Transforming Necessity into Opportunity
Nonmetallic part maker used energy industry downturn to improve CAM proficiencies and become an even more robust supplier.
Until the mid-’90s Precision Fluorocarbon Inc. (PFI; Tomball,TX) was a nonmetallic machining business primarily serving the energy marketplace—the oil & gas industry in particular. After a severe downturn hit the oil business, the company was faced with the problem/opportunity of translating its unique competencies into other fields.
The company’s nonmetallic CNC machining proficiencies based on the advanced capabilities of its CAM software, Mastercam from CNC Software (Tolland, CT), allowed it to make significant inroads into other markets by solving challenging problems. When the oil field business came back in 2010, PFI was an even more robust business and resumed its leadership position in that field.
Nonmetallic Machine Shop
One of the first product lines the company began manufacturing shortly after it was founded by Howard Frank in 1989, was compression molded PTFE (PolyTetraFluoroEthylene) stock shapes, custom-machined components and thermally formed diaphragms for air-operated pumps. Today, the company still molds stock engineering thermoplastic shapes that are sold to other manufacturers. However, the bulk of its molding output is consumed internally and used for machining engineered plastic components.
Howard’s son, Steve Frank, vice president of PFI, said “We do a tremendous amount of high-performance, high-precision machining of a variety of materials including PTFE, PEEK [PolyEtherEtherKetone], nylon, polypropylene, UHMW [ultra-high molecular weight plastic], and even some composite materials that aren’t considered plastics per se.”
By 1998, the company’s rudimentary CAM programming software would not allow Frank and a recently hired programmer to generate programs fast enough to keep pace with the demand for machined plastic components, particularly for the growing oil field customer base. Together, they surveyed the CAD/CAM market, closely evaluated three products and chose Mastercam. Today the company uses no manual machines. Two seats of Mastercam X7 Mill, two of X7 Lathe along with Mastercam Solids support a sophisticated manufacturing operation involving nearly 50 employees working two shifts and 26 CNC machines—lathes and three-, four- and five-axis CNC mills.
“Over the years, this decision to standardize on Mastercam has proven to be of tremendous benefit to our company,” Frank said. “Mastercam has grown and its capabilities have improved dramatically since we acquired it. We have used these capabilities to improve our productivity and also to capture new streams of business.”
When the Going Gets Tough
The energy industry took a severe downturn in the early ’90s and PFI tightened its belt to avoid layoffs and keep everyone working. Then it got to work exploring other markets, including medical, components for pharmaceutical equipment, semiconductor manufacturing equipment, pumps, valves, etc.
Although the oil & gas business had dipped from nearly 100% to about 20% of the company’s revenue, PFI persevered and grew because of its unique nonmetallic manufacturing expertise. Frank explained that the machining of engineering grades of plastic is a lot harder than anyone without that experience could imagine. For example, PTFE and other engineering thermoplastics are very sensitive to temperature fluctuations. So PFI keeps ambient temperatures in the plant between 74° and 75°F (23° and 24ºC) year round to avoid nonlinear thermal expansion and contraction of materials during machining.
There are also unique internal stresses in plastics that have to be understood and relieved during the manufacturing processes. Finally, PFI is continually dealing with the problem of tool wear because most of the materials machined are filled with abrasive materials like glass, carbon fibers, carbon powder, carbon beads, and powdered metals (bronze and stainless steel). These fillers improve physical properties, but they can wear out tools quickly and play havoc with machine offsets.
PFI has used Mastercam as a tool not only for improving programming productivity but also obtaining the highest reasonable machine cycles while balancing the difficulties presented by thermal effects, internal stresses and tool wear along with the frequent requirement to achieve high surface finishes. Over the years, PFI has captured its manufacturing experience into its tool libraries, making it possible to select the right tools and optimal feeds and speeds on part geometry and material formulation (of which there are hundreds).
When the energy business essentially went away, PFI took its expertise in machining difficult nonmetallic parts to other markets. The pump industry provided a logical extension of the company’s capabilities. PFI soon began custom machining a variety of engineered plastic components for them, a business which continues to this day. PFI has developed a presence in the medical market, machining a variety of critical nonmetallic components including molds for breast implants.
Frank was particularly proud of a project his company recently completed for a semiconductor manufacturer. It involved reverse engineering and manufacturing a PTFE carrier tray used in the production of silicon wafers. Frank used Mastercam’s Solids package to model the part based on measurement data captured from the original tray supplied by the customer. He only had a couple of days to complete this part of the assignment since the original object was still being used in production.
Frank said, “I was able to create a solid model in Mastercam and from that create 2D layouts with dimensioned drawings. Then I turned the drawings and the parts back over to our inspection department—to inspect my drawings to the part. Once we had all the data collected, a good solid model and good 2D drawings, we received an order for five. I think the solid rod of PTFE we made for this weighed approximately 90 lb [40.5 kg] and the finished product weighed about 7 lb [3.15 kg]. We machined away that much material.”
Energy Market Rebound
During the past several years the energy market has rebounded substantially and all of the technology and expertise PFI has developed is key to its being awarded a variety of substantial projects. Some of these involve precision machining of PEEK electric connectors that assure deep downhole signal reliability even under extremes of temperature and pressure.
The popularity of CO2 and water injection as an ultra-efficient means of liberating oil and gas from the subsurface of geological formations has driven an important stream of business for PFI—the modification of standard API couplings for lined piping systems. This was the company’s first foray into metal machining, other than for internal tooling requirements. Frank said CO2 combines with water to form carbonic acid that can eat through pipe joints very quickly. Utilizing Mastercam for all of the design, Frank aided an inventor/customer in designing a modified coupling with a PTFE corrosion barrier that has recently been awarded a patent by the US Patent Office.
Because of its expertise and excellence in manufacturing, PFI was awarded the contract to machine the corrosion barrier/seal, modify the couplings and install the seal for a turnkey product. PFI has set up a workcell dedicated to manufacturing this product line.
Frank said, “I designed a master aluminum baseplate that goes in the machine. It has changeable inserts that allow us to move from one size coupling to another because we do a whole range of sizes. Using Mastercam Solids I was able to create this workholding system and prove everything out as far as fit and function, and it is fantastic. We’ve repeated that a number of times since and have four machines and an assembly area dedicated to one product line.”
The oil field business really started to pick up for PFI in 2010. The years 2011 and 2012 were record ones for the company, and 2013 was better than average. The energy market now represents more than half of PFI’s business. The recent growth has necessitated a third expansion of their facility. In the near future, groundbreaking will commence on an expansion that will increase the facility from the current 38,000 ft2 (3535 m2) to more than 50,000 ft2 (4650 m2).
However, the company continues to explore currently under-utilized capabilities of Mastercam along with new technologies that will allow it to more efficiently machine nonmetallic components regardless of the industry.
This article was edited by Yearbook Editor James D. Sawyer from information supplied by CNC Software.
This article was first published in the 2014 edition of the Energy Manufacturing Yearbook.
Published Date : 6/5/2014