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Automating for Maximum Efficiency


Shift to highly automated horizontal machining cell helps boost contract manufacturer’s production and profits

By Patrick Waurzyniak
Senior Editor

In order to compete on the global stage, contract manufacturers need to find the best automation solutions for their shop environment. While many job shops in North America are well-positioned for growth, to be successful they need the right people, processes and equipment in place. And while many shops focus time and attention on building up their labor and improving processes in order to maximize efficiency, they sometimes undervalue the impact that machining technologies have on their processes.

For many manufacturers, the idea of taking on new capital investments after paying off current technologies is seemingly counter-intuitive, but the depreciating value and efficiency of older technology can quickly limit any progress made in improving labor skill sets and process optimization. Woller Precision Machine (Pound, WI), a contract manufacturer focusing on the aerospace industry, was once one of those companies, looking to take its production capabilities to the next level, but challenged by the requirements to do so. The company had developed an outstanding customer base and exceptional labor force, but realized the limitations of its current machining equipment.
Operator adjusts fixturing an aluminum aerospace component on a Makino a61 horizontal machining center at contract manufacturer Woller Precision Machine.
“We were at a turning point with the company where we needed to grow in order to meet customer demands, but we realized that our current machining methods weren’t efficient or scalable enough to keep us competitive and profitable,” said Aaron Woller, president of Woller Precision Machine. “After doing our homework, we came to the conclusion that vertical machining centers could no longer support us as a primary means for production. We needed the speed, efficiency and flexibility of a horizontal machining center.

“After years of investing exclusively in vertical machining centers, we were slightly concerned about the up-front costs required to purchase a horizontal machining center,” added Woller. “Fortunately, a local Makino representative approached us with a special leasing program available through their Capital Services Group, which allowed us to get a horizontal machining center on our shop floor with a low cost of entry. It was the ideal opportunity to see where horizontal machining could take us.”

HMCs Help Spike Productivity

Woller Precision added a Makino a61 HMC to its facility a few years ago. Within its first several production runs, the company noticed immediate improvements in productivity, with 30–50% decreases in cycle times compared to its previous VMC processes.

“We do a lot of smaller quantities, similar type work where we can leave a certain amount of tools all set up in the toolchanger, and kind of live off that library,” Woller said. “We swap some fixtures out here and there, add programs to it and run parts. It’s not as labor-intensive. We had to find a way to take a good chunk of the labor out of the parts we were making in order to stay competitive, and that piece of equipment was really key to getting that done.”

The timeliness of the a61 investment couldn’t have been better, added Woller. “Within a year, we were well into the recession. While many other companies would be concerned about taking on a new investment during this time period, the a61 became a tremendous asset that allowed us to substantially reduce non-cut times and labor requirements,” he said. “In the end, the addition of that single a61 was like adding three additional verticals in terms of productivity.”

To run the a61, Woller Precision positioned an operator and another employee for setup on first shift, and an operator on second shift. Had it purchased three of its previous vertical machining centers instead of that a61 for its new project, it would have needed six people to operate the machines on both shifts.

“The a61 kept other companies from undercutting us on price, and it saved several jobs in one of the most difficult periods for US manufacturing,” said Woller. “Today that efficiency continues to be used as a tool that has taken our business to the next level to compete globally.”

Automation Positions Shop for Growth

Woller Precision was founded in 2004 by brothers Aaron, 41, and Jason Woller, 38, who both possessed years of experience in manufacturing. In its early days, Woller Precision supplied parts to an aircraft company, and by 2007, the company grew rapidly into a 10,000 ft2 (930-m2) facility that was recently expanded to 23,000 ft2 (2140 m2).

Today, Woller Precision produces small batch quantities of aluminum interior commercial aircraft components such as seats, divans and tables. It also makes parts for the medical and defense industries as well as components for consumer appliances such as microwaves and coffee makers. The manufacturer has expanded its customer base from the East Coast to the West Coast and the South, and it has grown from two employees with two machines to a workforce of 35 skilled employees with 19 machining centers. What was once mostly a job shop entirely composed of vertical machining centers has transformed into a multifaceted operation producing both prototype and production orders on high-performance automated horizontal machining technologies.

When Woller Precision’s lease on the a61 ended in 2013, the company was convinced that horizontal machining was the correct path for Woller Precision to realize its full potential. Additionally, the company’s experience with the a61 revealed an opportunity to make the best use of its most skilled labor.

With 39 employees and 19 machining centers, Woller Precision Machine focuses mostly on aluminum aerospace parts, as well as components for consumer appliances.

“The recession took a heavy toll on the manufacturing job market. Many veterans have left the industry, and the youth of this country didn’t see much of a future in the industry,” observed Woller. “The a61 investment demonstrated how automating certain processes can serve to make better use of our labor time. As the market began to flourish again, we decided to explore ways to apply this experience on a larger scale through automated horizontal machining.”

Based on the successful implementation and reliability of the a61, Woller Precision went back to Makino to evaluate automation solutions. The company was introduced to the Makino Machining Complex (MMC2) automated material handling system and appreciated the system’s modular design and single-source implementation from Makino. These qualities would help simplify Woller Precision’s transition to automated horizontal machining and ensure opportunities for rapid expansion in the future.

The company purchased a 28-pallet capacity MMC2 system with two a61nx horizontal machining centers and immediately began to load small-batch production orders within the system’s MAS-A5 cell controller. By automatically coordinating production schedules based on delivery requirements, the MAS-A5 has enabled cell operators to run single-setup procedures without interrupting production processes, maintaining the highest level of production efficiency with spindle utilization rates on the a61nx machines reaching over 90% on a routine basis. Additionally, these automated horizontal machining capabilities have enabled Woller Precision to redeploy its skilled labor to more value-added, labor-intensive orders.

“The ability to free-up labor time has been critical to our recent growth and ability to win new production contracts,” said Woller. “We’ve assigned some of our most skilled engineers to the development and optimization of prototype orders on our stand-alone technologies, opening additional windows of opportunity to transition prototypes into full-production orders that can then be added to our automated horizontal machining cell. As a result of these practices, we’ve seen sales increase by 21%, and we’ve only had to expand our workforce by 6%.”

Rethinking Production Workflow

Woller Precision’s investment in automated horizontal machining also changed the way the company looks at workflow. Customers continue to want lower prices, and one way to reduce part costs is to shrink inventory. Gone are the days of amortizing setup costs by producing economic lot sizes that tie up finances in inventory until the customer places their final order. Now parts can be completed quickly in the automated horizontal machining cell, letting Woller Precision reduce both the finished goods inventory and work in process.

“Five years ago, companies didn’t have a problem putting a couple months of inventory on shelves,” said Woller. “Now customers demand short lead times and require new levels of speed, quality and cost-saving for their projects. Our automated horizontal machining system delivers this, resulting in a 50% decrease in work in process. The cell can produce parts quickly, so we no longer have money tied up in raw materials, extra parts or outside services. We have better cash flow, which gives us the ability to reinvest in the business when needed.”

On one particular job transferred to the automated HMC cell, Woller Precision reduced cycle time by 50%, from 15 minutes and 6 sec to just 7 minutes and 34 sec. This type of cycle-time reduction encouraged the company to look for other opportunities to automate and improve on-time delivery. The higher throughput and consistency with automation means that Woller Precision can confidently run a third shift. If there is an issue with anything, the system sends the operator a text message to alert that person of an error.

“Customers recognize the efforts we’re making through automated horizontal machining, which reflects well on our overall relationships,” said Woller. “Quality and delivery scorecards are coming back better than ever.”

Additionally, there is a reduction in human error. The tools do not need to be taken in and out of the machines, because there is a tool-life management system in place. This system, along with the tombstone management software Woller Precision has employed, gives the machine operator a lot of information, reducing guesswork.

When it comes to one-off batch orders, the company still relies on VMCs. In order to maximize its efficiency for these orders, Woller Precision invested in a Makino PS95 vertical machining center in 2011. At the time, the company wanted a machine that would perform well on pre-hardened steel and had similar spindle power to that of its a61 horizontal machines.

“The PS95 has a more rigid construction and spindle design than previous vertical machines,” said Woller. “As a result, we are using it for both our roughing and finishing operations, and we are obtaining double the tool life in the 40 to 44 HRc materials. This type of tool life provides an on-going savings over the life the machine that only increases with additional workload. It’s a simple benefit that requires no additional time, but helps keep costs low and improve profitability.”

Looking Toward the Future

Woller hopes to transition more work to its automated system, using the cell 100% of the time. The system still has capacity, and the company continues to transition jobs from its vertical machines. Lights-out manufacturing, which has been partially implemented to date, is another goal. The shop plans to grow its automated horizontal machining system with four a61nx machines and 48 pallets, and Woller would also like to obtain an automated HMC cell with a51nx machines to handle smaller parts. In addition, Woller wants to add more Makino vertical machining centers to replace its existing models.

“At Woller Precision, we have had a great experience with Makino,” said Woller. “The a61 machine got us through some tough times, and our automated horizontal machining cell continues to bring success to our business. Automation seems to be the future of the industry, especially with the baby boomers exiting the workforce.

“These days, we are competing worldwide instead of next door,” he added. “Customers are looking for price, delivery and quality, no matter where they are located.” ME

This profile was edited by Senior Editor Patrick Waurzyniak from information provided by Makino.


This article was first published in the May 2014 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF

Published Date : 5/1/2014

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