Shop Solutions: Specialty Fabricator Sees the Laser Light
Back in 1967, West-Mark Inc. (Ceres, CA), began business as a manufacturing and repair facility for dairy transport tankers. It quickly expanded to become a leading West Coast builder of fluid-transport vehicles for many industries, including petroleum, firefighting, military, construction, food, liquid sanitation, even arctic equipment. Today, the company enjoys a diversified customer base and, in addition to the Anchorage, AK location, operates manufacturing, fabrication, assembly, and repair facilities in Ceres, Atwater, and Bakersfield, CA. Over 150 employees provide West-Mark customers a broad range of vehicles for sale or rent, plus the company maintains full service and repair operations.
In the late 1990s, another market sprang up for the company, namely, the fabrication of display enclosures for entertainment venues, kiosks, elevators, airports, shopping malls, and other retail/commercial establishments. Using the engineering and manufacturing skills that had proven successful in industrial markets, the company opened its "Digital Factory" in Atwater, where it produces an assortment of enclosures and freestanding kiosks under the Perfected Protection brand name.
According to Fabrication Director, Chris Portmann, West-Mark, which had long been an integrated design, fabrication, and assembly company, saw one area that needed better control and cost containment, namely, the laser cutting of the various stainless, carbon steel, and aluminum materials used in their products. The company was using the services of three local laser job shops, and occasional bottlenecks would occur, in addition to the cost factors involved.
As the company continued to grow, its production challenges grew, as well. West-Mark knew a change was in the wind. At a meeting with one of its machine/equipment dealers, Metal Process Engineering Inc. (Santa Ana, CA), West-Mark was introduced to the plate laser from Han-Kwang USA Inc. (Lombard, IL) with integrated material tower automation. In one of those "light bulb" moments, a decision was made, the acquisition of the laser proceeded, and the company hired an experienced laser operator from a local shop.
The benefits soon became apparent. Portmann explains: "Very quickly, we realized we could run a lot faster to save time and money. Beyond that, we could be more responsive to the one-off and short-run job requirements we get all the time in our operation. Because of the software we use and the products Han-Kwang provided us, we were able to integrate those short runs into the nesting strategies with our longer run jobs."
The tower automation provided West-Mark the flexibility to do several more things in its production. Because of the powerful CNC onboard the Han-Kwang laser, frequently-used materials could be stacked inside the tower on pallets for quick access and start-up. The fully automated cycle capability allowed West-Mark to move into a lights-out manufacturing strategy, thereby providing additional cost containment in personnel and power consumption.
The laser machine configuration is Han-Kwang's Model FS 4020, a long-bed gantry-style, flying optic plate laser with twin 6 x 12' (1.8 x 3.7-m) shuttle pallets and an eight-high materials tower, all controlled by the Sinumerik 840D from Siemens (Elk Grove Village, IL). Materials processed at West-Mark on this laser include 304 and 316 stainless, A36 and 570 carbon steel, and 3003 and 5054 aluminum. Portmann points out that the company uses Masonite blanks to protect the surfaces of materials during unload sequences and that this extra protection step has not slowed the laser's production in any substantial way.
West-Mark typically uses Inventor CAD and Radan CAM systems, and the proprietary nesting software provided by Han-Kwang. Since West-Mark launched its 3-D software use at approximately the same time as purchasing the laser, the company's programmers and operators shared a learning curve. Chris Portmann notes, "It was a law-of-unintended-consequences situation. The market slowed at the same time we were acquiring the new machine and software packages, so our guys were able to learn in the slow times." He further observes the company has enjoyed an ability to be more responsive to customer needs, and that has led directly to more new business for West-Mark, including doing laser processing for other local firms.
A particular benefit of the Han-Kwang laser, according to West-Mark personnel, is its ability to process aluminum tread plate with the diamond side up. The dross falls onto the back side of the material, compared to the typical laser cutting diamond side down, where the dross falls on the visible side of the material. In the production of its high-precision metal parts, assemblies, and fabrications, the company operates a full complement of laser, shearing, rollforming, head forming and flanging, brake forming, punching, milling, welding, and quality-inspection equipment.
West-Mark, in addition to the Digital Factory production of enclosures and kiosks, builds fuel tankers, water buffaloes and fuel bowsers, water tenders, firefighting apparatus, grease trap, septic-tank vacuum trucks, DOT Code tanks, even aircraft refuelers, working in a variety of industries, as well as for the Department of Defense, National Park Service, Department of Interior, US Army, Navy, Air Force, and the civilian supply chain.
For more information on Han-Kwang USA Inc., go to www.hankwangus.com or phone: 630.916.0200.
Founded out of a residential garage in 1995, Computer Integrated Machining Inc. (CIM; Santee, CA) has worked hard to establish a reputation as a company eager to take on work deemed too difficult by many of its competitors. Sustained, substantial growth in serving customers across the country, in industries including aerospace, energy, photonics, lasers, sound, automotive, military, and medical has led CIM to move to new facilities six times, most recently to its current 10,000 ft2 (929-m2) facility.
Tough Jobs Lead to Unmatched Success
CIM has succeeded in establishing and sustaining competitive advantage by specializing in areas for which foreign production is a poor option. These can range from jobs requiring quick turnaround times to difficult parts with high-quality requirements to targeting companies that value deep working relationships that are difficult to forge with suppliers on another continent.
"When we started, we knew we wanted to build a diverse customer base so that we wouldn't be too susceptible to a downturn in any specific industry," says Mike Brown, president of CIM. "To accomplish this, we decided our niche would be focusing on work that required manufacturing capabilities that would be beyond most of the competition. We specialize in work that other companies don't want to deal with because of its difficulty."
To accomplish this, CIM constantly evaluates new manufacturing technologies and integrates the ones that seem a logical fit within its operations. The company also builds and maintains partnerships with other manufacturers that specialize in complementary areas of the production chain. These relationships allow CIM to act as a single-source supplier for customers, so that every aspect of an order is machined or purchased and assembled, and then delivered to the customer as a final product.
In recent years, CIM has focused increasingly on working with small parts containing complex geometries, made from difficult-to-machine materials. In late 2008, the company ventured into the realm of nano machining, defined as using milling tools smaller than 0.02" (0.51 mm) in diam.
"We had the opportunity to go after an aerospace job that brought us face to face with machining nano features on a part," says Brown. "As technology moves forward, there will be an increasing demand for this type of work, and being able to tackle it will be an important aspect of maintaining our reputation as a shop that takes on the toughest jobs and toughest materials."
Machined from Nitronic 60 stainless, the part in question measures a relatively large 0.125 x 0.25 x 3" (3.2 x 6.3 x 76.2 mm), but contains several nano features. In particular, it requires a slot that is just 0.008" (0.2-mm) wide x 0.0025" (0.06-mm) deep. CIM uses a 0.006" (0.15-mm) end mill to cut the slot, and must hold tolerances of +0.0005"/-0.0" (0.013 mm). While the process was within CIM's abilities, it proved especially challenging. Runout was constantly a factor, and operators were forced to change tools after the machining of each component.
At that time, CIM had been in the initial stages of selecting a tool presetting system. As a precursor to this, the company had decided to integrate a new toolholding system, and was evaluating its options. Heat-shrink systems seemed to provide some of the properties needed by CIM, but the company was hesitant to adopt the technology due to the stresses placed on the material from the heating and cooling processes. When a distributor provided information on the powRgrip system produced by Rego-Fix Tool Corp. (Indianapolis, IN), CIM felt it had found the most suitable option.
"I went and looked at the powRgrip, and the technology behind it really impressed me," says Brown. "A rep came in and loaded up a couple of our tools with the system, so that we could run some tests and see what kind of results could be achieved. The holders cost a little bit more initially, but once we started using them, it quickly became obvious that they were our best option in terms of results and value."
The powRgrip system consists of a toolholder, high-precision collet, and compact machine that inserts the collet and tool into the holder. Over 6t of force are used to join the tool, collet, and toolholder, with the mechanical interference between the components reportedly providing the highest gripping forces on the market. The stability of the system provides runout of below 0.0001" (0.003 mm).
The results of integrating the new toolholding system were immediate and substantial. With the incredibly small runout, CIM was able to run faster. Total process time on the aerospace component shrank from 6 to 4 hr. Additionally, it was now possible to run five components on each tool, whereas previously each tool would only last for one part. Setup time was also significantly reduced.
After seeing the results in the nano features of the aerospace component, CIM decided to apply the powRgrip toolholders to some of its other small components. The company had long produced metal-backed circuit boards that feature an aluminum or copper substrate with a layer of RT/duroid laminate from Rogers Corp. (Rogers, CT) that is then covered with a sheet of copper just 0.001" (0.030-mm) thick. When machining the parts, care must always be taken to avoid volcanoing, which is a deformation of the surface around a drilled hole. The circuit boards are very expensive, and any scrap is unacceptably costly.
"In the past, we had to be very careful when machining circuit boards," says Brown. "We had to check tools constantly. If we were producing a typical lot of 30 components, we almost always had at least one drill break because of the runout. Using the powRgrip system, we can run lots with no drills breaking and the accuracy is just spot on. It has made for a more stable process, and provided us with cost and time savings."
CIM integrated the powRgrip system in March 2009, and it has quickly become yet another symbol of the company's philosophy of constantly increasing and upgrading its capabilities. When visiting CIM's facility, customers routinely ask about the system when they see it in use, and the company takes advantage of those opportunities to share its commitment to always improving its operations.
"The downturn this year has impacted everyone, but our approach to manufacturing has allowed us to weather it as well as is possible," says Brown. "When you invest in your capabilities and go after the really tough work, companies view you as a partner, and a far preferable option to foreign production. That really opens up your potential for success."
For more information on Rego-Fix Tool Corp., go to www.rego-fix.com or phone: 317.870.5959.
Software Carves a Deeper Path to Success
Triangle Precision Industries (Kettering, OH) specializes in prototypes and low-volume production for a variety of high-tech industries. It is always on the lookout for new processes and technology that will increase shop productivity and give them a competitive edge.
Located in the heart of technology-based Miami Valley since 1982, Triangle Precision has customers in almost every sector of industry; from the machining and printing trades to aerospace/defense, government, medical, and the automotive industry. Its 50 highly trained employees have a full complement of state-of-the-art machining equipment, including the latest in VMCs and HMCs set up with palletized loading and tombstone workholding capabilities, wire EDM, mills, lathes, and surface grinders.
"We tend to do prototypes and small runs," explains Triangle Precision's CNC Coordinator Tim Friedmann. "Our customers vary across many industries. Our specialty is doing the work few others will quote due to the short runs and part complexity involved."
Since profit margins are razor thin with this type of work, Triangle Precision has to be very efficient. "As a company, we have to stay in front of the competition, so we always try anything that's new. I tell all the suppliers I deal with, 'whenever you've got the latest and greatest, knock on my door,' we're always looking to use the next big thing before the competition does," Friedmann states.
At a recent trade show, Friedmann discovered VoluMill from Celeritive Technologies Inc. (Cave Creek, AZ). He recognized that it represented a new technology that could give his company a competitive edge. Friedmann, who has been with Triangle Precision since 1992, didn't need much convincing to bring VoluMill into his shop. He admits that he initially tried to recreate the type of toolpath it generates, which he had seen at the trade show, with his Edgecam system, which has trochoidal milling with an adaptive feed rate option.
"Edgecam allows me to improve some of the problem areas in the toolpath it generates with these options, but I still end up with a toolpath that has sharp curves and numerous problem spots," Friedmann says. "Volu-Mill approaches the generation of the toolpath completely differently. It generates a native toolpath that doesn't have any sharp corners or poor machining characteristics to begin with."
Friedmann says he had a troublesome aluminum aerospace part in mind as he toured the exhibits at the trade show, so when he returned to work he immediately went to the VoluMill Web site. He was excited to discover that VoluMill was available in a stand-alone version that could be used with any CAM system, so he immediately took out a free trial of Volu-Mill Universal, a full-featured, CAMneutral, two and three-axis toolpath engine for any geometric configuration. The stand-alone engine can take part designs in the popular neutral file formats from any CAD/CAM system, including Triangle Precision's Edgecam system, and output high-performance toolpaths in G-code or CL data.
He used his free trial on the part he thought about at the trade show. "We had already made 10 of these parts and had just received an order for another 50," Friedmann explains. "But we had exceeded my estimated cycle time on the first order, so we didn't do very well. I wanted to see if VoluMill could turn the situation around."
The part is a 12 x 14 x 4" (305 x 356 x 102-mm) box with a 1/8" (3.2-mm) thick wall that took more than an hour to rough with a ¾" (19-mm) cutter at 100 ipm (2.5 m/min), using a 0.300" (7.6-mm) depth of cut and a 60% step over.
"The Edgecam toolpath had a number of sharp corners, which created a lot of force on the tool, so we had to slow the feed rate and spindle speed way down to save the tool, but that made it impossible to fully utilize the capabilities of my machine tool," Friedmann explains.
Using toolpaths generated by Volu-Mill Universal, Friedmann was able to reduce the machining time from 68 to 24 min. "I used a 5/8" [15.9-mm] end mill and cut ¾" deep with a ¼" [6.3- mm] stepover at 400 ipm [10 m/min]," Friedmann remarks. "It's quite an impressive process, because the greater depth of cut and four times the feed rate more than offset the smaller width of cut. The machine tool is operating at a much higher efficiency now, and, surprisingly, the tool life is much better, too. As soon as my boss saw the results, he said, 'write them a check, we'll pay for VoluMill on this one order.'"
He's eager to use VoluMill Universal on other jobs already in-house. "VoluMill Universal is now part of my tool package. If there's a part with a pocket or an application where I have to get rid of a lot of material, I'll use it. For heavy metal removal, VoluMill is a no-brainer."
For more information on Triangle Precision Industries, go to www.triangleprecision.com or phone: 937.299.6776. For more information on VoluMill, go to www.celeritive.com or phone: 888.253.6701.
This article was first published in the June 2010 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.