You Can Get There from Here
Highly specialized contract manufacturer leverages CAM to resolve energy product
Advanced CAM capabilities are helping Douglas Fluid & Integration Technology LLC (DFIT; Prosperity, SC) translate deep process knowledge into bench-ready devices that help energy market researchers bring their concepts to the testing stage faster. Customers are researchers associated with the US Department of Energy, the US Department of Defense, universities, and energy companies that need components, devices, and test equipment designed and delivered quickly so that they can proceed with their projects. DFIT Chief Technologist Richard Douglas believes the company’s tightly integrated design and CNC manufacturing capabilities allow it to succeed in this niche, where being able to focus intently on the customer’s design issues and then quickly produce devices that fulfill their requirements is highly valued.
To that end, the company manufactures its own components from parts cut on a Haas three-axis mill and a Haas two-axis lathe. Douglas creates all of the programs for manufacturing his components using Mastercam X6 Mill and Lathe software, which allows him to zoom in to critical areas of his designs and modify toolpaths in ways that allow him to refine a part’s geometry or avoid “burying” and breaking tools in the hard materials he frequently works with. He became proficient at doing these things even though he had no previous experience creating programs for CNC equipment.
Established in 2005, Douglas Fluid & Integration Technology LLC is a lean four-person company owned by Richard’s wife, Susan Douglas. To solve R&D issues related to the energy marketplace, Richard relies on his deep knowledge of materials and processes garnered from many years’ experience working in the semiconductor industry. He said, “I have designed and built semiconductor reactors from start to finish. I know every aspect from the nature of gasses coming in to the required fluid dynamics, heat-transfer requirements, and safety issues. This knowledge base is very germane to the energy market.”
In the eight years that the company has been in business, Douglas Fluid & Integration has helped its customers resolve a long list of issues ranging from redesigning fuel-delivery hardware used in nuclear reactors, designing fittings that prevent hydrogen leakage in fuel cells, developing working models of vessels designed to process alternative fuels, along with designing and manufacturing equipment to test these devices during scaled-up production.
Dynamic Answer to Tool Breakage
When Douglas Fluid & Integration Technology started doing its own milling, it purchased a user-friendly CAM software package which allowed Douglas to create basic machining programs semiautomatically, with very little programmer intervention required. One day he began making some nuclear components that required aggressive roughing operations on stainless steel. He couldn’t even begin to manufacture the part because every time the tool entered the material, it broke. Tool breakage became a big issue because a broken tool would immediately cost $30 to several hundred dollars, damage the part, and result in the loss of precious manufacturing time during each instance. This led Douglas to purchase a seat of Mastercam Mill Level 1 Software from CNC Software Inc., Tolland, CT. Barefoot CNC, the local Mastercam reseller, installed the software and provided training. Since then, James Wakeford, Barefoot’s owner, has consulted on projects that require machining finesse. Today, Douglas makes extensive use of Dynamic Milling toolpaths to rough out these and similar parts without breaking tools. Dynamic Milling is a machining strategy that relies on a sophisticated algorithm that continuously monitors the condition of the material at every stage, automatically adjusting feeds and speeds to deliver optimal cutting performance without the user having to make time-consuming micro adjustments throughout the CNC program.
The Dynamic Milling toolpaths use the full flute of the tool at high speeds with minimal step-overs for fast material removal. At the same time, the self-aware algorithm is avoiding tool burial, minimizing heat buildup and providing better chip evacuation. Today, Douglas can make 12 of these parts in succession on the same tool without breaking it. Tool breakage is no longer an impediment to delivery of a solution, even when Douglas must work with extremely hard exotic materials.
Integration with CAD
Douglas creates his energy components and devices in AutoCAD then imports the solid model directly into Mastercam to begin creating toolpaths for machining. Because of the similarities Douglas found between the AutoCAD and Mastercam user interfaces, he was able to quickly acclimate himself to programming his CNC equipment in the latter. With only a little training, he was soon creating CNC milling programs to manufacture mechanical components and tools for the transportation and management of nuclear fuel rods to make them more user-friendly.
In one case, Douglas was asked to update the design of a 48" (1220-mm) long solid stainless steel feeder bar with protruding extensions used for opening and closing the lids of fuel rod powder containers. Douglas was able to reduce the weight of this tool from more than 50 to 20 lb (22.5–9 kg) by making it from several bolted aluminum components rather than stainless steel. This design modularity means that replacing a component can repair a damaged tool. Since the work is primarily R&D, the CNC equipment is relatively small. “One of the nice things about Mastercam for this type of project is that it allows me to see my part on a model of the machine’s table so that I can verify that it will support all the machining I need to do on one side before I flip the part and do the other.” Being able to visualize the manufacturing strategy allows Douglas to make the parts he needs with fewer setups to keep the cost of small-volume projects within reason.
Controlling Toolpath Geometry
Some of the most challenging projects Douglas gets involved with have to do with alternative fuels and fuel cells. Solving the problems his customers deliver to him calls for a unique combination of understanding that can encompass materials, fuel properties and processes and the mechanics of fluid motion. Once Douglas has conceived a device that incorporates these principles, he relies on Mastercam to translate his models into meticulous replications of his mechanical design.
For example, a customer recently asked him to complete the design of a small hand-held mixing chamber that could remove sulfur from JP8 fuel to use in a fuel cell. Douglas came up with the idea of a helical chamber with widely spaced but very thin copper vanes projecting from a heated core. The helical chamber serves to mix the fuel and raise it to ideal processing temperature while dispersing it through a granular medium that draws off the sulfur. Douglas quickly came up with a design that would work, but he did not know how he was going to manufacture the helical insert that would be screwed into the mixing chamber. Once again, he turned to Barefoot CNC, who showed him how Mastercam Lathe could be used to create a machining process that would cut the fine vanes without distorting them or crashing the tool and holder. Douglas used off-the-shelf hardware to create an adjustable tool to reach all the areas of the vane that would require careful machining. He drew this tool in Mastercam and used the product’s simulation features to make sure the tool would perform the desired cutting actions without crashing into the overhanging vanes.
Something New All the Time
Douglas says that he is presented with some new energy-related challenge almost on a weekly basis. With the control he has achieved over his toolpath behavior and the ability to simulate manufacturing processes before he cuts metal, there has been no case where he has been unable to replicate what he has designed in CAD thus far.
Edited by Yearbook Editor James D. Sawyer from information provided by CNC Software Inc.
This article was first published in the 2013 edition of the Energy Manufacturing Yearbook.