Steve Carter is the Brand Manager at DATRON Dynamics and has been with the company for 11 years. His writing on high-speed machining has been published in trade magazines such as Aerospace Design & Manufacturing, Modern Applications News, Manufacturing Engineering and Tooling & Production.
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When an Autodesk Fusion 360 Product Manager put out a “key chain challenge” to see who could produce the best quality sample part, many CNC machinists on social media took note and got right to work.
Appropriately named the AUTODESK Fusion 360 CAM Challenge, participants were asked to produce a Fusion logo made into a key chain. Autodesk supplied all participants with the same file in their software. There were only 3 requirements to the Autodesk Fusion 360 CAM Challenge:
Use Autodesk Fusion 360 to program
Take a photo of yourself programming the part
Supply a photo of the final end product
All participants of the Autodesk Fusion 360 CAM Challenge were given 1 week to complete their sample parts and submit their photos. In that week 56 people participated and tagged 152 photos that were viewed by 129,000 people.
DATRON Dynamics Application Technician, Adrian Montero won the Autodesk Fusion 360 CAM Challenge in the Category of Best Surface Finish. His part was machined on the DATRON neo, compact high-speed milling machine.
Willington Nameplate in Stafford Springs, CT manufactures metal engraved nameplates and Identification tags for a wide range of customers from aerospace and defense to Gillette Stadium – they actually produced all of the seat tags for “Casa de Brady”. Their metal nameplates and ID tags are made from a range of materials including aluminum, brass and stainless steel.
Willington Nameplate was founded over 50 years ago by Marcel Goepfert and day-to-day operations have been run by his son, Mike Goepfert, since 1990. Since that time, there have been many changes and a lot of growth. This includes a critical decision in 1999 to purchase their first DATRON high-speed milling machine.
Willington Nameplate’s Fabrication Group Leader, Jamie Vale Da Serra, recounts this story saying that, “Prior to installing the DATRON machine we used a manual kick process.” He goes on to say, “We needed to get away from that process because we needed a tolerance higher than .005”.Vale Da Serra refers to the DATRON milling machine as a “set it and forget it” piece of equipment that runs unattended freeing up staff to attend to other tasks.
Quick job setup and the ability of the DATRON machine to run unattended are the result of a number of integrated features – all operating in concert. This starts with integrated vacuum table or vacuum chuck technology that allows the operator to quickly setup the workpiece – for nameplates this is generally sheet material such as aluminum, stainless steel or Metalphoto®. An integrated probe for part location and measurement also speeds up job setup and enables uniformity by automatically compensating for material irregularities like surface variance. An automatic tool changer with an integrated tool-length sensor provides a full stable (and wide variety) of necessary tooling that can automatically be changed at given intervals and/or when a tool is broken.
Vale Da Serra says, “Consistency is there with the DATRONs from the first to the last they all measure the same, whereas with the manual process human error is possible that could give you a deviation.”
The growth at Willington Nameplate is not limited to adding DATRON machines, the company has recently purchased three other companies in New England, thereby expanding sales by 35% in five years. With a staff of more than 80 people, Willington Nameplate has now set their sights on additional acquisitions elsewhere in the United States.
Learn more about Nameplate Production download the White Paper:
DC Graphics, founded in ’94 by Kevin Brandon, is run today by Eugene Prohaske, President, and Kristine Brandon, Vice President, and has a long history in the engraving industry. Eugene is a passionate engraver and has over 30 years of experience in the engraving for packaging industry. He originally started in the engraving business with his father’s company, Styleart Engraving back in 1983. After his father retired in 1994, Eugene started his own business, HAP Engraving in Manhattan, together with a partner. They were in business until 2010 when he came to DC Graphics. Eugene originally joined business with Kevin Brandon, former President and original founder of DC Graphics. They worked together for about three years before Kevin passed away in 2013.
DC Graphics is an offset, flexographic pre-press, plate/die making and photoengraving facility, which produces magnesium and copper plates/engravings as well as CNC milled brass plates. DC Graphics, specializes in producing sculptured embossing dies and engravings, flat stamping and folding cards for the paper packaging and pre-press industry. They employ a staff of approximately 16 people.
Magnesium is a metal plate that can withstand high temperatures and is impact resistant as well. Embossing and foil-stamping both require a plate that can meet these criteria for long press runs. Magnesium plates are also used to make rubber plates, signs and name plates; a versatile product indeed. Its durability provides the end user with a long-lasting printing image or die. Plates come in different thicknesses: 16 gauge, 11 point, and 1/4′. The largest size is 18″ x 24″. Copper is also used because it is a harder metal that lasts and stores longer for a better quality product. Counters for their embossing and debossing dies are available in both .030 and .060 thicknesses. They can also create fast and accurate brass dies to a customers’ exact specifications with CNC machining.
DC Graphics is constantly seeking new innovations and utilizes the most current technology in its industry. Having access to the latest technologies keeps DC Graphics ahead of their competition by allowing them to work more productively. Their state-of-the-art equipment allows them to provide their clients with high-quality products faster and less expensively than their competition. Before DC Graphics purchased their first DATRON high-speed milling machine, everything was done by hand, gauging machines and etching. But etching proved to be dirty and carried additional costs associated with disposal of the chemicals used in the process. They knew that they needed a change.
So, in 1996, DC Graphics purchased their first DATRON machine (an M4) and made a transition from everything being done by hand, gauging machines and etching and began using CNC milling machines. It was a big undertaking but proved to be a smart decision for DC Graphics to go green and DATRON was the perfect solution for that.
Prohaske says, “Once I saw everything, I decided this was the wave of the future for us and if we didn’t make the change when we did more than likely we wouldn’t been in business anymore.”
In 2008, DC Graphics purchased a DATRON M8 high speed milling machine, followed by and two additional M8s (in 2012 and 2013) to get their engraving jobs done quicker and to handle more business for their customers.
According to Prohaske, “At the beginning it was a big learning curve because we needed to get the machines in and had to figure out how to run them. DATRON definitely walked us through it as a real partner would do.”
It was a natural progression of having one machine and getting a second one soon. At this time, they had one DATRON and one LANG. They took one year to evaluate the two machines and started weighing the pros and cons of both machines. Both are reliable and good German-engineered machines, but the service and support in the U.S. provided by DATRON Dynamics was a major part the decision to get more DATRON machines.
“They are in the States and whenever I have a problem, they help me and respond to an issue right away. Having a contact person and service over here is key because if I need a part or help figuring out what the problem is or what needs to be replaced, I can get the part the next day; worst case scenario being two days.” says Prohaske.
Prohaske continues, “I always have good experiences with DATRON. They always treat me with a lot of attentiveness and they always help me to get through an issue and give me guidance. I respect that and know I can trust them! Moving forward with the business and growing by getting more machines, it was just a logical decision to continue with DATRON. For what we need, DATRON is the best machine. The machines work fantastic because they’re very versatile and don’t break down. They last for years.”
Now, DC Graphics uses the DATRON machines for most of their projects. They run their LANG for flat stamping plates only because it has a smaller table and only an eight-station tool holder compared to the DATRON, which has a 15-station tool changer and larger table. The DATRON gives them more options in terms of creative engraving, which requires a high level of expertise and flexibility of the machine.
“It is just a very nice machine to work on. I do a lot of programming for the creative engraving and I am very familiar with the DATRON. My engraving creativity combined with the opportunities a DATRON machine offers is a good melding and these different factors coming together make a product that comes out quick, clean and reliable.” Prohaske says.
Prohaske prefers using a lot of tools. He uses specific tools with angles, shapes and cuts for engraving that help him to create a die quicker. This versatility helps him to achieve engraving effects he wouldn’t be able to produce if he didn’t have so many tools at his disposal on the machine. He has the engraving expertise to know how to apply the right tools for particular engraving challenges. Creative engraving is part of the front end program process where he programs everything and applies it to run on a DATRON.
“We really try to maintain a good customer service and engraving expertise – the knowledge of what’s gonna work. For certain types of engraving you need to know what’s gonna work to get an effect. That’s what people appreciate because they don’t know what to do. They come to me and say what’s gonna make this look like what our customer wants. That’s when you build a good report where they can account on you. You are able to do something that other engravers can’t do. That is you edge! I never want to be known as the cheapest engraver … instead, I want to be known as the place to go when something is difficult. And the reliability of DATRON machines and the fact that I’m familiar with these machines allows me to provide this kind of cutting-edge solution.” – Prohaske says.
DATRON AG employee, Marc Reis, made a CNC guitar using a DATRON M8Cube high speed milling machine. This CNC guitar is a Fender Stratocaster replica with body, neck, electronics pocketing, fret inlays and tuner through holes all milled on this high speed CNC milling machine made by DATRON AG in Germany.
Video of CNC Guitar Milling
For this CNC guitar milling project, Marc was able to leverage many of DATRON’s unique features such as vacuum table workholding used to hold the guitar body during machining. DATRON Vacuum tables are designed to swiftly and efficiently secure flat workpieces to the bed of a machining system. Thin stock, which could be secured only with great difficulty before, can be secured literally within seconds with this vacuum system. This includes plastic foils as thin as 0.001” up to heavier 0.250” aluminum sheets. This vacuum table features airflow-optimized ports, with recessed chambers, to provide superior vacuum distribution. A low cost, gas-permeable substrate serves as a sacrificial vacuum diffuser, allowing the cutter to machine through the workpiece, without cutting into the table.
Also, the ability to clamp long (or tall) parts to front of the cut-away in the M8Cube machine bed facilitated the drilling of a cavity in the guitar neck to accommodate the truss rod. (A guitar truss rod is used to stabilize and adjust the lengthwise forward curvature of the neck.)
CNC Guitar Photo
The DATRON M8Cube high speed milling machine features brushless, direct drives that provide faster acceleration, feed rates up to 866 inches per minute and shorter cycle times. A 3kW, 40,000 RPM, liquid-chilled spindle delivers greater horsepower for heavier machining, as well as the flexibility to mill a wide range of materials. To learn more download the brochure by filling out the form below.
Download Brochure on Machine Used to Make this CNC Guitar:
Microsoft’s Corporate Vice President, Panos Panay, says, “This is like a big toy factory” when speaking about their R&D operation in Redmond, WA. This state-of-the-art facility, along with the many DATRON high-speed CNC machining centers there, was recently featured by CNN in a piece called “Inside Microsoft’s secret design lab”. Like a kid in a candy store Panay continues, “You can spend days and weeks and build anything on the planet in this building!”
Indeed, Microsoft has amassed the world’s leading technology under one roof and the possibilities are endless. Many of the products and devices that we’ve all grown to love and depend on were developed in this building. More importantly the future of commercial electronics will be born here.
Panay is the man behind Microsoft’s Surface, and when commenting on the competitive landscape he says, “You know, we have a very deep set of competitors right now. We’re not sitting on our heels, we need to go forward every day. We can’t fall behind and the way to do it is you build a product, you test. If it fails you build it again. This is awesome right? You learn right away. Iterate, every hour or couple of hours, you can put something in overnight … you can find success and boom! Right there, you’ve failed and succeeded in almost the same set of 8 hours and now you have a solution that works for your customers.”
This is perhaps, the truest spirit of Microsoft R&D, and the equipment in their lab is akin to an artist’s paintbrush, allowing them to embody and emote this spirit in an efficient and meaningful way that can impact the daily lives of millions of consumers. Commenting on rapid prototyping, Panay says, “It happens quickly and it happens in a way that you get the true feel of the product. That’s so important. Tor really know what your customers are going to use and love you have to feel it.”
DATRON is proud to have consulted with this Microsoft R&D lab regarding the best suited high speed milling equipment for this type of rapid prototyping. What can be seen in the video, is a lineup of DATRON M8 and M8Cube high-speed CNC milling machines that are particularly efficient in milling aluminum parts with superior surface and edge finishes. The quality of surface and edge finish is of paramount importance when evaluating attributes like “feel” discussed by Panay in the video.
Bloomberg broadcasted a different video last year of the Microsoft R&D lab that was titled “Inside Microsoft’s Secret Surface Labs”. In this video, the narrator refers to the DATRON M8 as a “magnesium slicing milling machine” and Panay, who appears in this video as well points out, “You’re starting to see that same billet back there come to life right here … and this is our model shop.” The “Surface” story in this video is very much about the tenacity of Microsoft R&D. In fact, it suggests that the initial launch of the Surface in 2012 was less than successful and that iterations of the design have resulted in the product quietly gaining ground.
Brett Ostrum, Surface Development General Manager at Microsoft says, “Thinner and lighter, thinner and lighter, thinner and lighter. Grams, tens of grams are a huge currency for us.” As consumer electronics get smaller, the machines used to develop them have to be able to make tiny parts often featuring thin features, thin walls and other intricate features. This is where DATRON high speed machining centers excel because they were engineered from the ground up around a high speed spindle and for the sole purpose of high speed machining. To learn more about this technology and the science of high speed machining:
As recently as a decade ago, there was discussion regarding the best process for engraved name plate production –with the main contenders being the Pantograph, Stamping Machines and Milling Machines. Since that time, the argument for the pantograph has all but gone the way of the dinosaurs. That is because pantograph is a manual machine that requires extremely skilled craftsmen, so the process cannot be automated and it has become difficult to find qualified operators. Both of these factors increase costs. Stamping Machines, on the other hand, remain a viable method for engraved name plate production. Particularly where very large production runs are required, stamping machines have noticeable advantages. Specifically, for runs of say 20,000 name plates, the fact that these machines can produce a couple of parts per seconds makes them a logical choice. For lower runs, however, the costs of running stamping machines reduce the appeal. Much of the cost is associated with the dies required for the process which range from $2,000 to $5,000 each. Combine that cost with the quality of a stamped name plate and the stamping process becomes unattractive. This is because the stamping machine removes material from the workpiece by pushing the die down through the material like a cookie cutter. The force created at the location of the cut bends and shears the substrate. With malleable materials like metal this can mean bending at the edge and with other more brittle substrates, chipped edges can result. Finally, stamping machines are limited in functionality to just stamping or cutting the part out. So if the end product requires a counter sunk hole, tapping or engraving (perhaps for serial numbers), this would require another piece of equipment and a secondary operation – both at additional cost to the manufacturer.
So, for lower volume name plate engraving, milling machines — and specifically high speed milling machines — reign supreme. The remainder of this blog post will focus on high speed milling machine features that provide the competitive advantage in engraved name plate production.
High-Speed Spindle Most ID product and name plate engraving is done with small engraving bits and end mills. These small tools must be run at high speeds. High-speed milling machines featuring high-frequency spindles from 40,000 to 60,000 RPM effectively evacuate chips from the cutting channel during milling and engraving. This results in smooth surfaces and burr-free edges. It also eliminates the need for a secondary de-burring operation, as well as the costs associated with it.
Probing Probing or Surface Scanning (Mapping) saves time during job setup and ensures accuracy and repeatability. Probes available as an integrated component on some milling machines can recognize irregular work-piece topography and compensates for it dynamically. They do this by taking measurements along the surface of a blank and feeding that data into the machining controller. The controller automatically adjusts for uneven surfaces or work piece position. Through this process, job setup times are reduced and piece/part rejection is minimized.
Oil-Free Coolant While Probing can save valuable time at the front end of engraved name plate production (during set up), oil-free coolants can save time at the back end. That’s because unlike oil that leaves residue on the completed nameplate, certain oil-free coolants simply evaporate. So, the secondary de-greasing operation can be eliminated – thereby reducing the cost of labor, the cost of consumables required for cleaning, and most importantly minimizing total engraved name plate production time.
Integrated Vacuum Table Workholding Workholding for engraved name plate applications, like production runs of Metalphoto, can be problematic. Thin substrates are difficult to hold. This is particularly true if the manufacturer is using a conventional CNC to engrave or cut small parts with limited surface area, because the force of the spindle can literally “fling” the part across the machine bed once it is completely cut out. Many manufacturers actually resort to spray glue as a method of workholding. Not only is this messy, it can also lead to bending when the finished part is removed from the machine bed. Plus, it results in a time consuming and costly secondary application to remove the glue form the completed parts.
However, some high-speed milling machines can be equipped with integrated vacuum table workholding. For example, with DATRON’s vacuum table, thin stock, that was once difficult to secure, can now be secured in just seconds. Plastic foils as thin as 0.001”, up to 0.250” thick aluminum sheets can be secured quickly and held in place even when the parts are “cookie-cut” completely through the material. A vacuum pump provides vacuum power for the system to work. A vacuum table features airflow-optimized vacuum ports, with recessed vacuum chambers, to provide superior vacuum distribution. A low cost gas-permeable substrate serves as a sacrificial vacuum diffuser, allowing the cutter to machine through the workpiece, without cutting into the table.
Automatic Tool Management ID product and engraved name plate manufacturers considering various CNC machines for milling and engraving, need to consider their current processes and what their ideal process might be. In other words, they may currently be running only one or two shifts, but in a perfect world, an unattended overnight shift could be the secret to increased profitability. Even if a “lights-out” shift isn’t in the cards, a day shift where the CNC machine can run unattended allows the operator to tend to other business – thereby providing the manufacturer with more productivity from a single employee.
So, choosing a CNC with the right kind of tool management is crucial. The required Automatic Tool Management System is made up of three separate components working in synergistically — the tool checker, the tool changer, and the software. The tool checker is a mechanical sensor that measures tool length and detects the broken tool. The tool changer is a rack or tray that has space for spare tools and sockets where the machine places broken tools before picking up a replacement. Operators can stock the rack with spare tools, so they have a ready supply should tools break during “lights out” operation. The software is a macro program that can be set up to run a tool check after executing a number of lines of code. For example, a tool check macro can initiate a check after every 500 lines of code by employing an “if/then” statement such as, “Measure this tool; if the length is shorter than the parameter (listed in the software’s tool database), then change the tool.”
Wrapping It Up: ID product and engraved name plate manufactures who specialize in low production runs can gain efficiency, flexibility and an overall reduction in cost by using high speed milling machines. Since most of these manufacturers use small tools, it is imperative that they select a CNC machine designed specifically for use with small tools. High-speed spindles are best suited for small tools and produce burr-free parts with superior surface and edge finishes. The low force of these spindles maximizes tool life and enables innovative workholding such as integrated vacuum tables that reduce setup times. Probing also makes setup more efficient and ensures accuracy and repeatability. Automatic Tool Management provides a reduction in cost by enabling unattended or lights-out production. High speed milling machines that deliver all of these features provide manufacturers of ID products and engraved name plates with a real competitive and cost-reducing advantage.
The ATF mandates that firearm serial numbers are engraved, cast or stamped on a gun frame or receiver in a manner that is not susceptible to being obliterated. The current required depth of engraving for a gun serial number is 0.003” in a print size no smaller than 1/16 inch. Other gun markings such as model number, caliber or gauge, logo, manufacturer name and country of origin must also be engraved on the gun at a depth of 0.003”. Because no two guns can carry the same serial number, licensed gun manufacturers are obliged to record and track every gun produced and therefore, all gun marking or gun engraving performed at their facility, as well as the location of engraved gun parts. This blog discusses 3 different gun marking techniques, as well as the features that benefit quality control.
1) Roll Marking Guns
Let’s begin with roll marking. Where this process is concerned, whether or not it is able to achieve the required depth of gun marking (and it can) is almost irrelevant. That’s because the quality of the marking is, in my opinion, just not what I’d want on a gun that I bought for hundreds or thousands of dollars. In the case of gun marking or serialization, the roll marking process uses a round die with sharp alphanumeric characters that are rolled over the gun part, thereby pressing the serial number into the gun, squeezing and displacing metal in order to produce an impression. The fact is, these marks are not crisp and clean because the edges of each character contain remnants or “recast” of the metal that was displaced from impression.
2) Laser Marking Guns
Laser machines, on the other hand, produce decent quality gun markings. The downside for laser is depth. The ATF mandated firearm engraving depth of 0.003” is pushing the limits of laser technology. That’s because the deeper the “cut” the more the light begins to bend. This is akin to runout in the machining world and the results are unsatisfactory for many gun manufacturers.
3) Engraving Guns with a High Speed Milling Machine
Smith & Wesson, for example, uses a high-speed machining center to go above and beyond the ATF guidelines engraving guns such as the M&P at a depth of 0.005”. This practice positions Smith & Wesson for the future in the event that the ATF imposes stricter requirements for gun serial number depth.
Engraving gun serial numbers and branding such as logos with a high speed CNC milling machine (or machining center) produces crisp clean edges at a depth that satisfies ATF requirements. As mentioned above, quality gun marking can even be milled at depths that exceed those requirements. Additionally, machining centers like DATRON high speed milling machines offer integrated features and robust functionality that benefit gun manufacturers in regards to speed (cycle time), quality, reduced waste, lean manufacturing, and part recording and tracking. Using Smith & Wesson’s M&P line of handguns as an example, here’s how it works. This line requires engraving on 3 different handgun slides used for various models. Since these slides are used for a range of calibers, there are up to 7 variations. Smith & Wesson practices lean manufacturing using “single unit pull” – so as orders are received, the required parts are engraved.
With DATRON’s probing used for part referencing and identification, an operator simply selects the appropriate slide and places it the high speed milling machine – fixing it in a rotary indexer used to rotate the part and part fixture in order to engrave both sides. The probe then scans the slide and determines part definition (part type), and pulls the appropriate sub-program to engrave specific markings and part numbers. This way, even in a worst case scenario, when an operator sets up the wrong blank, the DATRON machine still produces a high quality, usable gun part. The measurement obtained through the initial probing also serves as the first step in maintaining a consistent .005” engraving depth. The surface topography data of each handgun slide is fed into the control software which automatically compensates for any surface irregularities before engraving begins. With this technology, an even depth of engraving can also be maintained on curved or rounded gun parts like gun barrels.
Once a gun part is engraved, the DATRON machining center has the ability to record the information in the manufacturer’s database. Using a Dynamic Link Library (DLL) customized and linked to manufacturer’s IT system, automated reports are sent from the CNC machine to ensure proper production documentation for tracking purposes. This also eliminates the risk of serial number duplication. Firearm Engraving Process Summary:
Part enters machine, machine automatically checks which part is there and probes for surface variances
Machine control selects program for that part and surface variance is compensated for in machining data
Appropriate sequential serial number, logos and other gun markings is engraved
Consistent depth is maintained … even on rounded surfaces
Machine checks to make sure serial number is present and has an even depth before removing part
Part production is recorded and tracked in database
Samples of Gun Engraving with a CNC Milling Machine:
For most gun owners, the purchase of a gun is a decision that deserves some research and scrutiny with regards to quality and performance. Knowing this, gun manufacturers invest incredible amounts of money promoting their brand. The word “brand” is derived from the branding or marking on the product itself. So, it’s only logical that gun manufacturers want their logo or “brand” to appear in its best form on the gun to in order convey quality. In other words, aesthetics count. The samples below, show the crisp clean quality of gun logos engraved with a high speed CNC milling machine featuring a 40,000 – 60,000 RPM spindle.
As mentioned throughout this blog, the depth of gun serial numbers is regulated by the ATF, and therefore, the quality of serial number marking is not as much about aesthetics as it is about satisfying government mandates. High speed CNC milling machines provide the greatest accuracy and depth of engraving as illustrated by the samples below.
Since the ATF is consistent in their specification for an engraving depth of 0.003” on other gun markings like the place of origin (manufacturer location), caliber, gauge and model number, logically, gun manufacturers want to consolidate all engraving into a single process to save time and money. The Smith & Wesson M&P handgun slides below were engraved on a DATRON high speed milling machine equipped with a rotary indexer used to flip the part so that both sides could be engraved in a single set up. This automation eliminates operator intervention associated with manual setup for engraving on each side of the gun.
Download the Smith & Wesson M&P Handgun Engraving Case Study
If you think of batch production as an endless shift of “part in, part out” you’re not alone. Certainly, machine operators responsible for loading blanks, machining them, and removing the finished part – over and over repeatedly – share the view that a shift can be mundane and at times even seem endless.
But, with the right equipment, batch production or batch machining can be cost saving for the manufacturer and liberating for the machine operator. Further, if planned carefully, batch production strategies can facilitate unattended production or lights out manufacturing which add to the cost savings realized by manufacturers.
The Batch Production “Ideal”
Using milling machines with large beds reduces operator intervention since they accommodate numerous or sizable “blanks” that can yield a full batch in a cycle time that coincides with the length of an operator’s shift. That way, the operator can place a batch on the machine in the morning and attend to other duties during the day. The automated machine works all day producing the needed pieces. Near the end of the shift, the operator removes the completed batch, sweeps down the machine, and sets up another batch to run unattended all night.
When the operator returns to work the next morning, he removes the batch that the machine produced overnight and starts up another one. This gets two shifts’ worth of work out of a single operator. This is the principle of “lights out” production — so named because the machine is left running overnight when everyone has gone home. Of course, this scenario reflects the batch machining “ideal”, since it keeps the machine operating unattended for most of the workday and at night. This may not fit your exact application but, the closer you can get to this ideal, the more efficient and cost-effective your operation will become.
Note: Achieving the highest degree of efficiency or the “ideal”, requires increasing the machine’s role in the process while decreasing the need for operator supervision. So, manufacturers striving to reach this ideal must employ the right machines and also identify alternative labor functions to fill the void left by the operator’s diminished role in production.
Unattended / Lights Out Production in Theory
Based on an 8-hour day, let’s say labor costs about $0.40 a minute and a machine costs about $0.20 a minute to operate. So, if you tie an operator to the machine with one-up production, your total cost will be $0.60 a minute. If you were to run two shifts, the machine would cost only $0.10 a minute, while the labor cost remains the same at $0.40 a minute. Although it’s a savings, it falls short of maximizing the impact on a manufacturer’s bottom line … and more can actually be saved. By setting up a machine to do the work without operator intervention during the second shift, the reduction in the labor cost brings the machine cost as low as $0.05 a minute.
While the cost of labor is something that the manufacturer cannot control, companies can still achieve substantial savings through batch machining that gets twice the production from a single operator with no increase in labor cost. This method can be expanded into “lights-out” production (one shift of unattended machining) to further reduce machine costs. Any form of batch machining is superior to one-up production and represents a “set it and forget it” method to achieve cost-effective, efficiency with machines that were designed to be automated in the first place. A machining center featuring a large working area (bed) and possibly automation offers a complete solution for batch machining that will directly and positively impact a manufacturer’s bottom line.
Download Free Batch Production Case Study (real-world example):
The term aerospace often conjures images of rocket ships, space shuttles and the latest technology that NASA has to serve up. From a machinist’s standpoint, we think of complex jet engine impellers and marvel at the precision and fluidity demonstrated in the 5-axis milling of these aerospace parts. Between the government and commercial sectors, the aerospace industry is huge … and the range of machined parts diverse . This represents a growing opportunity for manufacturers. In fact, according to Boeing’s “Current Market Outlook” the commercial aircraft segment is forecasted to grow at twice the projected growth rate of the global economy over the next two decades.¹
Many DATRON customers have added our high speed machining technology to their shop floor in order to respond to this growing demand for milling aerospace parts. While many of their stories are proprietary in nature, we’re fortunate enough to be able to share a few of them.
Let’s start with an example less obvious and perhaps less “sexy” than milling impellers – how about milling airplane seats? We can share one commercial application in Europe and a military application in the United States.
DATRON customer, Thompson Aero Seating in Northern Ireland is one of the leading suppliers of seating systems for the aviation industry and their three lines of seating are used primarily in the business class of commercial airlines. They came to DATRON seeking to machine aluminum support rails for seat frames, as well as a goal of increasing production capacity for a backing plate and reducing cycle time. The company purchased a DATRON M10 Pro for this aerospace milling application which ultimately reduced cycle time from 61 minutes to 32 minutes or nearly 100%. Additionally, due to the superior surface quality achieved when machining aluminum with the M10 Pro, they were able to eliminate a secondary operation required to de-burr or polish the parts.
On this side of the pond, another Thompson, Thompson Aerospace, came to DATRON with a need to machine side panels for the ejector seats in F18 fighter jets. What appealed to them about DATRON machines was the large working area that could accommodate the aluminum sheet material required to manufacture their sizable aerospace component. Plus a DATRON vacuum table, known as the Quadramate, could be integrated for 24” x 36” of workholding that would reduce set up time.
The next example comes from DATRON customer, Aero-Tec Industries, based in Seminole, OK, who manufacture a wide variety of internally illuminated control panels for usage in fixed wing, rotary wing and simulator applications. A large percentage of these are manufactured to be compatible with night vision goggles. Special lamp filtration and paints are required for this. The initial part that they needed to produce was milled from military grade cast acrylic. This customer too was drawn to DATRON because of the large work envelope and vacuum table workholding. Aero-Tec President, Charles Harbert said, I was interested to see how DATRON’s high speed technology and integrated vacuum table could impact our efficiency and the overall quality of our entire product line.”
After batches of these control panels are machined from acrylic sheets, they populated with electronics and go through a painting process — black over white. After paint, lettering is applied with a diode-pumped laser system that ablates the black paint to expose the white underneath. The DATRON machining center was used to fabricate the registration fixture required for the laser system. Here is a series of photos to illustrate the production phases.
Our final example of machining aerospace parts is an instrument panel manufactured by Flight Safety International for use in flight simulators used to train pilots. Flight Safety is the world’s leading aviation training company and runs 40 learning centers and training locations worldwide. The panel shown below was machined on a DATRON high speed machining center with integrated vacuum table workholding and then painted. This part is representative of many Flight Safety parts that are milled in varying shapes and sizes to produce all of the cockpit instrumentation that populates the dash of their flight simulators.
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Probing is one of the features available on DATRON high speed milling machines that earn our German engineers the greatest accolades. But many machinists coming from traditional backgrounds using conventional CNC equipment are not certain how to employ this function in their applications and are unaware of the ultimate benefits of surface mapping and 3D probing. A CNC probe is an instrument that can measure a material’s surface by contact. The measurements can be used to ensure uniform depth of milling and engraving.
In a perfect world, the material blanks that we receive from vendors would be perfectly flat – a starting point that would help to guarantee that our finished milled parts will be characterized by uniformity. In reality, this just isn’t the case. For example, two pieces of ½ inch 6061 aluminum from a single vendor could vary in actual depth from one another. There could even be a variance of depth from one end of the blank to the other, or multiple peaks and valleys over the entire surface of the sheet. With some applications, a variance of thousandths or microns may not make a difference to the manufacturer. But for many manufacturers producing parts for aerospace, electronics and medical, tight tolerance is required and accuracy is critical to their success. So the premise for surface mapping in CNC milling is that a machining center with an integrated probe can take measurements at various intervals or locations (custom matrices) across the surface of the material blank, feed that data into the control software and adjust the milling program accordingly to maintain an even depth of cut regardless of the blank’s innate surface variance. This is all done dynamically, before the milling even begins which helps to minimize waste and maintain part uniformity. But not all parts are flat and therefore they don’t begin with a flat work piece like sheet material. These parts may begin with rounded blanks like bar stock. In the case of firearm manufacturing, gun companies often have to machine on rounded parts like steel gun barrels, or curved parts like gun receivers made of metals such as steel and aluminum.
An example of this would be engraving serial numbers, which is a process that is regulated by the ATF (Alcohol, Tabaco and Firearms) because they mandate that serial numbers are engraved at a particular depth (currently 0.003”) to make it harder for them to be honed off for use in criminal activity.
For milling or engraving on rounded surfaces, a probe like DATRON’s Z-Correction Probe is required and in many cases a rotary axis is also necessary. To machine round stock or engrave on round work-pieces, the 4th axis provides the necessary flexibility. The 4th axis integrates virtually seamlessly with the CNC machining control. The 4th axis can be used to substitute either the X or the Y axis, and can be dynamically switched under program control. The 4th and 5th axis together provide the flexibility needed for the most complex work-pieces. The 5th axis is used to independently rotate the 4th axis, each axis independently and dynamically controlled by the appropriate machining program. As a result, machining at an angle on a round part is easily accomplished.
But, there are still more great uses for an integrated CNC probe. Take part identification or part location for example. Part identification is when the probe takes measurements to determine which blank has been set up so that it can automatically run the appropriate milling program. This strategy is often used by manufacturers who have a variety of similar but different parts to produce. Again, using firearm manufacturing as an example, 1911 hanguns often have similar size and shape but come in a variety of different calibers – from 9mm, 45 mm etc. So, if the manufacturer uses a milling machine with integrated probing for part identification, even if the machine operator places the wrong blank in the machine, the machine can be programed to run the program appropriate for that particular part. This eliminates waste, and in this heavily regulated industry that eliminates headaches as well.
In terms of part location, a machine such as the DATRON M8Cube with integrated probing and the 3D Probe Extension can probe features unique to a particular part to determine the exact position and placement of that part on the machining table. This includes finding centers of holes and bosses, edge finding and pre-measuring blanks before the machining starts. The 3D-Probe extension enables the Z-Correction Probe to function in three dimensions. Intuitive programming allows machining programs to adjust themselves to the particular work-piece on the machining bed. Material variations in X, Y, and Z can be compensated dynamically to maintain part quality and uniformity. For further quality control, work pieces can be checked after machining almost like a built in CMM (Coordinate Measuring Machine). Finally, don’t tell your competitors, but, certain parts can even be probed for the purpose of reverse engineering.
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