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Powering Up CAD/CAM Training

By CNC Software

In 1966, Ariel Corp. was a fledgling startup operating out of a suburban basement in Mount Vernon, Ohio. While the company is still headquartered there, it now claims the title of “world’s largest manufacturer of separable reciprocating natural gas compressors.”

Clearly, times have changed, and Ariel is leading the charge. Founder Jim Buchwald imparted a quality-driven machining legacy that remains deeply embedded in the company’s manufacturing psyche. Buchwald wore many hats in the early days of the company—compressor designer, production superintendent, business manager and more—but he was also an accomplished machinist.

Mastercam screenshot of student-made test piece and CAM toolpaths.
Mastercam screenshot of student-made test piece and CAM toolpaths. (All photos provided by CNC Software)

He understood the critical role machining plays in making a quality compressor. With rolled-up sleeves, Buchwald would operate a 1921 Lucas horizontal boring mill, machining cylinder bores to precise dimensions.

In the 1990s, Ariel began utilizing CNC quick-turn lathes to manufacture bolts, washers, piston rings and other small parts. By the 2000s, CNC machining was the norm for Ariel, and advances in machining technology demanded some markedly different skill sets. Today, Ariel’s software of choice is Mastercam CAD/CAM from CNC Software LLC, Tolland, Conn., but operating the latest CNC machine tool models with software was not natural to most veteran Ariel machinists. To climb the Mastercam learning curve, Ariel crafted a training course for its workforce.Volume and Variety

Sizes vary, but a typical compressor measures 12 ft by 18 ft by six ft (3.6x2.4x1.8 m) and weighs about 26,000 lbs (11,800 kg). These heavy industrial machines are at work throughout the global energy industry to help extract, process, transport, store and distribute natural gas from the wellhead to the end user.

To keep pace with customer orders, Ariel must transform a significant amount of raw material into finished products. Five million pounds (2.27 million kg) of raw castings arrive at Ariel’s receiving docks every month. Because it builds each compressor to order with very few duplicates, several different part designs are regularly machined on Ariel’s shop floor. The company employs hundreds of machinists and operates more than 700 machine tools spread over one million square feet of factory floor.

While Ariel machinists are the heart of the company’s lean machining effort, CNC capability is the lifeblood. Ariel relies on Mastercam’s suite of CAD/CAM tools to optimize its CNC programs.

“Our company has a dedicated team of manufacturing engineers providing operational support, but with the volume and variety of machining stock we handle, it can be challenging to stay ahead of the demand curve. We run thousands of CNC programs with millions of lines of code,” says Jay McCoy, Ariel’s head of manufacturing.

The Sum of Its Parts

Ariel began its CNC training with an 11-module course covering the fundamentals, but outsourced the more advanced coursework to Mastercam Reseller, FASTech Inc. of Findlay, Ohio. FASTech has worked closely with Ariel over the years to troubleshoot and develop targeted programming solutions for new part designs and new or repurposed machine tools.

Student project being machined from 6061 aluminum on a Mazak VCU-500A/5X
Student project being machined from 6061 aluminum on a Mazak VCU-500A/5X.

According to Phil Ott, who oversees Ariel’s training program, “One of Mastercam’s beauties is its seemingly limitless flexibility. It creates CNC programs that find the best combination of toolpath, speed and cutting tool for any part file and any workpiece on any CNC machine. It’s fast and it’s accurate. Having that ability at your fingertips is not only remarkable but impossible to duplicate if you tried to write the code by hand.”

Ariel and FASTech rolled out a 15-week Mastercam Training Workshop for an initial class of 12 company engineers and machinists. While classes were instructor led, this was an authentic hands-on workshop. Classes were held in the company’s CNC Programming Lab tucked inside Ariel’s interdisciplinary Training Center. The Programming Lab has 16 dual-monitor computer workstations featuring high-performance CPUs running Mastercam software. Training topics range from 3D modeling in CAD to functional setups in CAM, and from building tool assemblies to creating Dynamic toolpaths. Ariel and FASTech instructors teach the Mastercam Training Workshop in tandem, with Ariel taking the first 11 weeks and FASTech covering the last four.

For the final exam, students are handed a drawing, a workpiece and all pertinent specs for a finished part. They are tasked to create a CNC program and then post it to one of the machine tools in Ariel’s Machining Lab. Students complete the assignment by machining the final part.

“There’s no substitute for hands-on training,” says Ott. “Exercises like this give our students the kind of real-world learning they need to develop, solidify and retain their Mastercam programming skills, with no disconnects between writing the program and making the finished part.”

Ariel considers its Mastercam Training Workshop the first installment of a broader training curriculum envisioned for its employees who will move the company forward in CNC programming. At Ariel, moving forward means looking to the future while honoring the past.

“If writing a CNC program and machining a part happen independently, there’s going to be a significant drop in overall performance,” says Ariel’s Staff Supervisor of Manufacturing Engineering Alex Cozier. “Generally, our younger machinists are more tech-savvy, and our older machinists have more operating experience. You’re setting yourself up for failure if you don’t know a machine’s ability to handle different raw materials, cutting tools, drive feeds and speeds, depth of cut or surface quality. On the other hand, it’s just as important to know how to use the software to program the machine’s moves and toolpaths. Both skillsets are key to successfully making parts that meet our strict quality standards.”

Ariel cross-trains all of its machinists and programming engineers in both areas of expertise. The company believes the sum of the two pools of knowledge creates a synergistic machining capability that is far greater than each team operating independently. Ariel sees training as the key to unlocking the power of CAD/CAM.

At the nexus of all company training activity, Ariel’s 86,000 sq-ft (8,000 sq-m) Training Center features three hands-on labs, 12 high-tech classrooms, a 255-seat auditorium, and a multipurpose atrium rimmed with interactive learning exhibits. Each training lab is equipped with operable OEM production equipment, not scale models or hardware replicas.

The Machining Lab is where Ariel machinists go to advance to the next level. Beginners and intermediate trainees sharpen their skills on lathes and mills, both CNC and manual, in the Lab’s South Bay. Advanced training occurs in the Lab’s North Bay with eight CNC machine tools, including Mazak four-, five- and seven-axis lathes and mills. Adjacent to the North Bay is Ariel’s CNC Programming Lab where students learn how to write programs and run simulations.

Ariel’s full machining curriculum encompasses more than 600 hours of instruction. Graduates receive a CNC machining certificate from a state-accredited college working in partnership with Ariel to deliver a well-rounded education in precision machining. Ariel has a similarly accredited training program for its assembly and maintenance employees.

Worth the Effort

“The easiest way for me to describe the value of CAD/CAM software is to remember how we did it years ago when I was on the production floor,” Ott says. “Imagine going through 40,000 lines of machine tool code one line at a time. Make a change, hit the run button and see what happens. If it did what we hoped it would, move on to the next line. If it doesn’t, go back, change it and try again. Imagine doing that thousands of times. It would take months to do what Mastercam now does in minutes.”

A student-made part machined from 6061 aluminum
A student-made part machined from 6061 aluminum.

With Mastercam, it is no longer to be assumed that a smooth-running CNC machining workcenter can’t be improved. Ariel thinks this area might present ample opportunities for near-term process improvement gains. Currently, the company has targeted compressor cylinder machining for Mastercam reprogramming.

“We’ve been programming the same way for a long time; it’s second nature,” Ott notes. “Learning to program a new way comes with a high degree of difficulty. Similarly, going mainstream with Mastercam across Ariel’s corps of machinists and engineering support team is a sizable training effort that will be ongoing. The results so far have been clearly worth the effort. We’re up to the challenge and well on our way.”

For more information about Ariel Corp., visit or call 740-397-0311. For more information about Mastercam, visit or call 860-875-5006.

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