Darrel Yerkovich learns as he goes, following his interests.
“All the things I’m interested in now are hobbies,” he says.
As a youngster, Darrel built bike ramps and worked on cars. Today he works full-time, teaches machining at Cobre Valley Institute of Technology (CVIT), mentors the Globe High School First Robotics Team, and is launching a machining business of his own.
“My goal is to get much better at machining,” Darrel says, “and learn about how to run a business.”
Born and raised in Globe, Darrel graduated from Globe High School in 2003 without “money for college or a plan,” just a need to “get out of town.” He joined the U.S. Navy and served four years as a nuclear machinist mate, operating reactor plant systems on carriers. In 2010, his aunt passed and Darrel went to Buffalo, New York to help relatives settle her estate.
He found temp work monitoring lab equipment at Praxair, an industrial gas company in New York. Every 20 minutes he performed five minutes of “brute force labor.” The other 15 minutes were free. He heard about a project the company needed help with, and volunteered “to build it in his downtime.”
“It was a pivotal moment for me,” says Darrel,” they trusted me to give it a shot.”
Seizing an Opportunity
Meeting design requirements given to him, Darrel built a hot oxygen burner for an experiment at the University of Utah. At 4ft by 6ft, the burner was micro in scale and had to be mountable and shippable. With access to expert machinists and a good working environment, Darrel took full advantage of the challenge.
“I could talk to brilliant people who knew everything about combustion and process and automatic controls. I always had an interest in machining but I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and finally I had mentors that helped me develop the vocabulary of what I was seeing,” Darrel explains. “This was critical to where I am today.”
When the hot oxygen burner was completed, Darrel flew to Utah and helped install it.
“It was the big moment that gave me the confidence that I could do something like this,” he says.
Praxair hired him full-time and gave him specifications and a budget for the next project — an oxygen transport membrane high pressure reactor. A room-sized machine he would build himself. After that he joined a team of 7-10 people and worked on a much larger module test system that took a full year to build.
“For all those systems I found myself in a situation where I needed a piece of metal that could connect a lot of pieces,” Darrel says. “Praxair had a great team of machinists. I hit it off with them and developed friendships, and they offered an open-door policy and mentored me.”
Darrel developed such an interest in machining and developing stuff to be machined that in 2012 he bought a miniature mill and lathe that he squeezed into the second bedroom of his apartment. He found the hobby at home gave him practice for what he was encountering at work and helped him to develop the skill sets he needed to progress professionally.
“They were pretty junky machines,” Darrel says, “but they’ve been priceless to me in just how much they’ve taught me about machining and what I like and what I don’t like, how to hold tools, how to hold parts.”
In 2013, after 3 ½ years in New York, Darrel returned to Gila County.
“I need mountains,” he laughs. “I feel claustrophobic in the city.”
Back Home in Globe
With his laboratory experience back east, Darrel got a job at BHP monitoring water and calibrating machines. Since 2017, he has been employed by AJAX Ltd., an engineering firm that provides services to the mining industry. He monitors the quality of the water and soil through an “over-the-top complicated procedure” that pumps water out of the ground and sends it to the lab.
“Every day is a mixed bag, which is what I love about it,” Darrel says. “preparing the truck and paperwork for whatever task needs to be done and driving out to the middle of nowhere.”
When Darrel heard CVIT had bought a computer numerical control (CNC) mill, he asked who was running it. They didn’t have anyone yet, so Darrel stepped up to teach courses in manual and CNC machining.
On May 1st, 2020, Darrel bought a machine to launch Solitude Components, a sole proprietorship. The machine costs as much as tuition at a 4-year university, and that’s just how Darrel views the investment.
“If I do stuff for myself I have a much quicker turnover of learning and experience,” he says, “more parts and setups, experiencing the whole process.”
Among all his hobbies, Darrel most looks forward to First Robotics Build season with Globe High School students and a skeletal crew.
“I love it!” he says unequivocally. “Everyone is pushing the boundaries of what they know.”
Since 2014 he’s been involved with the team as mentor/coach. He’d like to see more students give it a try. A lot of people, he says, are intimidated by robotics and feel they shouldn’t join the team because they don’t know anything about robotics.
“But that’s not how it works at all. You do it because you’re slightly interested,” he says, “and you learn everything you need to know as you go.”
Last year the Globe High School First Robotics Team won the Arizona North Regional competition. Darrel credits the Robotics program for fostering an environment where people can share ideas, understand each other and communicate effectively. Without those skill sets, he says, the hard skills (professional machining, electronics) don’t matter so much.
“Once I started to really value the communication, the diversity, and going that extra step to have an equitable environment,” Darrel says, “the technical performance of the team grew exponentially.”
A traveler, Patti Daley came to Globe in 2016 to face the heat, follow love, and find desert treasure. She writes in many formats and records travel scraps and other musings at daleywriting.com.