The winner-take-all drive that fuels professional auto racing is also driving new achievements in precision machining.
Venerable racing powerhouse Team Penske highlighted some of its innovative parts in its third Machining Technology Summit, held June 25-26 at its headquarters in Mooresville, N.C., in partnership with Mazak and BIG Kaiser. One of those parts, a steering component engineered and produced about two days before a race in Las Vegas, featured heavily in Penske cars finishing first and second in the Pennzoil 400 on March 3, according to the company.
In a sport where victory hinges on split-second advantages, the machines Team Penske uses to create proprietary parts—and even a lighter-weight jack for high-speed tire changes during pit stops—are being pushed to their limits to take advantage of every last drop of built-in process efficiency.
Mazak Inc., Florence, Ky., in its 25th year as a Team Penske partner, counts 11 machines in the racing giant’s stable. BIG Kaiser Precision Tooling Inc., Hoffman Estates, Illinois, began providing equipment to Penske in 2012 and entered into a full partnership in 2017 so Penske could leverage additional workholding and toolholding capabilities.
“Mazak has continued to step up to bring us equipment that can [improve] productivity [and] create higher accuracy in parts,” explained Jim O’Toole, machine shop manager at Team Penske. BIG Kaiser joined the fold when Penske approached them with a boring head application for “a challenging part” that required “tight tolerance on bore as well as high accuracy on runout between two coaxial bores.”
BIG Kaiser’s portfolio features the tooling that interfaces with the BIG Plus spindle system, “which has been adopted by most of the major machine tools, including Mazak,” said Jack Burley, BIG Kaiser’s vice president of sales and engineering. “We also have an exclusive line of workholding systems that we were able to introduce to the shop [that is] really good for five-axis applications, as well as any vertical or horizontal machining applications.” BIG Kaiser also represents the Italian tool presetter company Speroni in North America, whose equipment is also used in Penske’s shop.
The ultimate value of such technical partnerships is the ability of top-tier users with beyond-the-ordinary performance requirements to tap into the native abilities of the latest digital manufacturing equipment, noted Jim Rutan, Northeast region general manager for Mazak.
O’Toole, who has been in his current role for the past two-and-a-half years, detailed the machines and methods they use to win at the track, whether in NASCAR or Indy racing or other circuits.
Component complexity is increasing, O’Toole noted in his presentation, and requires greater accuracy from machining equipment to get parts to the track faster.
As a case in point, two days before this year’s Pennzoil 400, Team Penske’s engineering team conceived a refined steering component with performance-improving geometries. The design hit the machine shop Friday morning for production, and five parts were machined and on a plane to Las Vegas at 9:30 Saturday morning for that Sunday’s race.
“Around 10:30 a.m. on March 1, engineering came out with a release for a new steering component,” O’Toole recalled. After arranging all materials, tooling and, programming, the first piece was being produced by 1 p.m. The machine shop staff worked staggered shifts for 24 hours to hit the deadline, using its Mazak VARIAXIS i-700 to perform the first operation, which contributed to roughly 90 percent of each part in two-hour and 15-minute cycle times. Added to that was about an hour and a half per part of EDM processing.
But the larger focus of O’Toole’s presentation at the summit was a pair of parts: a steering centerlink for NASCAR competition and an Indy car suspension rocker. With extraordinary attention to every process parameter, each part represents a deep dive into the machine’s capabilities.
For the NASCAR steering centerlink, Penske machined hardened steel on the VARIAXIS i-700 to make a roughly 4-lb part from an approximately 70-lb blank in four hours and 48 minutes; more than 233 cubic inches of material are removed in one operation. The VARIAXIS is equipped with a 40-taper high-torque BIG Plus machine spindle, with a maximum of 12,000 rpm, 186 foot-pounds and 30 hp. A pallet changer and 80-tool magazine allow for lights-out production. Furthermore, BIG Kaiser Unilock workholding technology helped cut cycle time by 50 minutes with increased access and reduced material preparation time and tooling costs by 75 percent over previous solutions. All critical part features were qualified in one operation.
A critical factor for producing the centerlink is the application of Mazak’s G54.4 dynamic work offset compensation, O’Toole noted. “On a typical five-axis machine, you would have to program off the center line of the machine tool,” he explained. With G54.4, “you can essentially pick up anywhere on that component,” for instance by probing the back left corner of the block of material and designating it as the origin. The machine then performs a delta calculation from the center line of rotation and runs a macro to determine how far the back left corner is from the actual center, then treats the back left corner of the part as its center of rotation.
Furthermore, a BIG Kaiser Hi-Power Mill Chuck allowed outside profile roughing with a 1″ five-flute end mill. Burley noted the advantages of the mill chuck over a collet chuck or side lock tool holders. The mill chuck clamps with a needle bearing lock system inside instead of threads “so with its mass and density and the outside configuration with high-clamping force as well as good runout, you can achieve milling capabilities in excess of three or four times over the traditional side lock.”
In addition, Mazak Smooth Machining toolpath technology was used—one of hundreds of enhancements to the technology, Rutan noted. “Customers who use current cutting tooling and Smooth CNC technology to the fullest can get the same competitive edge in business that Penske Racing gets on the track.”
Meanwhile, the IndyCar suspension rocker was produced in 45 minutes out of aluminum in two operations on a Mazak VCN 530 with a pallet changer. Roughly 51.93 cubic inches of material are removed. Special care is taken to produce a repeatable part because a failure can send a car careening into a wall; they endure plenty of wear and engineering changes annually. The rockers are produced about 40 to 50 at a time using a 40 taper BIG Plus coolant-through spindle running at a maximum of 15,000 rpm, 30 hp and 213 psi. A BIG Kaiser Mega Micro Chuck provides clearance for machining in tight areas, thanks to lower tool projection and reduced clamping nut diameters. Precision hole boring is performed with the BIG Kaiser EWD Digital Boring Head. Three boring heads are used; the most recent run of 40 parts required no adjustments, O’Toole noted.
Newer versions of the boring head, Burley added, feature a piezoelectric system that is more resistant to contamination, as well as Bluetooth connectivity to let operators see their adjustments in real time on a phone or tablet. The head stores those adjustments digitally with time and date stamps.
Overall, with 531 wins under its belt and counting, Team Penske’s reliance on cutting-edge machining strategies to achieve significant cycle-time reductions is clearly paying off. The ultimate question for any shop seeking next-level performance must be, “Why do we have a room full of high-tech equipment if we can’t do what we need to do?” O’Toole asked.
Or, as Rutan concluded: Penske is “constantly trying to find that tenth of a second performance improvement on the track. They push the machines and the tooling past the point of what we even think is possible sometimes — and the results are impressive.”