the engineering world and you’ve done engineering at Duke, you’ve done it at NC State. There’s a lot of stigma with engineers and I love to give people the opportunity to knock something out the park here. So are there any common myths that you’d like to debunk around engineering?

14:50 Daniel: 

So one that sort of specific to manufacturing, really. I don’t know if it’s a myth, but it’s a reality that I keep facing is that at the beginning of this design process. So if you’re working on a jet engine or a medical device, or what have you, as you start designing the concept of your part, you are designing the manufacturing process at the same time, whether you know it or not.

So you’re sitting there designing a part and you might be not thinking at all about manufacturing, in which case it’s kind of the worst scenario because you know, when it hits the manufacturing floor they’re going to send them back and say, we can’t do this, or it’s going to cost 10 times as much.

But the better engineers and the more empowered engineers, the ones that have a good grasp of the manufacturing processes and what it does. And they actually bring manufacturing in early in the design. And to go along with that, you need to make sure you educate yourself on all the different manufacturing processes that are out there. If not you might be missing out, you might be making a part that’s suboptimal or more expensive than it needs to be. Just cause you are unaware of some technology or technique there. So, you know, I think commonly people think of engineers as just sitting in front of a computer all day, dreaming up an impossible to make part of their head.

It does happen sometimes unfortunately, but the best engineers are the ones that are out, understand the full value chain. They understand what the materials are they’re using. They understand the manufacturing processes to make the costs of those things. You know, the more the engineer can understand the economics that happen. That’s just the reality of our world and you can’t design parts that costs 1,000 times more than they should, you know, they’ll never get made. So. So that’s that’s made more advice than anything else. 

16:36 Chris: 

You did a great job there, Daniel, and, you know, something for our young engineers definitely consider as they move forward. And I am curious as the CEO, you know, you’re doing so many innovative things. I mean, it’s in the name of your company, Voxel Innovations. When are you the happiest, you know, one of you getting that fulfillment in your day and you can come home at the end of the day and be like, you know what, today was awesome and it’s because of this. 

16:59 Daniel: 

Yeah. I mean, it probably, happens just when we have been working really hard on a process and finally get the tangible part to come out the other side, the way we want, you know, this process is difficult. It takes grit and perseverance to get through it and do the development on the front end. Things happen that are unexpected all the time, but when the part comes out and it looks fantastic, I mean, that’s the most rewarding feeling. And the thing that’s neat is when we do that and we do it right, you can just push a button and do it again. Once I figured out the formula there, we can repeat it pretty quickly.

And that’s probably when I’m most happiest. And maybe a close second to that is showing that the customer, you know, when you can solve their problem, that’s why we do this, is that help solve these customer problems and, learning about it on the front end is really exciting. A new marketer application and some problem they’re having and being able to show that you can actually address it at the end. Those are quite rewarding experiences. 

18:02 Chris: 

Now take me back to that 800 square foot garage. And you made that first part and it made and it came out to the specs that you wanted. What did that feel like? 

18:15 Daniel: 

Yeah, well, at first I was, so the first part I made was just, it was kind of garbage, but it worked, you know, we made a part. And I was at first, I surprised it worked. It basically set up this whole process. It was a pretty simple operation, but I got kind of lucky. I turned the thing on, it made a part kind of like I expected first time out. So I was a little bit shocked. I think that was a, first time, lucky sort of experience because the next time I tried to make a part, didn’t go so well.

 But you know, to be fair I had spent a lot of time, you know, probably two years of time thinking about how we make this process work, learning about it, talking to people in the market and industry about it, you know, time in previous roles, learning about it. So it was a long time coming to make that first part. Yeah, very rewarding once you do it. 

19:06 Chris: 

I bet. Well, I mean, hats off to what you’re doing and we love to take these hero episodes, Daniel, and get a little bit outside of work and talk about what you enjoy doing for fun. We already know that you’re a race car driver, but maybe we’ll keep we’ll open it up a little bit more. What hobbies do you have? 

19:22 Daniel: 

Lots of hobbies, not a lot of time, because you know, when I do have a little bit of time, I try and be pretty active, play volleyball, basketball, bike riding, you know, anything I can competitive deal with my friends. That’s probably the competitive race car driver in me. Enjoy that, that piece of it. I also do a little bit of woodworking at my shop and here in Raleigh in my sort of shed out back don’t have enough time to do that these days, but wood working feels so easy compared to what I do on a day-to-day basis. I know it’s not, I’m not doing good quality stuff, but 

19:56 Chris: 

Well your tolerances are a lot different, right? 

19:59 Daniel: 

They’re a lot different, you know, a thumb width is good enough for me. 

20:04 Chris: 

Give me a hammer baby and we’re going to make it work, you know? 

20:07 Daniel: 

That’s right. Yeah. And you can go out and make something in one day. There’s some instance or reward there from doing that. So those are probably my main hobbies.

20:17 Chris: 

Okay. Cool. So if you had to pick a sport, you mentioned volleyball, basketball is volleyball, your number one? 

20:23 Daniel: 

Basketball is a sport that I probably enjoy most and follow the most. You know, I ended up watching NBA and college basketball, but that tarmac is getting painful on my knees. So that sand volleyball has been what I’ve been doing most recently. That means I can walk the next day. 

20:42 Chris: 

Very good. Very good. Now how about things you enjoy consuming for fun? You know, it could be podcasts, YouTube, you mentioned you love bingeing manufacturing type content or books out there that you think our listeners may find value in. This could be stuff you enjoy personal or professional as well. 

21:01 Daniel: 

Yeah. So, I have an Instagram account. I don’t think I follow a single friend on it. All I do is follow other manufacturing companies. And it’s been kind of neat actually, because you see what some other high-tech companies doing, whether they’re a machine tool builder or a job shop or something, I learned a few things here or there just watching it and it can be inspiring, you know?

I have probably a secret YouTube addiction, maybe not so secret for my partner, but she understands, but that’s largely sort of people that are building things is the best way to describe it. And sometimes they’re a wild and wacky venture and sometimes it’s other manufacturing channels.

So you can tell, I’ve got a little bit of theme here on the things I consume. I listened to a couple of podcasts Planet Money from NPR. It’s kind of interesting to keep up with the economic side of things. But and then I do read a fair bit, you know, for fun. It’s mostly scifi books for, in my genre, I’d say but also a fair bit of non-fiction.

So, a couple of books I’ve read recently that are quite enjoyable where Why We Sleep. So it goes into the science of sleep and basically describes how none of us get enough of it and what a detriment it is to our lifestyle. So I highly recommend that book, anyone that’s listening. 

22:21 Chris: 

Very good. And we’ll make sure we put those links in our show notes too, for Why We Sleep. I haven’t heard that one yet. So I had to check that out myself. Now we do something Daniel and the hero. I love it. Our listeners love it. It’s called a lightening round. Just a bunch of random stuff. I’m going to fire at you and just whatever comes to your front of mind. Let’s just go with that. So we’ll, I’ll love starting easy. So what’s your favorite food? 

22:48 Daniel: 

Probably tacos. 

22:49 Chris: 

Tacos. Ma’am I’m a man. I hear ya. How about adult beverage? 

22:53 Daniel: 

I’ve been doing a lot of Negroni’s and old fashions and that sort of thing these days. 

22:58 Chris: 

Daniel, we need to hang out more. I mean, you’re speaking my language. All right. All right. I am curious since you said the NBA, so what’s your NBA team? 

23:08 Daniel: 

You know, that’s kind of a fun thing. And the NBA. We don’t have an NBA team here in Raleigh, so I can just pull for whoever so I just watch good games, you know, I did grow up in Winston-Salem, so I saw Chris Paul play through college at Wake Forest, so I keep tabs on him. It’s fun to see him get to the finals and Suns this year. But yeah, it mostly just seeking out good games. 

23:31 Chris: 

I agree. Well those finals. They were some great games there and, you know, hats off to the Bucks. So, good stuff there. How about the all time favorite movie? 

23:39 Daniel: 

It’s gotta be all their original Star Wars movies. 

23:42 Chris: 

Okay. What about an app you can’t live without on your phone? 

23:48 Daniel: 

Oh, that’s probably boring. It’s my outlook email connection to work. 

23:54 Chris: 

I’m with you there. How about a guilty pleasure? 

23:56 Daniel:

Yeah, it’s probably some of the wacky YouTube channels. I’m not so guilty, but there’s a guy named Colin Furze, who’s got a real popular YouTube channel, that guy’s great. 

24:07 Chris: 

Gotcha. Gotcha. Now what about music? What type of music do you enjoy? 

24:10 Daniel: 

A little of everything, you know, Hip-hop, classic rock, indie music. Honestly my partner out feeds up more that to me than I do. So I just follow whatever she’s been setting up on the playlist and listen to that. 

24:24 Chris: 

I got you. I got you. What about what’s on your nightstand? 

24:27 Daniel: 

I’ve got a book and a Kindle. Mostly I read on the Kindle. 

24:32 Chris: 

My wife’s a big Kindle user, so I can appreciate that because I mean the number of books you can put on those you’re never without something to read, you know?

24:40 Daniel: 

That’s right. Yeah. Good for travel too.

24:42 Chris: 

Now you have traveled a lot. It sounds like. So what’s the coolest place you’ve ever been? 

24:47 Daniel: You know, my favorite trip I ever did in the US was rafting down the Grand Canyon. That was an amazing experience, middle of summer. So it screaming hot out during the day, but the water is still ice cold. That probably still ranks up with one of my favorite trips. The coolest place I’ve been recently was I went to Africa and when I did a little safari down there with a bunch of my family, and I mean, it just felt that sort of a once in a lifetime trip it felt surreal. I felt like I was David Attenborough out there looking at all the lions and elephants and stuff up close in person.

25:24 Chris:

I hear you. That is so great. Now you are the first hero that we spoke to that has brought up Africa is their favorite destination, man. So that’s awesome. 

25:32 Daniel: 

Yeah. It’s pretty special. Okay. 

25:36 Chris: 

Now last question, lightning round, man dogs or cats?

25:40 Daniel: 

Dogs. 

25:40 Chris: 

All right. You got it right. 

25:43 Daniel: 

We’ve got two big dogs. I think their both about 90 pounds.

25:46 Chris: 

What kinds of dogs are they? 

25:48 Daniel: 

They’re both mutts. One’s a lab mix of some sort and and one’s a brown one. 

25:54 Chris: 

Brown one. Gotta love it. We’re definitely a dog family here. So Daniel, this has been great. Just getting to know you, the wonderful things you’re doing at Voxel for the listeners out there, check out the show notes, connect with Daniel follow Voxel see what they’re doing. Daniel, we do call it EECO Asks Why, we always end with the why, my friend. So somebody wants to know what your personal, why is, what would that be?

26:21 Daniel: 

You know, my personal why it’s probably all around solving problems with science. You know, I’m an engineer by training. And so I’m constantly, I mean, it’s kind of silly, but I’m constantly asking why, you know, why is this thing not working the way it should? Why is it not as efficient as it should be? And that, that really drives me, it helps me. That’s why I started the business because I said why are there not more ECM BCM services here in the US. So that’s constantly on my mind. It’s kind of engineer’s mindset. It’s thinking about why this is one way, not the other and why it’s not better. 

26:54 Chris: 

I hear ya. Well, you’re doing a great job. You’re definitely one of our heroes and we cannot thank you enough Daniel for taking the time out and sharing your story and your insights, your wisdom for our listeners out there, and just really enjoy getting to know you more. 

27:07 Daniel: 

Great. Thank you, Chris. Good talking to you.

27:09 Chris: 

You have a wonderful day. Thanks.