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Shop Exhibits Two CAM Mindsets Toward Workholding Productivity

Jim Lorincz
By Jim Lorincz Contributing Editor, SME Media

Toner Machining Technologies’ specialty is designing and building hydraulic workholding fixtures for high-volume parts production on CNC machining centers. Programmer/machinists rely heavily on Mastercam from CNC Software Inc. (Tolland, CT) for CAM programming to keep up with numerous low-volume production schedules, while continuing to meet strict dimensional tolerance requirements. Toner’s workholding solutions are meticulously designed and tested to make it possible to eliminate every second from machining cycles so that mass production takes place as efficiently as possible.

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A high-precision CNC production fixture machined with Mastercam programming is inspected by Trent Toner prior to shipping to a customer.

Over the past several years, the Morganton, NC, company has grown into an expanding number of increasingly complex design-and-build projects while managing to stay on top of high-precision job-shop work for the aerospace, defense, and nuclear power industries. Customers for these tools include OEMs as well as Tier 2 suppliers to the aerospace, automotive, defense, and heavy truck industries.

One of the biggest drivers of Toner’s workholding business has been the shortage of skilled manufacturing labor. According to Trent Toner, vice president and general manager, production manufacturers normally don’t have the internal capabilities to produce the complex workholding solutions that his company specializes in. So, they are inclined to commission turnkey projects that his company participates in, sometimes as the primary integrator.

“We go all the way to training operators and doing run-offs. A project we began working on recently involved us designing a custom bar feeder that fed the material into a vertical machining center,” said Toner. “The machine was shipped to our facility where we designed and manufactured the fixtures, tooling, and wrote the programs for it. We are doing all of the macro probing integrated with fail-safes. We upgraded the machine with additional safety features, trained operators, and shipped the system to Georgia, where we installed it.”

Toner has engineers on staff who know how to design and build things that customers cannot do internally. As a result, the scope of work requested by customers has increased as their comfort level with the shop’s capabilities has grown. This has led to an increasing number of projects involving advanced hydraulics to meet unique manufacturing challenges. For example, Toner described a robot-loaded fixture that was designed to clamp hard over the workpiece during a boring operation, then bleed off pressures to avoid distorting bores during reaming and finishing.

Advanced workholding solutions are sometimes so complex that the number of hydraulic ports supplied with the CNC machine are insufficient. To remedy this, Toner has identified and adapted hydraulic systems used in applications outside of manufacturing. In one instance, a solenoid valve designed for a deep-sea application was used to shuttle low-pressure air to engage a high-pressure hydraulic system for clamping and unclamping a 50″ (1270-mm) workpiece for stress relief during various CNC manufacturing stages.

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While their CNC equipment is cutting one part, Toner’s programmer/machinists are busy designing workholding solutions and writing programs with Mastercam for the next ones coming up.

“On the build/machining side of our shop, we write CNC programming for all the precision parts we are going to need with Mastercam,” said Toner. “In the past, we would give our guys paper prints and say, ‘Hey, we have 10 hours to do this. Just make it.’ Today, when our engineers are done designing a system, they put their Solidworks onto the server so that our programmer/machinists can bring them into Mastercam for manufacturing process analysis and CNC programming.

“We currently have three seats of Mastercam,” Toner continued. “While their CNC equipment is cutting one part, the programmer/machinists are busy designing workholding solutions and writing programs for the next ones coming up. If a guy programs a part in an hour and it takes eight to make, this allows him to keep pace with our demanding design and build schedules.”

Toner has been working closely with its Mastercam Reseller, Barefoot CNC (Morganton, NC) to standardize tool libraries and toolpaths to ensure the manufacturing strategy chosen for each job is efficient, accurate, and eliminates the possibility of human error. Based on this work, Toner has transitioned almost all of its roughing programs from conventional toolpaths to those incorporating Mastercam’s Dynamic Motion technology. By adjusting feeds, speeds, and tool motions in accordance with material conditions ahead of the tool, these programs allow the CNC equipment to operate at the highest possible material removal rates without the programmer/machinist having to worry about the damage that occurs when cutters get buried in the corners.

In one instance, Toner used Dynamic Motion technology to reduce machining time for a complex airfoil. The workpieces consisted of 100 lb (45-kg) blocks of aluminum measuring 3 × 20 × 36″ (76 × 508 × 914 mm). In half the time it took to manufacture the same type of part using a conventional process, this part was whittled down to 15 lb (6.8 kg), leaving a 35-gal (132-L) barrel of chips beside the machine. After the first part was completed, five more followed, making these standardized dynamic toolpaths an important productivity enhancer.

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Requests for Toner’s complex workholding solutions and turnkey systems have the company on pace for better than 20% growth.

For both its automated workholding solutions projects and high-precision aerospace and defense parts manufacturing, Toner has often been called upon to achieve extreme dimensional accuracy. This requires the company to devise some unique manufacturing processes. For thin-walled parts, Dynamic Motion technology allows the company to machine parts rapidly at material removal rates with slight stepovers that barely deflect delicate walls. Using the software’s CAD for CAM capabilities, programmer/machinists can visualize unique dimension-chasing strategies that result in intermediate dimensions that do not match those on the print so that final dimensions, after the part has gone through stress relief, are right on target.

Trent Toner noted that all of his customers are looking for more help and they want the work to be done as an integrated project rather than having to contract multiple suppliers. This has led to the growth of Toner Machining Technologies’ internal engineering expertise beyond workholding to such things as designing automated engine block leak testing systems; designing robotic grippers; programming PLCs; integrating automatic gaging systems with workholding hardware; and even designing and building conveyor-fed robot-loaded fixture systems.

As the company’s capabilities have grown, so have the requests for complex workholding solutions and turnkey systems. Five design engineers have been hired and CNC machines have grown in number from five to 30. In September of 2017, there were 70 custom fixtures working their way through various stages of production on the shop floor. The company was on pace for better than 20% growth, all being accomplished with a talented workforce of just 50 people.

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