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Making Automation Easy

By Raptor Workholding

The world can be a complex place, especially when it comes to modern manufacturing. Natoma Manufacturing LLC, a contract CNC machine shop in northwest Kansas, has experienced this first hand with its array of machines and demanding customer requirements.

Operator - Natoma
Natoma Manufacturing has been working with Raptor Workholding since 2008. Their partnership has grown over the years, thanks to the latter’s line of dovetail fixtures and other tools to optimize Natoma’s five-axis machining capabilities. (All images provided by Raptor Workholding and Natoma Manufacturing)

David Schlegel, the shop’s production manager, likes to simplify things, which is why he wanted to automate Natoma’s shop floor. But it takes an experienced provider to get the most out of automation. Luckily, Schlegel found a great partner—one that has made his job much easier.

“Their website is easy to navigate. Their fixtures are easy to configure,” Schlegel explains. “Their instructions for use are easy to understand. And the pricing for their products is in plain sight.

“That’s rare to see,” he continues. “You usually have to look up a distributor and email them for pricing and other information. These guys put it all out there for everyone to see. I think that’s genius.”

Schlegel is talking about Raptor Workholding, a subsidiary of Union, Ohio-based TE-CO Manufacturing. He’s clearly a fan of the dovetail-style workholding system, although his reasons have evolved since purchasing Natoma’s first fixture in 2008.

During that year’s IMTS exhibition in Chicago, Schlegel “had a nice conversation with a Raptor employee” and decided to try one, even though he was skeptical about the product’s rigidity. “They have surpassed my expectations,” he now says.

Four Decades and Counting

Natoma gets its name from the town where company founder Gail Boller first set up shop. That was in 1982, but it wasn’t long before Boller and his two employees moved to larger quarters in nearby Norton. Four additions and four decades later, the company now occupies a 70,000-sq-ft (6,500-sq-m) facility and employs 75 people. It’s also under new management—long-time employees Darin Campbell and Mark Griffey—who purchased the job shop in 2017.

Tour the production floor and you’ll see a mix of advanced CNC machinery. These include twin-spindle, live-tool lathes from Miyano and Nakamura-Tome, Citizen Swiss-style turning centers, and a host of horizontal and vertical machining centers from Toyoda, Feeler, Hwacheon and other well-known machine builders.

Most of what the AS9100-certified shop produces are aluminum parts for the medical, aerospace and energy industries. But Natoma also tackles its fair share of steel and stainless steel, titanium, tungsten, copper and even phenolic, Schlegel notes. Laughing, he adds, “As a job shop, we do whatever the customer wants us to do.”

Dovetail systems are installed on most of the machining centers and many dozens of pallets, but this wasn’t always the case. Schlegel’s embrace of Raptor didn’t begin in earnest until several years after that IMTS visit, when Natoma purchased a DMG Mori HSC 55 linear, the company’s first five-axis machining center.

Graduation Day

“Originally, we only used the Raptor dovetail fixture for a specific job,” Schlegel says. “Everything else back then was held with the usual mix of machinist vises with step jaws and custom-machined soft jaws. Of course, that meant multiple setups and operations and all the downtime that goes with it.

Raptor RWP-002 dovetail fixture on Natoma’s five-axis machining center.
Raptor RWP-002 dovetail fixture on Natoma’s five-axis machining center.

“Moving to a five-axis machine really helped because we can rotate the part around to touch all sides in a single handling,” Schlegel asserts. “When it’s done, we just sneak in behind with a special cutter—what we refer to as a ‘pick off’—then hit the part’s backside with a little Scotch-Brite to remove any witness marks.”

This was when Natoma began to fully realize the benefits of five-axis machining. The message hit home in a big way. In recent years, the company added a pair of Yasda PX30i horizontals, each boasting 33 pallets and more than 300 tools, along with its latest machine, a DMU 50 five-axis universal machining center from DMG Mori.

Schlegel points out that much of this investment was made to address a problem that practically anyone in manufacturing can relate to: the shortage of skilled labor. The Yasdas, with their five-sided machining capabilities, integrated pallet pools and inline probing systems, allow Natoma to continue producing complete parts long after everyone has gone home for the day.

“We’d love to hire more people, but we’re in a rural area and the resources simply aren’t there,” he confides. “Automation has solved that shortcoming.”

Upon installation of the first Yasda, Schlegel and his team struggled with what system to use. They quickly decided the Raptor Dovetail Fixtures were a “no-brainer” and went all in on the solution, loading up their 33 pallets with half-inch dovetail clamps. Raptor’s zero-point positioning system by Piranha was used to decrease setup time.

“We have around a dozen jobs set up at any time on that first Yasda, and all you have to do is put in the raw stock, set the schedule and push the go button,” he explains. “There’s basically no downtime. And if you do need to put in a new job, there’s no need to tram in the fixture or pick up its home position. The interchangeability is phenomenal, and because we use offline toolpath simulation, there’s no risk of a crash.”

Addressing Naysayers

Schlegel has worked with Josh Stalder, one of Natoma’s top machinists, to develop a standardized workholding library around the Raptor concept. Together, they’ve greatly improved the shop’s manufacturing methods and efficiency, according to the partners.

When asked about dovetail-style fixturing’s biggest drawback—the need to pre-machine the workpiece blanks—Schlegel pushed back, noting it’s not the big deal that some say it is. Natoma’s shop manager Brandon Peterson addressed the issue by allocating a pair of the shop’s numerous FANUC ROBODRILL machining centers to the sawing department, then installed a modular fixturing system and tasked the operators with cutting dovetails as part of their sawing responsibilities.

“We tried a competing product several years ago that uses carbide inserts to grip the material, eliminating the need for dovetails,” Peterson says. “It’s a good system, but it couldn’t handle the significant radial forces you get with high-efficiency milling, which is most of what we use here. I’d say that’s Raptor’s biggest advantage: You never have to worry about the part coming loose.

Natoma’s Yasda pallet pool system.
Natoma’s Yasda pallet pool system.

“We continue to use a few other brands of workholding, but the machinists who work with dovetails will tell you they prefer Raptor,” he continues. “You can quickly lock in your raw stock, torque down the bolts and walk away knowing you won’t have any issues.”

The automated process, ease of use and customer service are big pluses.

“Again, I like how easy it is to find and order products from their website—there’s no need to negotiate or wait on a price from a salesperson when you’re bidding on a big job,” Schlegel adds. “That’s certainly not a deal-breaker either way, but it saves us time, and that’s what staying competitive is all about.”

For more information about Natoma Manufacturing, visit natomamanufacturing.com or call 785-877-3529. For more information about Raptor Workholding, visit raptorworkholding.com or call 800-824-8333.

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