There are plenty of machine shops content to remain a certain size while shying away from change and expansion. However, other shops embrace that challenge with relish. United Machine & Metal Fabrication (UMMF), Newton, N.C., has earned a reputation for pushing boundaries, taking risks, and, ultimately, for prospering by “being dynamic,” according to Co-Owner and President Tony Johnson.
UMMF’s story begins like so many other machine shop operations—in a small garage with one small lathe and one milling machine. Johnson started the business in 1993 in his father’s garage and, after several years and a number of moves, by 1995 was leasing 20,000 ft2 (1,858 m2) of floor space. That year, Johnson met Amir Rashidi, who contacted him about machined parts for a fabricating shop he worked in. Toward the end of 1996, Johnson knew he needed a sales team and some help with the direction of his shop. Soon after, Johnson and Rashidi became partners and eventually built the current Newton facility.
“We’ve grown in size and capabilities by getting smarter about our manufacturing processes and investing in our people and in up-to-date machine technology and software,” Johnson said. The job shop provides close-tolerance machining and metal fabrication to a wide range of industries, including the polymer, aerospace, and mining equipment industries, as well as the U.S. Navy and other branches of the U.S. military. UMMF also makes custom parts for Stewart-Haas Racing. “We have some customers who’ve been with us since day one,” said Johnson, proudly adding that UMMF makes parts for at least one Tier 1 company and supplies several Tier 2 OEMs as well.
In order to fulfill the diverse orders that come in every day, the company runs one long shift—usually 12 hours, from 5:00 am to 5:00 pm. “It’s not for everyone,” Johnson noted, “but it works for us.” UMMF’s manufacturing capability includes two five-axis machining centers—one multi-tasking, the other a turn/mill center—three EDM machines and various manual and CNC machines, grinders, welding units and finishing machines.
UMMF has been programming with Mastercam CAD/CAM software from CNC Software Inc., Tolland, Conn., for more than 20 years. The multi-faceted software program is able to accommodate all of UMMF’s machines and is especially helpful with the five-axis machines, which can do the work of several mills and lathes, according to the shop. “Programmers are able to create sophisticated mill, multi-axis, and lathe toolpaths from within a single programming environment,” said Johnson. “Three-quarters of the drawings we work with come in designed and ready. If we need fixtures, we design them on the floor. But, for the most part, we’re using 12 seats of Mastercam to do all of our standard turning and milling with great results.”
UMMF handles a wide range of jobs, from very small parts to workpieces weighing up to 6,000 lb (2,722 kg) in sizes up to 32" (812 mm) dia. × 26" (660 mm) long. The shop was recently challenged by an injection mold customer to make an oddly shaped 18 x 13.5 x 7" (457 x 343 x 178-mm) plastic extrusion flow splitter for one of its larger injection molding systems.
“It was different compared to what we’re used to,” said Tony’s son, CNC Programmer Alex Johnson. “We used a five-axis multitasking machining center with a trunnion-style tilting table. Figuring out how to do it most efficiently, in terms of machining as many faces as possible per setup, wasn’t easy because moving that part around wasn’t easy,” he said. “The challenge was to get it set up in the machine, mounted, and then program as much as possible on each setup.”
The shop used Mastercam’s 3D Area Clearance for the roughing operations, starting with a billet of 4140 PHT 28-32 Rc. According to Tony Johnson, the splitter sends material in two directions. The flow part is milled with Area Clearance toolpaths and then a scallop finish process. Mastercam’s Dynamic Work Offsets allow multiple faces to be cut with only one probed position.
Alex Johnson relied heavily on the software’s Simulation features, Backplot and Verify, to retrace toolpaths to check for gouges, detect collisions and fixtures, and otherwise ensure that the programmed toolpaths would, indeed, work on the machine. The ability to open a separate Simulation window allowed Alex Johnson to make adjustments to the programs while they remained visible on another screen, saving valuable time.
“For starters, using the software’s toolpaths, especially the Dynamic Milling and Peel Mill toolpaths, helps the machinist select the optimal machining strategy to cut the parts faster, more efficiently and more accurately,” said Tony Johnson. “And that means increased productivity. Before, we used to get one or two parts per tool. With Dynamic Milling and Peel Mill, we get 12 parts per tool. And these aren’t cheap tools. On top of that, we get quite a lot of time savings—not just the cycle time, but also the time saved in changing out the tools.”
Johnson explained that the Peel Mill toolpaths use the full flute length of the cutter, literally peeling away the material layer by layer with constant climb milling motion via trochoidal-type motion with accelerated back-feed moves when the tool is disengaged. The machinist has the option of defining the width of the cut. Dynamic Milling toolpaths are similar in that they use the entire flute length of the cutter, which remains constantly engaged with the material, minimizing stepovers and air cuts.
“Tony has always been good about pushing the software,” said Jimmy Wakeford, owner/president of Barefoot CNC, the local Mastercam Reseller that introduced UMMF to Mastercam in 1998. “Over the years, we’ve reprogrammed certain parts in many different ways to finally figure out the most efficient way. Whenever the new software version comes out, Tony checks it using these parts.”
Being flexible and dynamic pays off for UMMF in other ways. One involves actually buying and selling machines. “There have been times when we quote a job and then buy a machine for that job,” Tony Johnson said. “Usually it’s a machine that’s on the market that fits the criteria. Then, when the job’s done, we sell that machine.”
Johnson applies that same thinking to adding tools to his more permanent machines. “We usually buy a tool as we need it. If we have to spend a fortune on a certain type of bar, a certain type of tool, we just go ahead and get it and then hope for the best in the future,” he said. “It’s the same thing for software. When Alex joined us full-time, I knew we needed to upgrade to the latest Mastercam version. We get the tools we need when we need them. That approach has always worked out well for us.”
“Every day here is different, and things are always changing,” said Alex Johnson, who holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Liberty University. The younger Johnson should know. He has been around the business for practically his entire life.
Although Tony and Alex Johnson differ a bit when it comes to programming preferences (Tony prefers wire frame while Alex prefers solids), both father and son are on the same page about things that really matter at UMMF: providing top-quality products and service, operating efficiently, and pushing the boundaries of what the machines and the company can do.
“We like jobs that challenge us, ones that require us to reach a little,” Tony Johnson said. “That keeps us fresh, on our toes, and it makes things more interesting,” Alex Johnson added.
Tony Johnson knows that, as important as having the right tools can be, having the right people is just as critical. When he first brings new hires in to UMMF, Tony moves them around to see what their strengths are. “It’s nothing formal,” he said, “but there’s a way I know fairly soon whether a person is likely to go forward. We start them at a certain point and either they naturally progress, or they don’t last long. It’s that simple.”
UMMF also looks to area colleges like Catawba Valley Community College for good hires. “They have excellent technical education programs there,” Tony said, “but, as with anything, they need real-world training and we do our best to give them that.”
For more information from Mastercam/CNC Software Inc., go to www.mastercam.com or phone 860-875-5006. For more information from United Machine and Metal Fabrication, go to www.ummf.com or phone 828-464-5167.