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A to Z Machine: Shop’s Manufacturing Technology Spans the Alphabet

By ME Staff Report
Marc Manteufel, lead manufacturing engineer, said A to Z Machine selects its machining centers like this Mazak HCN 8800 for dependability and speed in rapid traverse and tool change. (All images provided by Mazak)

The name A to Z Machine says it all, according to Jerry Van Handel, one of the shop’s four co-owners. The Appleton, Wis.-based job shop can handle jobs “from A to Z” successfully and profitably due to its solid, all-encompassing business strategy, said Van Handel. For A to Z Machine, that includes pairing advanced CNC machine tools with sophisticated tool management software and palletized automation.

The shop, which started in 1996 with one building, has since grown to three buildings and 150 employees. With a diverse portfolio of clients, A to Z Machine produces parts for military, energy, paper, food packaging, testing equipment, and municipal water equipment applications, among others. The shop serves a lot of repeat customers, the top 20 of which provide 90 percent of its work.

When it comes to the machine tool aspect of its business strategy, A to Z Machine acquires the right machines for the job, particularly those that allow it to do multiple operations in single setups. This boosts efficiency and part quality. Another machine tool strategy is that the shop opts for larger size equipment that reduces the amount of competition it faces in the market.

“We look for machines that are dependable. We also look for speed, how fast it rapids, how fast it changes tools, and so on,” explained Marc Manteufel, A to Z Machine‘s lead manufacturing engineer. “In a production setting, a second faster here and there adds up to savings of minutes and hours for us. Our machines must also be accurate and repeatable, heavy-duty and with high horsepower. This allows us to take full advantage of the new cutting tool technologies, which require rigid and robust machine tools to push such tooling to its limits. We can then take deeper cuts and run at faster feed rates,” Manteufel said.

Of the shop’s 54 CNC machine tools, 18 are from Mazak and range from small to medium vertical machining centers (VMCs) with fourth-axis indexers to horizontal machining centers (HMCs) with two-pallet changers and/or Mazak’s Palletech multi-pallet systems. About seven of these machines also feature the Mazak Smooth Tool Management software that uses radio frequency identification (RFID) chips in all the shop’s toolholders.

Among A to Z’s most recent Mazak machines are two VCN-705D VMCs, an HCN-8800 HMC, two HCN-10800 HMCs and two HCN-6800 HMCs in one 28-pallet Mazak Palletech system. All of these machines feature Mazak’s Mazatrol SmoothG controls with Smooth tool management.

“The Mazatrol SmoothG control is extremely user-friendly and fast,” said Manteufel. “Our team really likes the touch screen and the fact that the control provides conversational programming or lets them run EIA programs. This is especially beneficial on our production machines, because we can program offline. And running G-code with that control is far easier than with any other we’ve used. Our machinists also find the tool data and tool life monitoring extremely helpful. Every feature of the control is aimed at increasing efficiency.”

A to Z Machine has paired a Mazak 28-pallet Palletech System with the shop’s HCN-6800s to run a growing number of parts on the two-level, two setup station automation system.

A to Z Machine used to do a lot of batch work and inventory parts, but with the Mazak Palletech systems, according to Manteufel, it has significantly reduced the need to do so and instead produces jobs as needed each week.

Paired with the HCN-6800s, the shop’s 28-pallet Palletech System features two levels and two setup stations. A to Z’s job forecast for this cell is growing and many of the system’s pallets are set up for multiple part numbers. About a dozen different part numbers are run during the course of one shift.

“With one HCN-6800 and Palletech, we produce the same output as two standalone machines,” explained Manteufel. “But most significantly, we also run unattended on second shift and have basically eliminated the setup time for all the 18 (and growing) different parts currently running in that cell.”

About a year ago, A to Z Machine incorporated Mazak Smooth Tool Management software to eliminate the need for operators to manually input tool data. This reduces human error and ensures part quality while also increasing machine spindle uptime. The software shortens setup times because A to Z machinists no longer have to run probing sequences to determine tool lengths and diameters. Instead, the software has already fed the machine the relevant tool data and coinciding offsets.

“Consider a setup with about 30 tools, which needs about two minutes of setup time per tool,” said Manteufel. “That equates to about an hour of setup time savings the Smooth tool management software makes possible. Then apply those savings to our entire toolroom—along with the 200 tools it works through per shift—and you’ll see how we achieved massive reductions in setup time.”

In the A to Z Machine toolroom, a side caddy is mounted to the shop’s tool presetting machine. Toolholders, outfitted with RFID chips, are loaded into the caddy, and the presetting system reads and relays the holder/cutter data to the Smooth tool management software. The software not only relays all the data to the Mazak machines, it also collects information about the tool’s use, including how long it lasted before needing to be replaced. A to Z Machine’s toolroom also presets all the shop’s job gages, which can add up to as many as 50 per shift.

In addition to horizontal and vertical machining, A to Z Machine also does small to large turning, fabricating, and component assembly. While part tolerances are frequently as tight as ±0.0005″ (0.013 mm), the real challenge, according to Manteufel, is holding tight GD&T tolerances.

For example, a bore might have a 0.0006″ (0.015 mm) tolerance, but then its location calls for a true position tolerance relative to other part datums. If that true position tolerance is 0.001″ (0.03 mm), for instance, the feature must be within a 0.001″ (0.03 mm)-radius circle, and that means it can only be off by a few tenths in any direction. The more the shop can reach these positional accuracies with its primary machining operations, the more it reduces its need for secondary operations such as grinding or jig boring.

“It all boils down to the fact that our Mazak machines are precise and, most importantly, repeatable,” said Manteufel. “We really push the tolerance envelope and the capabilities of those machines, and they perform. We can’t have any amount of machine error because it will definitely show up in the part and increase the risk of scrapping it.”

A part used in the mining industry and made from duplex stainless steel is loaded for machining. Workpieces at A to Z Machine typically range in size from small to very large, 20,000-lb (9,071-kg) cast and billet parts.

A to Z Machine does some work for extremely high-tech customers. At any given time it can have upwards of 1,500 active open jobs circulating around the shop floor. Workpieces at A to Z range in size from small to very large, such as 20,000-lb (9,071-kg) cast and billet parts made from gray and ductile iron, steel, aluminum, brass, stainless steels, and high-temp alloys. Job lot sizes range from one to 500 parts.

According to Van Handel, what brings customers back time and again is the quality of the shop’s work and the dedication of its people. “We are extremely grateful to our team members who provide quality from A to Z, start to finish,” he said.

He added that the shop’s goal is to also do as much as possible in house, so A to Z Machine can work at its own schedule as opposed to relying on another supplier. This further shortens turnaround times, increases throughput and provides better quality control.

“We will continue to take on all the parts our customers want us to do,” said Van Handel, “and if we need to add more equipment and advanced technology, we will do so. We’ve done this numerous times already, and all our Mazak manufacturing technology is testament to that. To us, our people and that technology are and will be the keys to our success.”

For more information from Mazak Corp., go to, or phone 859-342-1700.

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