Sleds used in Olympic luge racing may be simple devices, but controlling machining of their half-dozen parts can spell the difference between being a medalist or an also ran. The USA Luge Team relies on the equivalent of a brand new Millmatic III three-axis knee mill equipped with an Acu-Rite MILLPWRG2 controller from Lagun Engineering (Harbor City, CA) to have complete control over machining of its parts.
The back story of how the USA Luge Team went from simply speeding down icy hills to building its own sleds with in-house machining begins with the elite sliders, called lugers. Considered one of the most dangerous sports in the Olympic games, luging involves sliding down an icy track nearly one mile in length and with the same average vertical descent as a 30-story building. Athletes lie on what is essentially a high-tech Flexible Flyer, one with no brakes. The rider’s helmet is the only concession to safety as they zoom feet first down the ice at speeds greater than 80 mph, enduring g-forces like those encountered in a Top Fuel dragster.
Sound like fun? Jon Owen thinks so. He has been with the USA Luge Team for more than three decades. Owen competed in the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, was the first to try out the new Olympic luge track at Park City, Utah in 1997, and is now the team’s Western Region coordinator.
Owen never intended to be a professional luger. He grew up in Maine, and, like many of us, spent his winters sliding down hills and having near misses with trees. He first became interested in luging in 1980 while attending the XIII Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY, and figured if he couldn’t be a luger, he would at least commemorate the event with a t-shirt. “The shop I happened to walk into was operated by the Adirondack Luge Club,” he said. “We started chatting, and after I left they gave my information to the USA Luge Team. A few weeks later I got a call from one of the coaches. I’ve been here ever since.”
Owen is an important part of the coaching staff, having made the transition from sledder to sled builder. He manages the various programs in Park City and considers himself one of the “little army” of office personnel, program directors, and others supporting the national team, which currently comprises 16 people—11 men and 5 women—who race in the singles and doubles competitions. He has also taken on a new role as the team’s technical director, a responsibility that has made this one-time Olympian into a CAD designer, programmer, and machinist. In short, Owen builds sleds.
He has had help. As with most sports of this caliber, the USA Luge Team is sponsored by several corporations, which provide everything from much-needed funds to free advice. One of these sponsors is Lagun Engineering. When Team USA was struggling seven years ago with a worn out mill-drill in its machine shop, Lagun stepped up with a “tricked out” FTV-2 knee mill complete with power feeds on all three axes, digital readouts (DRO), and a pneumatic toolchanger.
Owen knew little about machining or design work back then. But after a lot of late night manual reading, a few mistakes, and some instruction from a former member of the coaching staff who had been a machinist, Owen got up to speed quickly. He also taught himself CAD design along the way, and soon began documenting the various components that go into an Olympic-class sled.
“We had all these different parts but nobody had drawn them up,” said Owen. “When someone needed a replacement, they’d start by measuring one of the other sleds. It was not only time-consuming, but there was the possibility of dimension creep each time you recreated an old part. I decided we needed a cookbook, if you will, with all the parts and dimensions spelled out, along with other information on how to build it.”
This activity not only increased the overall organization of the shop and the sled-building process itself, it also provided a baseline for future improvement. As a result, Owen began to see areas where additional machining capabilities would be helpful for making things like fingertip spikes and other “wearable” parts, prototypes of sled blade designs, workholding jigs, and so on. Early in 2016, he approached Lagun Engineering about an upgrade.
“We had to step up our capacity a bit,” Owen said. “The original machine helped us a great deal, but we needed to go beyond basic 2½ axis work to machine complex profiles and mold cavities. So Lagun came out, looked at what we were doing and what we wanted to do going forward, and said they would go to work and see if they could come up with some CNC controllers for us.”
The engineers at Lagun did far more than slap on a couple servo motors and a CNC control. They brought the Luge Team’s knee mill back to their factory and rebuilt it from the ground up. When they were done, Owen had what was basically a brand new Millmatic III three-axis knee mill equipped with an Acu-Rite MILLPWRG2 controller.
According to Joseph Bezic, president of Lagun Engineering, machines like this provide a great deal of flexibility for those doing any kind of research or development work. “The conversational control is easy to use for less-experienced operators, but also accommodates G-code generated from a CAD/CAM system; in either case, the machine provides the three-axis simultaneous motion needed to produce a wide variety of parts,” Bezic explained.
The machine can also be operated in manual mode, turning the handles as you would on a regular knee mill. And because there’s no enclosure like there is with a production CNC machine, very large or long workpieces can be clamped to the table. “We are proud to sponsor the USA Luge Team,” said Bezic. “They’ve been working very hard to promote the sport, and it has been fun watching them as they gain momentum. It’s very cool to be part of that.”
Owen said his team is practicing hard and has been winning “lots of medals,” and looks forward to the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea this February. Having a CNC at his disposal has helped reduce reliance on outside suppliers, some of which were as far away as Europe. The result is far faster turnaround on his and others’ design ideas.
“Everything we do is custom, even down to the bolts used to hold it all together,” said Owen. “We’ve definitely noticed the greater precision and repeatability of the new machine, and when I come up with an idea now I can just go out to the shop and make it. I feel we’re finally able to develop a great professional standard for our manufacturing processes. We’re the USA Luge Team; it’s great to tell people we produce our sled parts here in our own facility, and do so on an American-built machine tool.”