Plethora hopes to enable anyone, anywhere to create anything. The Maker Spotlight series highlights Plethora employees that embody that same creativity and maker culture outside the office through personal, passion projects.
Michael Von Sothen (MVS) is a senior prototype machinist at Plethora, and the founder of Von Sothen Racing, a group of BMX racers who design and machine parts for BMX bikes.
How long have you been working in machine shops? How did you get started?
Since 2003-- about 13 and a half years ago. I was a body piercer for years and eventually moved to Santa Cruz and started working at Anatometal, one of the best body jewelry manufacturing companies in the world. They make all their jewelry on CNC machines--that’s how I learned to make parts, and I’ve been working at machine shops ever since.
What’s the most fascinating thing you’ve built?
I don’t think anything is more or less interesting, but I like a challenge. I like the next part that I’m going to make that I don’t know how to do. I’ve made parts that have gone into space, parts that have gone on BART, parts that go on bicycles and in computers. More than machining, though, I like designing parts for other people-- the parts that I find most interesting are ones that I can design from the ground up, machine myself, and hand to a customer.
You machine parts for your own BMX Bikes — tell me about that process.
I’ve always liked BMX since I was a kid and saw the movie Rad. We didn’t have enough money to race, but my neighbors did. So, when I got older, I decided to check out BMX racing with my daughter and we went to a track and raced--I loved it. As I continued to race and spend time at the track, I met more and more people there. At the time I was also a machinist, and BMX bikes use a lot of machined parts. So, I made one thing for one person, and as other people heard about it, eventually it made its way to the top BMX companies. I’ve made parts for Sam Willoughby, an Australian Olympian and Nic Long, a US Olympian-- they rode bikes in the Olympics with parts I made.
I still race regularly, now. I just placed 4th at the State series, and [my company, Von Sothen Racing] goes to nationals all the time. Right now I’m making a technologically advanced race bike to show at the Grand National race in November that uses a bunch of new technology never used on a BMX race bike and a custom 50 tooth chainring for, Olympian and Current UCI #1 Men's Elite Pro in the world, Corben Sharrah. In terms of my design process, I draw inspiration from other genres of bicycles and other technology that people are using in road bikes, mountain bikes or auto racing. BMX is pretty far in the past, and the industry doesn’t have a ton of money for R&D. So, when BMX bike companies would come to me and ask me to make them one of their parts, I could see things on their bikes that could be better or stronger, or could be manufactured easier or cheaper. That’s how I got into design.
What was the most challenging part of working on BMX bikes?
People don’t like change- when you come out with something new, people are quick to dismiss it. It’s hard to break out with new tech and get the BMX community to embrace it. There’s always pushback. A lot of people pump out parts, get them made in Asia, and sell them cheaply. But there are few people that go the extra mile to make sure the parts are as good and perfect as can be, ensuring that everything down to the bolts are made here in America.
What are other personal projects you’ve worked on?
I like to reverse engineer broken pieces and make them new again. People always hit me up with weird stuff. But I most enjoy making anything that can help someone that’s been injured. I’ve made parts for prosthetics, for people who race. I made my friend a set of handlebars because he cut half his hand off and he couldn’t use his hand at work. So, I made this piece for him to be able to clip his arm on his handlebar to ride. Anything I can do that’s going to make a difference in someone’s life, that is going to make them be able to do the things they want to do if they didn’t have the physical ability to.
What does your ideal day look like?
My friends and I will go to the BMX track or bicycle jump parks. I like to go watch my kids play sports. Or work on the side.
Why did you choose to work at Plethora?
I worked at a traditional machine shop for years. I always wanted to try new things: new tech, new software, new types of fixturing or processes to make machining more profitable, and I would always get pushback from owners saying that’s not the way you do it. A lot of leaders at traditional shops have owned the company for 40 years. And that’s how machining is-- you always work under older guys who are stuck in their ways. I remember when I first I looked at Nick’s profile, and thought to myself, he looks like a pretty cool guy. He looks young and that’s the boss.
What makes Plethora different from other machine shops you’ve worked at?
It’s always changing around here. There are a lot of people who believe in changing things not just to make money, but to make manufacturing better. Which is why I came to plethora. People on our team want to make things better for our customers, for the factory, and the people who work here.
What is one piece of advice you’d give to those wanting to go into manufacturing?
All the people I see that grow rapidly as a machinists have interests outside of their job that involve machining parts. If you have a drive to learn how to make something, you’re going to learn how to do it faster than other people, rather than just learning how to program a specific part for your customer. I wouldn’t have learned or grown without that trial and error of doing it on my own. Certain people just have that obsession with something they want to make-- they just do it. Today, you can go home and watch countless Youtube videos. You don’t have to only learn at a school. You can read all the free information in the world, and learn everything you want with the internet. At least that’s how I did it -- you can learn anything.
You can check out MVS’s work on his Instagram @vonsothenracing