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Out of the Lab, Into the Industry: Microlution Finds a (Very) Small Niche

 

By Ilene Wolff
Contributing Editor

A little more than 10 years ago, Microlution’s founders were graduate engineering students at IMTS 2004, and facing an endless stream of visitors curious about the prototype micro-machining center they brought to demonstrate.

“We had many companies come by and ask if they could buy one,” said Andy Phillip about the machine he helped build in a lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with classmate Andrew Honegger.

Soon after, the pair co-founded Microlution and set up shop six miles away from IMTS’ McCormick Place location in Chicago.

“We’re very proud to be a part of the US machine tool industry, solving some tough manufacturing challenges,” said Phillip.
Microlution Bone Plate Example Titanium
Microlution recently introduced its sixth machine line, has seen year-over-year sales percentage increases in the double-digits, and seems to have found its micro-niche in the global business of machine tools.

How’d they do that?

For starters, the interest at IMTS told them there must be a gap in the marketplace.

“We started with a clean sheet of paper and designed a machine optimum for small parts,” said Phillip, Microlution’s president. “What’s very special for us is we focus not only on small parts, but also small features where you run into the limits of the materials.”

Building a machine from scratch is an advantage vs. downsizing a large machine designed for macro-machining because you have freedom to design specifically for the application, said Lynn McPheeters, a Microlution investor and board member.

“Your chances of success are much less if you try to downsize,” said McPheeters, who retired 10 years ago as CFO of Caterpillar. “When we were most successful with new products [at Caterpillar], it was when we were designing for the special application we were getting into.”

Microlution’s platforms include the 363-S three-axis and 5100-S five-axis milling machines; ML-5 femtosecond laser precision drilling machine; FLP femtosecond laser cutting machine; MR-4 precision micro lathe; and MLDS multi-station femtosecond laser cutting and milling system, its newest technology.

The MLDS is designed for the laser to be working as much as possible, and with the capability to gang as many as three workpieces on the machine at a time.
 
All of Microlution’s machines, including the MLDS, can be outfitted with a camera or other sensors for inline metrology.

“What we offer is a very powerful capacity with the metrology,” said Phillip, noting that manufacturers sacrifice accuracy and speed when metrology is a separate step. “The smaller the parts get, it’s an advantage to have multiple functions in one machine and, in some instances, not an advantage but a necessity.”

In addition to guaranteeing accuracy on the micron scale, Microlution’s machines are also relatively small. Footprints range from 0.64 × 0.71 m for the 363-S to 1.9 × 1.9 m for the MLDS (including all ancillary components). They not only use less electricity and compressed air to do the job, they’re faster than the competition, Phillip said.

“When you scale a machine down, you’re making a machine that can be more productive in terms of dynamic performance,” he said. To illustrate, Phillip compared a racecar’s ability to follow a racetrack’s contours and turns compared with that of a lumbering double-decker bus.

“If you’re going to be making small parts, you’re going to have to achieve tight tolerances” like the racecar, he said.

In addition to the medical sector, the company’s machines are at work in the aerospace, automotive, consumer electronics and semiconductor industries. Its medical customers, which comprise 25–40% of their business, include companies using Microlution technology to churn out bone plates, spinal implants, cardiac and other catheters, neurosurgical devices, plastic hearing aid components and arthroscopic surgical tools.

As Microlution found its footing in the worldwide machine tooling industry in the last decade, it’s expanded to 24 employees and grown its client roster, with some customers coming back for additional machines.

“I think it’s in the repeat business that tells me we’ve got something here,” said McPheeters.


Published Date : 5/12/2015

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