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Plastic Injection Molder Turns to Gun Making

Jim Lorincz
By Jim Lorincz Contributing Editor, SME Media

Making plastic medical components at TRA Medical or handguns at FMK Firearms depends on advanced Doosan machining centers technology

In 2006, Jim Pontillo, founder of TRA Medical Inc. (Placentia, CA), saw two distinct trends: his medical mold-making workload was diminishing and demand for guns and gun components was rising. Sizing up TRA Medical’s core competencies, Pontillo saw an opportunity for growth in the development and production of 9-mm handguns. Today, these guns are branded and sold under their own brand FMK Firearms, which is a stand-alone business.

Founded in 1994 as a tooling manufacturer, TRA Medical has evolved into a full-service plastic injection molder offering product design services as well as tool design and manufacturing services. In addition to a Doosan DNM 500 HS, TRA Medical has eight plastic injection molding machines which range from 25 to 250 tons. In addition to supplying key components for FMK Firearms, TRA Medical serves its commercial, aerospace, and medical customers and maintains a class 100,000 clean room for molding services.

Pontillo feels that features that can be found in the spindle, guideways, and control of the DNM 500 HS make it ideal for machining high-precision tooling for molds The 15,000-rpm inline spindle found on the HS version offers superior surface finish, while the spindle head cooling system maintains accuracy with minimal thermal growth during the long, continuous operations typically required for mold making. The DNM’s roller-type linear motion guideways also make a significant contribution by allowing for higher feed rates and interpolation, which is equally important when machining a mold. And finally, the DNM HS, which is equipped with a Fanuc 31 i control, offers additional look ahead, a must have feature in this industry.

While TRA Medical manufactures plastic components for FMK Firearms as it does for many of its other service clients, FMK Firearms Inc. has its own facility. The two operations under the ownership and leadership of Jim Pontillo are equipped as follows: TRA Medical operates out of an 8000 ft2 (743-m2) building and is equipped with one Doosan 500 HS vertical machining center. FMK Firearms utilizes its own 7000 ft2 (650-m2) building and is equipped with three Doosan HP4000 horizontal machining centers and two Doosan DNM 400 vertical machining centers.

Molds for Pistol’s Polymer Frame, Grip, and Backstrap

TRA Medical supplies all polymer components to FMK Firearms. Most notable and innovative is the shock absorbing backstrap for the 9C1pistol. Tooling used to produce these components are representative of the mold tooling machined on their Doosan DNM 500 HS. “The most unique feature of our pistol is the rubberized backstrap,” said Pontillo. “This backstrap not only reduces the recoil one feels when firing, it hugs and grips the palm of the shooting hand to provide a comfortable, positive grip. The result is a grip that seems to mold to the shooter’s hand, instead of having to mold your hand to fit the grip.”

“We’ve paid careful attention to the ergonomics of the 9C1. Some pistols feature a dimple in the grip for the shooting-hand thumb to rest in. FMK has opted to extend the dimples into two channels running from the front to the back of the frame. The result is a noticeable narrowing of the grip for both the thumb and trigger finger. The trigger guard provides a more generous curve where it connects to the grip so as to give the middle finger more room,” said Pontillo.

Many of the features found in the 9C1’s unique grip have contributed to their popularity among female buyers. Back in 2008 female gun owners made up less than 4% of all buyers. The female gun owner sector has quickly grown to 20% of all gun buyers, a potential market opportunity not missed by Pontillo. In fact, FMK offers the 9CI with a pink polymer frame and grip, which is extremely popular among its female buyers. Additional colors available are: black, urban gray, green and dark earth.

Pontillo’s experience as a toolmaker and a moldmaker and the advanced machining technology he employs have allowed his company to produce a gun with a much better feel for the end-user. The combination of soft materials on contact surfaces married to hard metals on functioning surfaces has created one of the best balanced 9-mm handguns on the market. Since FMK Firearm’s entry into the firearms market, Pontillo has seen sales increase from 1200 pistols in 2010 to an expected production of 12,000 this year.

Manufacturing and selling guns in the US isn’t an easy task; that’s why it is so interesting to see a young company like FMK succeed in establishing its plant in California. A significant reason for its success is that FMK Firearms sources plastic components from TRA Medical and metal stampings and springs from another vendor and has devised an integrated manufacturing approach: All major mechanical parts are machined from raw stock by FMK Firearms and final assembly, testing, and packaging are all done in its own facility. And with their unique experience with plastic manufacturing techniques they offer one of the most unique lockable boxes from an OEM manufacturer. The resulting product is an authentic Made in the USA 9-mm pistol.

Machining Slides and Barrels for FMK 9C1 Pistols

The slide of the FMK 9C1 requires the usual amount of grip strength and pressure to cycle as most mid-sized 9-mm pistols. The magazine release has a smooth surface but must be easy to locate and operate. The blued-steel ejector slides are machined complete, in two operations, from solid in-house by FMK, instead of a third-party vendor.

The first of three Doosan horizontal machining centers was installed in 2009, along with a Doosan DNM 400 vertical machining center, both purchased through Jeff Henderson of Protek CNC Sales, based in Simi Valley, CA.

“Jeff had been calling on us for maybe 10 years. He remained persistent, even when at first we purchased CNC machines from another machine tool builder. It wasn’t until we hit the higher volumes driven by demand for our FMK 9C1 that we realized we needed more durable machines with more sophistication. In the mold-making environment, you’re cutting heat-treated steel, you run at slower speeds, and most of the time is spent actually setting up your part. Now in the production environment, you’re running at higher rpm’s, you’re running more hours a day, trying to keep that machine running 24 hours,” said Pontillo.

“Currently we have three Doosan HP 4000 horizontal machining centers at FMK Firearms, all of which are dedicated to making the slide for our 9C1 pistol. These machines have essentially taken us from being a job shop to an OEM production facility,” said Pontillo. “Each HP 4000 features in-process gaging from Renishaw and custom tombstone fixtures sourced from Germany. All three machines run 24 hours a day and do nothing but run that part. Combined we can machine up to 90 slides a day,” Pontillo said.

“One of our two DNM 400 vertical machining centers is also set up for high-volume production, with a tombstone that is orientated horizontally and indexed by a fourth axis. With this setup we are able to machine up to five faces on the pistol bolt. The cylindrical-shaped blank is sourced from a local shop that turns the bolt on a Doosan Lynx 220 Turning Center.”

In addition to machining mechanical parts of the 9C1’s trigger on FMK’s second DNM 400, the machine is also used to engrave a variety of patriotic messages. The surfaces of the steel ejector slide can either be engraved with the words, “Proudly American”; “Freedom and Liberty”; or “Thank You U.S. Soldiers.” The slide plate also contains the words “E Pluribus Unum.” These are the markings of the plain-slide version of this pistol. FMK also offers the Bill of Rights version of the 9C1 with the first 10 amendments to the Constitution engraved on the slide.

California was the top manufacturing state in the USA in 2013, with $239 billion in manufacturing output, and manufacturing employment at 1,250,900. In the state’s history, there have actually been as many as a dozen manufacturers of pistols at one time. According to Pontillo, today there remains just two pistol manufacturers in California, including FMK Firearms.

“The thing that’s made the greatest difference for us is the technology we have today,” says Pontillo. “Whether we’re making plastic medical components at TRA Medical or handguns at FMK Firearms, you’re only as good as the tools you work with. As a toolmaker, I know this to be true. I also know you cannot beat the capabilities of Doosan CNC machine tools.”

For more information from Doosan Infracore Machine Tools, go to www.doosanmachinetoolsusa.com, or phone 973-618-2500.

Edited by Senior Editor James Lorincz from information provided by Doosan Infracore Machine Tools.

This article was first published in the October 2015 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.

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