Machining Engineered Plastics and Composites for Electronics

In the 1960’s and ‘70’s Bill Devine, did tours of duty both in Vietnam and working at Excellon selling equipment to printed circuit board (PCB) manufacturers. In 1978, he set out on his own and founded QC Drilling, Inc. (now called QC Precision Machining) in Alston, MA to provide subcontracted drilling and routing services to the now burgeoning PCB industry.

QC Precision Machining in Salem, NH.

Given his background, Devine naturally started off with a single Excellon machine — and from the very beginning, he was inclined to incorporate the newest technology immediately as it was released by his former employer. As a result, QC Drilling was virtually the first manufacturer in the World to use the Excellon’s Concept IV machine and CNC VII controller. In an industry where speed and efficiency could make or break you, Devine saw new technology as his competitive advantage.

Small flat parts, often for the electronics industry are what QC specializes in.

As operations became streamlined out on the shop floor, Devine was streamlining his business model back in the office. He noticed that the margins on plastics part jobs that came in occasionally were 5 times greater than the margins on the PCB jobs that they were running day in day out. Amid an increasingly competitive PCB market, QC Drilling would transfer their focus to small, flat plastic parts required by many of the same customers for whom they had run PCBs.

Engineered plastic can be a challenge to mill without burring, but a close up shows excellent quality.

By the 1990’s the success of this migration to plastics part manufacturing had resulted in a need for a new facility and QC Drilling moved to Salem, NH where they built a 10,000 sq. foot building. In the late ‘90’s Bill’s son, Shawn Devine, took charge of the business with a similar forward-thinking view of technology as their competitive advantage. Soon, operators were armed with bar code scanners for tracking jobs as they moved through the production process and management wielded hand-held PDA’s to watch the progress from their office or even on the road. With this real-time view of production and an inventory management system, QC Drilling delivers on their promise of speed and service.

“I can call a customer in New York, have them send a drawing to my phone one minute and send them a quote back a few minutes later based on both inventory and workload. This agility wins us business and in many cases, we produce their parts that same day.” – Jeff Murray, Sales Manager

Mark Bailey, General Manager and Shawn Devine, President in front of one of QC Drilling’s short run workhorses — the DATRON M8 high-speed machining center.

Shawn Devine, QC Drilling President, viewed the implementation of this tracking and management technology as the best way to address another shift in their corporate focus – from high volume jobs to low volume high mix projects. “Look, if a manufacturer can wait five weeks for a part, they’ll send it to a low-labor-cost facility in Asia or Mexico. But, if time is critical, the job has to be kept regional … so everything we do has to work toward a common goal of speed and efficiency.”

QC President, Shawn Devine, checking his team’s work in their lab.

In accordance with that methodology, Shawn Devine soon found himself seeking equipment for the plant floor that could match the efficiency and agility he’d achieved with the back office technology — and that would integrate with it. In the Fall of 2005, QC Drilling purchased a Datron high-speed machining center to address the 3-axis jobs and metal machining projects that they had been “no-bidding” due to lack of capability. Now, small part R&D and low volume manufacturing could be performed on a single machine. Designed exclusively for small tooling, Datron machines mill, drill, and engrave.  3D probing capabilities yield accuracy and quality control while automatic tool management, a 60,000 RPM spindle and a spray-mist coolant system collectively deliver both speed and unsurpassed surface finishes.

Plus, Datron’s control software allowed QC Drilling to quickly integrate this new machine. “Unlike older machines that require a separate computer in order to enter our job tracking, the Datron has a standard PC with USB ports where the bar-code scanner can be plugged in … which brought it online immediately on day one.” – Mark Bailey, General Manager

Various materials, shapes and sizes are represented on QC’s sample board, but most of the parts are flat and are held with a vacuum chuck during machining.

Soon, the Datron machine was booked with work, running two shifts a day attended and one shift unattended. Typical jobs range from metal to a variety of plastics, but all are relatively small volumes of small parts. Many of these parts are milled from sheets of flat material and QC Drilling has employed Datron’s VacuMate™ technology as their preferred method of workholding.

The VacuMate from Datron is designed to swiftly and efficiently secure flat workpieces to the bed of a machining system. Thin stock, which could be secured only with great difficulties before, is now secured literally within seconds – including plastic foils as thin as 0.001”, or aluminum sheets as thick as 0.250”. 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.

Batch milling parts from a sheet of Lexan held with a vacuum table during machining.

Because the Datron machines are made specifically for high-speed micro machining, the spindle produces less force which means that a vacuum can be used to hold fixturing and blanks — something not possible with a conventional CNC. Centering inserts on the bottom of each segment register with conical cavities (milled by the machine itself) on the surface of the machining table. This results in a “boss-in-cavity” system that insures location repeatability. This boss-in-cavity” system combined with the large 40” x 27” work envelop on the Datron machine allows for multiple setups for frequent projects or job types and provides agility to adjust to incoming jobs. So, if QC Drilling is in the middle of a batch and an unexpected rush project comes in, they just remove one fixture and replace it with the new job. When the rush job is complete, they return the first fixture to its place and pick up where they left off.

Glass-filled plastics like G10 and FR4 are milled with clean edges and burr-free holes.

Shawn Devine says, “The ability to quickly adapt to changing needs is the essence of agility … and agility is the very thing that gives QC Drilling the competitive edge.”

The importance of QC Drilling as a case study is that rather than longing for the days of large production runs, they have embraced small runs as a viable and profitable business model – and have adopted new technology to fit the role. “We don’t get paid for doing quotes, so we have a system to quickly and accurately bid on jobs, bring them in house and get them done. We’re structured for that … and we do well with them.” says, Devine.

In fact, QC Drilling is so far beyond the large run mentality that they don’t even blink when the parts that they perfect are then brought to Asia for mass production. These changes allow them to move on to the next project lined up behind their machines … and there appears to be no end in sight.

“It plays into our business model. The Datron equipment is booked even though we haven’t scratched the surface in terms of what it can do. It’s robust technology and the possibilities are limitless … and that means the profit potential is too.” – Shawn Devine, QC Drilling President

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Machining Custom Aluminum Panels

DataPro International Inc. is a leading supplier of panel-mount connectivity solutions ranging from panel-mount cables and couplers to customized wallplates, panels, rugged cases and enclosures. With over a decade of industry experience milling and engraving custom aluminum panels, DataPro can confidently say that DATRON is the right machine for the job.

Custom aluminum panel mounted in a rugged pelican case for a DataPro customer.
Custom aluminum panel mounted in a rugged Pelican case ordered online by a DataPro customer and produced using a DATRON high-speed CNC mill.

DataPro’s popular Online Plate Designer allows engineers and non-engineers alike to customize a wide variety of plates and panels through a simple web-based interface. Requiring no experience in CAD or 3D modeling, it shows a graphical representation of the final product, and orders can be placed immediately. On the back end, as soon as an order is placed, custom software automatically generates GNC code, and the plate is ready to be machined within minutes. For more complex projects, DataPro offers expert engineering and design services, working with customers on both initial design and manufacturing process development.

Searching for the Perfect Machine to Make Custom Aluminum Panels

Today, DataPro offers a host of streamlined machining and design services, but it started out with more humble beginnings. Founded in a Seattle garage in 1985, DataPro began as a manufacturer of data cables, then grew to specialize in bulkhead-mount cables. Having noted the growth of this niche (manufacturing electronic devices), the logical next step was to produce the plates and panels that the cables were being mounted to. So in 2007, DataPro added CNC machining to their capabilities by purchasing a small countertop hobbyist mill, capable of producing basic wall plates. As demand grew for these services, DataPro began upgrading their machining equipment and software. After outgrowing a number of machines including a Sherline, and Haas TM1 and TM2s, DataPro began looking for a machine to help them overcome specific production bottlenecks.

They began their search at trade shows, investigating a range of devices for milling and engraving panels. Ironically, they were not even at a “machining” show when they had a very serendipitous encounter. Lead Machinist Ilya Pasumanskiy recalls, “At the NAB Show (a convention encompassing the convergence of media, entertainment and technology) we met with BTX, a company that utilizes DATRON. They had a booth at the show and we were asking them about their manufacturing processes and they were gracious enough to tell us that they were using DATRON.”

Pasumanskiy quickly scheduled a flight to visit DATRON Dynamics in Milford, NH, and after spending several days with their application engineers and machines, his hunch was confirmed. He says, “I was darn sure at that point that DATRON was the right technology for us so we went ahead with the purchase and we’ve been using it every day since then.”

Machining custom panels using a vacuum table to hold sheet material on the bed of the DATRON high-speed mill.
Machining custom aluminum panels with a DATRON high-speed milling machine equipped with an integrated vacuum table for workholding.

Ultimate Efficiency for Producing Custom Aluminum Panels

The first benefit they noticed was that the clean-up time, required after each machining cycle, was cut to almost zero with the DATRON. DataPro’s machine prior to the DATRON used a vacuum table and an oil-based flood coolant, so the machined parts came out with an oily residue that had to be “degreased”. That was a secondary operation that had to be done by hand, which added significant time and labor costs. Additionally, the machine and vacuum table had to be cleaned. Since the basic premise of vacuum workholding is air intake, high volumes of oil used for flood coolant can jeopardize the functionality of the vacuum table if not managed carefully. Pasumanskiy says, “With the DATRON we have virtually eliminated cleanup because the lubricant simply evaporates leaving clean parts that don’t need to be degreased.”

The higher spindle speeds of the DATRON allowed DataPro to dramatically reduce the machining time of precision engraved panels and significantly reduced the number of units that had to be reworked. Before he found the DATRON, Pasumanskiy comments, “We got through the work that we had, but we definitely couldn’t step up to the next level because we were bottlenecked by the capabilities of the machinery.”

Custom aluminum panel held with a vacuum chuck on the bed of a DATRON CNC milling machine.
The flexibility to produce one-off custom aluminum panels comes from the speed of the DATRON machine and the quick setup provided by vacuum table workholding.

DataPro’s machinists also found that DATRON’s probing with Z-correction can dramatically speed up setup. “On other machines, if we had to engrave something large I would often need to sweep the entire engraving area with an indicator to be able to identify the variance, then compensate for it in my program. DATRON’s Z-correction does all of that automatically.”

DATRON’s Z-correction also results in less rework and less re-engraving areas because it maintains an even engraving depth (to 0.0005”). “We had integrated probing back then, but not with advanced probing capabilities like DATRON’s Z-correction field — which meant that we couldn’t control the depth of our engraving if there were surface irregularities in the material.”

Programming Custom Aluminum Panels

Programming custom aliminum panels for machining on a DATRON high-speed CNC milling machine
Programming custom aluminum panels and enclosures using HSMWORKS for SOLIDWORKS and Fusion 360.

For CAD/CAM software, DataPro uses HSMWORKS for SOLIDWORKS and Fusion 360. When asked about the ease of getting programming help or support for the DATRON machine, Pasumanskiy sums it up by saying, “We have had great experiences with DATRON’s service and I see a lot of your application guys as my friends. I like talking to them, they’re always really responsive and they always know how to solve my problem.”

With the DATRON, the possibilities are endless. DataPro is now specializing in panels for and modification of Pelican cases and other brands of ruggedized cases that are often customized to house electronics and other components. In addition to its core business, DataPro has begun offering general machining services and has used the DATRON to tackle a wide variety of projects. They even use the DATRON machine to make their own injection molds. Bringing this work inhouse has reduced their costs and improved turnaround time since they are not relying on an outsourced vendor.

DataPro has streamlined their plate production and has been able to significantly grow their business thanks to the purchase of the DATRON machine.

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Aerospace Instruments Made from Military-Grade Material

Aero-Tec Industries, based in Seminole, OK, manufactures aerospace instruments including 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.

Pilots of a commercial jetliner depend on the illuminated instruments on the control panel of the cockpit.
Illuminated aerospace instruments in the cockpit of a commercial jetliner.

In 2005, Aero-Tec President, Charles Harbert, set out to find a CNC machine capable of batch machining illuminated displays for aircraft communications gear from cast acrylic. But these were to be no ordinary displays and to produce them to exacting specifications Aero-Tec needed to find an extraordinary piece of equipment.

MAKING ILLUMINATED AEROSPACE INSTRUMENTS

According to Harbert, “Encapsulated within the part are two sealed 5-volt lamp modules — one provides backlighting for UHF and the other [at the top] illuminates the display that sits behind a clear window. The lamp modules are filtered in order to be compatible with night-vision goggles worn by military pilots … and the lettering at the bottom is non-illuminated.”

Illuminated aerospace instrument machined from cast military-grade acrylic.
Illuminated Aerospace Instrument – made from military grade cast acrylic machined on a DATRON high-speed mill.

The parts shown here include a completed part (minus the two wires that come out of the recessed terminals on the back) and the two other parts show the innards and illustrate the complicated steps required for manufacturing this part.

When Aero-Tec came across DATRON Dynamics, Inc., (Milford, NH) on the Internet, Harbert’s hope for superior technology was bolstered by a website that showed vanguard high-speed machining centers … and perhaps more importantly, a smorgasbord of integrated features that smacked of a
real turn-key solution. “In particular,” said Harbert, “I was interested in how DATRON’s high-speed technology and integrated vacuum table could impact our efficiency and the overall quality of our entire product line.”

A fighter jet pilot relies on illuminated instruments for flying at night.
Night Flight for a fighter jet pilot using illuminated instruments in the cockpit.

In fact, DATRON’s VacuMate™ workholding ultimately had as much to do with Aero-Tec’s success with this particular aerospace part as the 60,000 RPM machining technology itself. VacuMate is designed to swiftly and efficiently secure flat workpieces to the bed of a machining system. Thin stock, which could be secured only with great difficulties before, can be secured literally within seconds. This includes plastic foils as thin as 0.001” or aluminum sheets up to 0.250” thick. The 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. When placing a single 18”x12” VacuMate segment (or up to 4 connected segments for a total of 24” x 36”) on the machine bed, the same position is maintained every time. That’s because the VacuMates are keyed using a beveled boss-in-cavity system to ensure location repeatability.

Vacuum table with sacrificial cardboard that allows the operator to cut through material without damaging the chuck.
Machine operator prepares the vacuum table with a sacrificial layer that allows him to cut through sheet material without damaging the surface of the table.

According to DATRON Dynamics President, Bill King, “Most CNC manufacturers just don’t get involved in workholding. They sell you their machine and let you find a way to hold your parts once it arrives. Well, DATRON takes a more holistic approach and considers workholding part of the overall solution.”

It was this integration that convinced Aero-Tec to procure the DATRON machining system complete with 3D probing and VacuMate — and Harbert and the R&D group went right to work on perfecting the process.

MILITARY-GRADE AEROSPACE INSTRUMENTS

The first step was to batch machine or “cookie cut” a 24” x 36” sheet of military grade cast acrylic to create the back side of the part. Using a QuadraMate™ (4 connected VacuMate segments), the material is secured. The probe scans the surface of the material to validate the position of the blank while at the same time feeding any irregularities into DATRON’s controller. Any surface irregularities are compensated for dynamically in the machining parameters — without operator intervention and before the machining even begins. This ensures that despite variances in thickness, the depth of the cut will stay the same. This is critical for this aerospace part and for Aero-Tec since they machine into the acrylic within four thousandths shy of breaking through the material. After cutting the basic “blanks” for the aerospace instruments, the individual parts are resecured on the vacuum chuck for the milling of clearance cuts to accommodate the electrical terminals on the face side.

Acrylic sheet on vacuumetable being milled with DATRON CNC mill.
Acrylic sheet material held with an integrated vacuum table on the bed on a DATRON high-speed milling machine.

The parts for the aerospace instruments are removed from the machine bed and two special terminals are installed from the face side and potted in place with catalyzed polyester. The excess potting material is wet sanded away to leave the face smooth. Next, the lamp assemblies and the associated wiring are installed with special care being paid to its position so that the electronics are not severed during subsequent phases of production performed on the DATRON high-speed machining center. Then these components get potted again with polyester to secure them in place.

The parts are then placed back on the DATRON machine and secured with the vacuum fixture so that all of the detailed features that appear on the back can be machined — the rectangular window is cut down to the step. Then the operator flips the part over and places it in a dedicated fixture on a
separate station within the DATRON machine’s working envelope. Here, the window through cut is finished and a bevel around the opening is machined and the shoulder is cut using a ballnose endmill. An additional clamp is placed in the through hole (window) to hold the part while the periphery is cut — freeing the part from the block of military acrylic.

The individual displays for the aerospace instruments then 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.

The parts are returned to the DATRON machine where the black and white layers of paint are milled away on the top wall of the window opening on the back side. This allows NVG secure light to spill onto the display that will be installed behind the window. Finally, the window itself (also machined from cast acrylic on the DATRON) is glued in and the wires are soldered in and potted. The Aero-Tec design allowed for the wires to go in last so that the DATRON machine operators don’t have to struggle with them during the various machining processes. Harbert sings the praises of DATRON’s durability by saying, “I really cannot attest to the quality of the DATRON service department because a year and a half into this project the machine hasn’t hiccupped once — so we haven’t needed any service … which is exceptional.”

Further, he explains, “It’s amazing how much work goes into aerospace instruments or a finished military part. But, if that’s what keeps us all safe then it’s worth the effort — and if the quality of this part is critical to that safety, then DATRON is literally a lifesaver.”

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Making Molds for Pharmaceutical Packaging

Kansas City Design (Lambertville, NJ) is not a typical mold shop: it is a one-of-a-kind engineering studio that specializes in prototyping and production tooling. Owner William Arnold began his career doing conceptual work in pharmaceutical packaging and parlayed this expertise into starting his own company in 1997—specializing in the design, development, engineering, and creation of packaging and packaging samples for the pharmaceutical industry. Additional services include CNC-machined molds, tooling used in thermoforming and pharmaceutical packaging equipment, artistic and computer renderings, 2D and 3D engineering documentation, graphics, package engineering and prototyping, cold form tooling and samples, child-resistant packaging, and stability test samples for all types of packaging.

Thermoform molds are used to produce blister pack and product insert trays.
Thermoform moldmaking is used to produce blister packaging (pill packs) as well as product insert trays for pharmaceutical packaging.

When the time came for Arnold to choose a machining center best suited for the wide range of products and services Kansas City Design offers— particularly for pharmaceutical packaging, prototype and production thermoform tooling as well as cold form tooling—he decided upon the DATRON high-speed machining center from DATRON Dynamics (Milford, NH). According to Arnold, it best fit the company’s needs for a machine with a small footprint that could leave its molds with a high-quality finish requiring no handwork.

“We create production quality, first prototype molds, and sealers, which yield production-quality samples for all types of testing,” Arnold elaborates. “We will then also create the production tooling if the client requires it. Examples include child-resistant, senior, market, focus groups, clinical trials, and accelerated age testing.

Milling pharmaceutical packaging mold with a DATRON high-speed CNC milling machine.
Milling Pharmaceutical Packaging Molds – here the DATRON operator sets up aluminum stock to machine a thermoforming mold.

“We used to outsource our machine work and just focus on designing and making samples, but we were spending too much money and it was taking too long to get the molds back,” he continues. “I started looking into CNC machines, but the accompanying software was too expensive. One was $14,000 back when I first started checking into it. I also wanted a large work area that would fit up to 20” x 20” blanks and one that offered repeatability and accuracy, with a high-frequency spindle that would allow me to use tiny tools down to .001 in diameter.”

Pharmacutical packaging starts with thermoforming plugs milled from Ren 5169
Pharmaceutical Packaging Molds – Ren 5169, a red-ridged, plastic-type material used for thermoforming plugs.

BENEFITS FOR PHARMACEUTICAL PACKAGING

Arnold’s research led him to the DATRON. “I searched the web whenever I had free time for many weeks to see what was really out there. I did not really find many that weren’t crazy cash,” Arnold says. DATRON was great to work with—friendly sales and service people and easy access to financing or leasing. It seemed best suited to our application because it can machine anything from a large mold (of up to 20” x 20”) right down to almost microscopic. It can also drill the vent holes that are required of thermoform tooling. All of our sample molds are cut from Ren 5169, a red-ridged, plastic-type material used for thermoforming plugs, which actually provides better clarity than an aluminum mold when clear plastics are formed on them. Our production molds are aluminum, and this machine excels with aluminum. The plastic—when cooled with alcohol while cutting—comes out even more polished than aluminum. Plus the surface is more slippery, which allows the material to flow more smoothly when vacuumed down to the mold.”

The DATRON also leaves a superior surface finish, Arnold notes. “With the incredible accuracy that the DATRON provides, it eliminates tool marks typical of 3-D molds that are cut with a step-over.”

Additionally, the speed in both spindle and travel rates of up to 16m/min. and .0005” accuracy allows machining of aluminum to be incredibly fast and precise. “The high-frequency spindle can easily handle cutters down to .001 in diameter, which would actually allow you to drill in the end of a human hair if needed,” he emphasizes. “It gives us the ability to drill tiny vent holes. We usually drill anywhere from .013 to .025—which is required of all thermoformed packaging while still in the machine, as the holes in the mold allow a vacuum to pull the air out of the mold. Other shops do this by hand because their CNCs will not handle a small drill bit like the ones used to vent molds so they have to use a Dremel-style tool to drill the holes.”

The machine’s small footprint of 51” x 51” x 77” also is a great asset. “With conventional milling machines, the table moves around and that is a giant chunk of steel,” Arnold says. “It’s very slow and prone to wear. With this machine, the head moves around on precision ball screws entirely, so there aren’t issues like this. It also has a solid, four-inch granite base, which is the most stable substance you can get that is not affected by temperature or stress. Plus, it is a very strong material that can be made incredibly flat. Because of its weight, it’s not prone to movement caused by the machine.”

Pharmaceutical packaging lab with a compact DATRON high-speed milling machine for milling molds.
Pharmaceutical Packaging Lab – things have grown since this photo was taken … now, KCD has more space and has added an M8Cube.

FITS IN A PHARMACEUTICAL PACKAGING LAB

An unexpected benefit is the machine’s ability to be used in a lab, studio or clean room environment. “Although I was looking for machines that had this ability, I had no idea that ethanol could be used as a coolant, which would allow it to be in the clean room,” he notes. “Conventional coolants are not allowed in the clean room. With alcohol cooling, the machine sprays a mist of alcohol on the cutter and material, and the parts come out clean and sterile, with no waste fluids. The part can then simply be wiped with a cloth. You are not trying to remove oil and other contaminants that are still in the vent holes, tap holes, etc. The pharmaceutical guys love to see that. I add the information about the machine into my quote to a customer, ‘Precision CNC-machined sample mold cut on the DATRON alcohol-cooled machine.’ It’s a great sales tool for us and has actually landed us work.”

Robert Murphy, VP of Business Development at DATRON, points out that the combination of a precision high-speed (60,000 RPM) spindle powered by a high-frequency generator produces a high-quality surface finish. And there is very little maintenance that needs to be performed on the machines if any. “Because our systems are designed to use lower-power consumption components, this has a positive effect on the reliability of the equipment and reduces the potential of doing serious damage during operation,” Murphy says. “With a multitude of fail-safes and sensors throughout the machine, it can alarm or stop an operation before any damage is done. Due to our modular machine design, we’ve found that 90 percent of problems can be resolved right over the phone. When a part does need replacement, it can be sent overnight and be installed by the customer—saving downtime and the expense of an on-site service call.”

Another key advantage is the time savings Kansas City Design has realized. What used to take the other shops Kansas City Design outsourced its work to 18 hours to machine now takes an hour or two for the company. “DATRON cuts aluminum at high speeds as compared to conventional machines,” Arnold concludes. “Where others dare to walk, the DATRON flies!”

Blister packs made with thermoform molds that were milled on a DATRON high-speed CNC milling machine
Blister packaging or pill packs are produced using thermoform molds machined on the DATRON milling machine.

BLISTER PACKS FOR PHARMACEUTICAL PACKAGING

According to Kansas City Design Owner William Arnold, over-the-counter drug products are almost exclusively distributed in blister packaging, which provides the proper barrier protection and child resistance in addition to being senior-friendly. “These blisters are produced on high-speed packaging machines, which utilize aluminum molds to form the blisters,” Arnold explains. “Materials and tooling that come in contact with surfaces that might touch the drug product is always a huge concern since it can create impurities in the drug product. Therefore, every step and function needs to be carefully considered. Being is this business has given me a respect for what most would say is the high cost of drug products. The amount of testing and research is staggering—and most people fail to realize this. At the end of the day, I am grateful to be in this business and feel as though I made a difference and saved lives.”

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What is Generative Design?

Generative design options for a General Motors seat belt bracket

In the past, an engineer would make a part or product by developing a drawing in CAD. The drawing would be the result of that engineer’s experience, imagination (creativity), and historical data (how similar parts have been made before). Generative design is optimization and problem solving based on a number of criteria defined by the designer. Those criteria could Structural Integrity (strength), Height, Weight, Cost Constraints, Volume of Material, etc.

But the goal here is for Artificial Intelligence (software) to generate a design or many designs that solve the problem by addressing the criteria. So, Generative Design does not necessarily mean faster although faster could be one of the criteria. Once the designs are completed, the engineer can choose the one that best suits their needs. In this way, a computer delivers manufacturable designs that solve a challenge, meet the criteria … and reach beyond the limitations of human imagination.

Generative design resulted in many char designs. Here are two very different ones.
Generative Design uses cloud computing to provide thousands of designs that meet defined criteria and solve a problem. Above two very different chair designs based on the same criteria. Photo Credit: Autodesk

At the Forefront of Generative Design

Autodesk is at the forefront of Generative Design and their Fusion 360 software can simultaneously generate multiple CAD-ready solutions based on real-world manufacturing constraints and product performance requirements. A perfect real-world application for Generative Design is Autodesk’s work with General Motors to change the way car parts are made, reduce the number of parts required to make a car, and produce parts that are lighter and stronger! This will help GM to have at least 20 different electric or fuel cell cars on the market by 2023.

Generative Design resulted in these bracket designs for a General Motors seat belt.
Generative design seat belt bracket designs. Out of 150 options, GM went with one that is 40% lighter in weight and 20% stronger than the previous version. Photo Credit: Autodesk

Does Generative Design Require 3D Printing?

There has been some misconception that Generative Design is exclusively related to 3D printing when in fact, the user is able to specify the manufacturing method including additive (3D printing), subtractive (CNC machining), casting, etc. Once the method is defined, the software will only generate designs that can be produced with that specific manufacturing method.

Generative Design is Augmented by DATRON “Next”

The DATRON neo and DATRON M8Cube are featured in Autodesk locations at Pier 9 (San Francisco), the Generative Design Lab (MxD, Chicago), and the Autodesk Technology Center (Boston). The reason for this is because DATRON technology represents the future of CNC machining and integrates so well with software like Fusion 360. The advancements the DATRON has brought to the industry impact the entire machining workflow.

DATRON “next” is a touchscreen interface with an integrated camera/probe combination (inside the milling machine) that eliminate the time-consuming task of setting up jobs. The camera shows the machining table below and the operator can select the workpiece simply by tracing the area on the touch-screen where the workpiece is displayed. Once the part is located, and the machining parameters are set, any irregularity is automatically compensated for in the software. This virtually eliminates part rejection due to improper setup. An onboard “CAM Assistant” guides the operator through the program and tool management on an interface that looks and feels like using a smartphone. All of these tools combine to help even a novice operator create a machined part in just four steps.

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The Story Behind Our Most Popular Video Ever.

DATRON is known first for making award-winning high-speed milling machines. We are also known for producing high-quality machining videos. Ironically, the video that has garnered more than 50% of our YouTube watch time was not produced by DATRON, but instead by DATRON customer DataPro International. Here’s their story.

DataPro International Inc. is a leading supplier of panel-mount connectivity solutions ranging from panel-mount cables and couplers to customized wallplates, panels, rugged cases and enclosures. With over a decade of industry experience milling and engraving aluminum products, DataPro can confidently say that DATRON is the right machine for the job.

DataPro’s popular Online Plate Designer allows engineers and non-engineers alike to customize a wide variety of plates and panels through a simple web-based interface. Requiring no experience in CAD or 3D modeling, it shows a graphical representation of the final product, and orders can be placed immediately. On the back end, as soon as an order is placed, custom software automatically generates GNC code, and the plate is ready to be machined within minutes. For more complex projects, DataPro offers expert engineering and design services, working with customers on both initial design and manufacturing process development.

Milling panels like this electronics front panel machined from anodized aluminum sheet material.
Milling panels for electronics is a common DATRON application that makes use of DATRON’s integrated probing, workholding, and engraving capability.

Today, DataPro offers a host of streamlined machining and design services, but it started out with more humble beginnings. Founded in a Seattle garage in 1985, DataPro began as a manufacturer of data cables, then grew to specialize in bulkhead-mount cables. Having noted the growth of this niche (manufacturing electronic devices), the logical next step was to produce the plates and panels that the cables were being mounted to. So in 2007, DataPro added CNC machining to their capabilities by purchasing a small countertop hobbyist mill, capable of producing basic wall plates. As demand grew for these services, DataPro began upgrading their machining equipment and software. After outgrowing a number of machines including a Sherline, and Haas TM1 and TM2s, DataPro began looking for a machine to help them overcome specific production bottlenecks.

They began their search at trade shows, investigating a range of devices for milling and engraving panels. Ironically, they were not even at a “machining” show when they had a very serendipitous encounter. Lead Machinist Ilya Pasumanskiy recalls, “At the NAB Show (a convention encompassing the convergence of media, entertainment and technology) we met with BTX, a company that utilizes DATRON. They had a booth at the show and we were asking them about their manufacturing processes and they were gracious enough to tell us that they were using DATRON.”

Pasumanskiy quickly scheduled a flight to visit DATRON Dynamics in Milford, NH, and after spending several days with their application engineers and machines, his hunch was confirmed. He says, “I was darn sure at that point that DATRON was the right technology for us so we went ahead with the purchase and we’ve been using it every day since then.”

Integrated probing helps to detect surface variance on sheet material and vaience is automatically compensated for before machining starts.
Milling panels and other parts from sheet material is aided by the integrated vacuum table workholding on DATRON machines.

The first benefit they noticed was that the clean-up time, required after each machining cycle, was cut to almost zero with the DATRON. DataPro’s machine prior to the DATRON used a vacuum table and an oil-based flood coolant, so the machined parts came out with an oily residue that had to be “degreased”. That was a secondary operation that had to be done by hand, which added significant time and labor costs. Additionally, the machine and vacuum table had to be cleaned. Since the basic premise of vacuum workholding is air intake, high volumes of oil used for flood coolant can jeopardize the functionality of the vacuum table if not managed carefully. Pasumanskiy says, “With the DATRON we have virtually eliminated cleanup because the lubricant simply evaporates leaving clean parts that don’t need to be degreased.”

The higher spindle speeds of the DATRON allowed DataPro to dramatically reduce the machining time of precision engraved panels and significantly reduced the number of units that had to be reworked. Before he found the DATRON, Pasumanskiy comments, “We got through the work that we had, but we definitely couldn’t step up to the next level because we were bottlenecked by the capabilities of the machinery.”

DataPro’s machinists also found that DATRON’s probing with Z-correction can dramatically speed up setup. “On other machines, if we had to engrave something large I would often need to sweep the entire engraving area with an indicator to be able to identify the variance, then compensate for it in my program. DATRON’s Z-correction does all of that automatically.”

Milling panels from aluminum sheet material is ideally suited to DATRON machines due to their large work area and vacuum table workholding.
Milling Panels like this one can be done one-off or in batches due to the large machining envelope on the M8.

DATRON’s Z-correction also results in less rework and less re-engraving areas because it maintains an even engraving depth (to 0.0005”). “We had integrated probing back then, but not with advanced probing capabilities like DATRON’s Z-correction field — which meant that we couldn’t control the depth of our engraving if there were surface irregularities in the material.”

For CAD/CAM software, DataPro uses HSMWORKS for SOLIDWORKS and Fusion 360. When asked about the ease of getting programming help or support for the DATRON machine, Pasumanskiy sums it up by saying, “We have had great experiences with DATRON’s service and I see a lot of your application guys as my friends. I like talking to them, they’re always really responsive and they always know how to solve my problem.”

With the DATRON, the possibilities are endless. DataPro is now specializing in panels for and modification of Pelican cases and other brands of ruggedized cases that are often customized to house electronics and other components. In addition to its core business, DataPro has begun offering general machining services and has used the DATRON to tackle a wide variety of projects. They even use the DATRON machine to make their own injection molds. Bringing this work in-house has reduced their costs and improved turnaround time since they are not relying on an outsourced vendor.

DataPro has streamlined their plate production and has been able to significantly grow their business thanks to the purchase of the DATRON machine.

Download the DATRON Milling Machines Catalog:

Robotics Team World Champions Thank DATRON

After falling to 64th place out of 67 teams in their division, The Iron Panthers (The Burlingame Robotics Team) was slightly discouraged, but they were able to make a glorious comeback, ending in 21st place in the Newton Division competition.

Iron Panther Robotics Team from Burlingame.
World Champions – The Burlingame Iron Panther Team out of the San Francisco Bay area.

Hard-Fought Battle of Robotics Competition World Champions

They were then selected by their division’s first seed alliance, comprised of Greybots, Madtown, and the Vitruvian Bots, and they arose to be the winner of their division. Going into the Einsteins round was in itself an amazing position to be in and their team was ecstatic. Despite early difficulties in this difficult competition, their team pushed through with extreme perseverance and managed to make it to the final championship round, where they won 2-1 against the opposing alliance.

Iron Panthers react to their robotics team win to become world champions.
A reaction to their incredible robotics team win and hard-earned World Champion status.

DATRON Lends a Hand to Robotics Team

DATRON’s West Coast office was involved with the team, offering their high-speed machining equipment to help them make parts for their robot. Division Manager, Chris Hopkins reflects, “We were happy to provide the tools these future engineers needed to get the job done and turn their winning design into reality. We congratulate them on their victory and wish each of them great success in the future.”

Above: Short video clip of machining aluminum drive frame parts.

Robotics Champions Give DATRON the Thumbs Up!

The team coach and captains summed up their experience working with DATRON in the following thank you note:

“We would like to thank DATRON so much for all the support we have received from you these past few years. Thank you for enabling us to have such a great robot by milling our drive base parts with your incredible machinery. We couldn’t have done this without you. Our team has worked extremely hard to win the final round in the Houston Championships, and we believe that our success is the embodiment of our hard work from your support. The road to winning the FIRST Robotics Competition was not easy, but you have helped our team greatly. Not only does your support allow our team to grow, but also flourish and achieve great things. Without your sponsorship, our team would have never been able to become this successful, and it was your team that enabled our accomplishments to happen.”

Sincerely,
Christina Wade – Robotics Coach
Darrion Chen & Katherine Mohr – Captains
The Iron Panthers

Download the DATRON Milling Machines Catalog:

Autodesk and DATRON a Winning Combination

At DATRON, we have great admiration for Autodesk’s policy on post processors. Here’s why. Where most CAM providers place the responsibility for post processor creation on the shoulders of their resellers, Autodesk support post processors directly. This benefits the end user because the cost is not passed on to them and they get the best possible post processor.

Autodesk and DATRON collaborated on post processors for DATRON next control.
The collaboration between Autodesk and DATRON delivers ease-of-use which is a cornerstone of DATRON technology.

In the case of DATRON, Autodesk worked directly with DATRON AG in Germany which has resulted in MCR and SIMPL posts for DATRON “next” control software used with machines like our M8Cube, as well as an ISO post and a dedicated post processor for the DATRON C5 5-axis machine.

The Result of Autodesk and DATRON Collaboration

As a result, DATRON customers can use Fusion360, InventorHSM or HSMWorks with a high-level of confidence because they work seamlessly with DATRON high-speed milling machines. That’s why many of our application technicians recommend Fusion 360 so frequently … because they know that it is an excellent CAM software that will work right out of the box.

Parts Made with Autodesk Fusion 360 and DATRON

This also the reason that many of the sample parts that we machine at trade shows and other demonstrations are done in Fusion 360. An example of this and a very popular hand-out is our gear-shaped bottle opener.

At IMTS, we machined this part on the DATRON neo to emphasize the speed of the machine, as well as how well it is suited to both rapid prototyping and short-run production applications. Get the Application Notes (Machining Strategies, Feeds, Speeds, Tools etc.) Here.

While the DATRON neo, like any DATRON machine, excels at milling aluminum, it is also ideal for machining plastics and composites with ease and can be equipped with a brush head for dust collection. Other options include vacuum chuck workholdingpneumatic clamping systems, and a 4th rotary axis. The machine runs on DATRON next software that is operated with a touch screen. It is easy enough for non-machinists to use and allows the seasoned machinist to tap into robust capabilities faster than on any other milling machine.

Other Autodesk and DATRON Collaboration

Post processors for CAM software isn’t the only area where DATRON has collaborated with Autodesk.  In fact, DATRON technology has combined with Autodesk’s software innovation as part of the Autodesk Generative Design Field Lab located at the MxD (Manufacturing x Digital) facility in Chicago.

DATRON and Autodesk have collaborated on many occasions including the Generative Design Lab at MxD in Chicago.
DATRON neo is front and center in Autodesk’s Generative Design Lab at MxD in Chicago.

MxD is part of Manufacturing USA, a network of 14 institutes all focused on advancing individual technologies and revitalizing US manufacturing. Their goal is to bring together the processes that manufacturers employ, in a single digital manufacturing and design facility – equipped with the world’s most advanced technology. Ultimately, MxD is a place where companies of all sizes meet up with innovators to develop disruptive technologies and plot the future of manufacturing. MxD’s mission is to provide US factories with the tools, software, and expertise they need to build things more efficiently, less expensively, and faster, so manufacturers can win more business and bring jobs back to the United States.

Learn More about the DATRON neo Machine:

Get DATRON neo Brochure (fill out form to receive document)

THE FORMING OF A THERMOFORMING INDUSTRY LEADER

Thermoforming mold for the automotive industry produced with an incredible surface finish on a DATRON M10 Pro high-speed machining center.

Hytech provides solutions for thermoforming, embossing and trimming thin film plastics. Their focus is primarily on thin-film plastic parts requiring precise graphic registration. There are also non-graphic applications where the Hytech forming processes provide benefits over other traditional forming processes. Their patented technologies are utilized by OEMs in the Automotive, Appliance, Medical, Aerospace, and Military industries.

Developing Patented Processes & Advancing Thermoforming and Match Metal Trim Dies

But the forming of this industry leader was not a straight line or the execution of an entrepreneur’s finely-crafted business plan − and that’s what makes this such an interesting story. When the company was founded in 1980 the primary focus was on selling patented hydro form embossing equipment. The first machines were sold to nameplate and membrane switch manufacturers. One of their big customers was the Rogers corporation in Phoenix, AZ. At the time, Rogers was a really big electronics company who did automation for circuit boards and electronics assembly and one of their customers was Coleco. Through Rogers, the owners of Hytech got wind of a problem with the Coleco Baseball Game which was a hand-held game (precursor to a unit like the GameBoy) that simulated sports games with a series of LED lights. On that game, to advance the runner, the user pressed a tactile button that had a tactile dome underneath it that provided a snap and a response so that it would push the key back up. When those games were first launched, they had stamped out metal domes and users were getting damage to their thumbs and the domes were cracking and not lasting long.

Hy-Tech Forming serves the Automotive, Appliance, Medical, Aerospace and Military industries with advancements in thermoform mold making and production of precision match metal stamping dies.
Today, Hytech has manufacturing facilities offering production services and tooling in the US and Europe and provides process development and equipment from its US headquarters in Phoenix AZ.

Hytech asked Rogers why the dome wasn’t made out of plastic. They found out that nobody was making the dome out of plastic. So, the first thing they did was invent a specialized thermoforming technology for embossing a dome in polyester and proceeded to sell millions of these domes to the Rogers Corporation and then went on to sell tens of millions of them to Hewlett Packard for their line of financial or scientific calculators. The production advantages (compared to the metal domes) on parts like membrane switches is that you could lay down 100 plastic domes in a single sheet whereas with the metal domes you had to pick and place all 100 into the location.

When Hytech started to sell these dome layers to membrane switch makers, the membrane switch makers said, “This is really great, but I’m having problems embossing my overlays to go over your domes.” So, the Hytech founders invented another forming technology called hydroforming where they embossed the overlays. At that point, they had a technology for embossing the overlay of a membrane switch and they had a technology for embossing the tactile layer that goes beneath the overlay.

The process for producing match metal trim dies or match metal stamping dies from hardened steel involves some tight tolerance milling done on a DATRON M10 Pro.
Match Metal Trim Die Process: Hytech’s continuous development and advancement of patented technology has made them a global expert for 3-dimensional
match metal trim dies for thin-film plastic.

In the mid-’90s, the technology of in-mold decoration (IMD) or in-mold-labeling (IML) or film-insert molding (FIM) came along that takes a flat screen-printed plastic (typically polycarbonate) and forms it into the 3D shape of an injection mold. The decorative film is placed into the mold, the mold is injected, and when the mold opens, the part is decorated.

This coincided with the time when Hytech had the hydroforming and polydome processes. Customers came to them and asked them to emboss plastic for this new film-insert molding technology. They quickly found that neither of their processes were suitable for doing anything deeper than 1mm. The advantage of in-mold decoration is that you can do complex 3D parts with registered graphics. So, the founders, along with another newly hired engineer, developed Accuform − a high-pressure air-forming technology that allows them to do up to 50mm draw depth with registered graphics. Now, they can maintain the position, location, and size of different graphics over complex 3-dimensional surfaces.

This resulted in Hytech building parts for the IMD industry. They quickly found out that even though they could easily and continuously build the form tools, they struggled with building match-metal trim dies. At the time, nobody in the world built 3-dimensional match-metal cutting tools for thin-film plastics. So, Hytech had to develop that technology themselves.

Early on, they were outsourcing the hardened steel components to vendors who produced them with sinker EDMs. This led Hytech to believe that they needed to invest in a sinker EDM and bring the work in-house. So, along with the sinker EDM, they also invested in a wire EDM and all new software and started to build their own trim tools. As good as they got at the process, they knew that it would be much better if they could take another tenth off the perimeter of the hardened steel. They knew they couldn’t do it on their current machining centers because they couldn’t hold that kind of tolerance. Hytech CEO, Fred Himmelein, explains, “Over the years we got better and better and then maxed out at how much better we could get. We just couldn’t get the precision, the tenths that we wanted. We wanted to have a clearance between the mating hardened steel components of +/- .0003” but we just couldn’t get there with the sinker EDM and VMC equipment that we had. That’s what led us to DATRON.”

Precision match metal stamping dies and thermoforming molds with a perfect surface finish must be produced with a precision milling machine like Hytech's DATRON M10 Pro.
This DATRON M10 Pro with linear scales has added precision, quality and capability to Hytech Forming’s thermoforming molds and match metal trim dies (stamping dies).

Researching Advanced Technologies for Thermoforming and the Perfect Surface Finish

The head of Hytech’s tool shop, Dave Blandino, did very thorough research and analysis of available machining centers and presented several different industry-leading solutions to the management team. Ultimately, it was decided that they would purchase a DATRON M10 Pro high-speed machining center. Himmelein reflects, “For a combination of reasons like precision, control software (NC programming), the cost of spindle maintenance, the support, and location of support, Dave broke it down to a matrix of about 10 or 12 elements, and it clearly showed us that DATRON was the right choice.”

But the choice to purchase the DATRON was not just based on this matrix. There was also a runoff or benchmarking process that each machine manufacturer had to complete – each producing the exact same part for a competitive comparison. While the ability to mill steel IMD applications was one of the parameters, surface finish for the forming side of their business was of paramount importance in this test. That’s because their high-pressure forming technology is so precise that any tool marks will be seen in the form sheet even if they have been sandblasted over. Himmelein explains, “You could look at a form core that we’re going to form over, it’s been sandblasted and it looks beautiful and the finish looks great, but when we form it, you’ll see a tool mark that you can’t believe.” At the time, a lot of the work they were doing was very precise 3-dimensional company logos over the top of a formed part. Clearly, the look of each logo was of great importance to the customer contracting them for the work. Himmelein elaborates, “That form part is the insert that goes into the injection mold. It’s a formed appliqué or film that goes into the injection mold and gets back molded so that when the mold opens the part is decorated. The cosmetics on these parts are absolutely critical and it’s as stringent a cosmetic requirement as exists in manufacturing.”

Hytech Tooling Manager, Dave Blandino, further explains their experience with the CNC vendors and the competitive benchmarking test, “We did some extensive research and gave several CNC manufacturers an opportunity to cut a part for us. I asked them to put a part in front of me that would sell their machine and nobody came close to the part that DATRON produced. I received parts from other machine tool manufacturers, and the quality did not meet my expectations. But within 2 weeks of sending DATRON the model, I flew to Germany, and not only was the hospitality great, but DATRON put a part in front of me that I really didn’t expect given the short timeframe. It was the best by far of what all the CNC vendors produced. When I came back to the States and showed the DATRON sample to the other vendors, they said, ‘Oh they polished this.’ and I said, ‘No they didn’t, that’s right off the machine!’ but they didn’t believe me. The fact is, we meticulously inspected each part on a RAM Optical comparator with 200+ magnification, so it’s not just what you see with your eyes or a magnifying glass. Our process shows everything and anything. In thermoforming, if you have even the slightest tool mark it’s going to show up in the film. So, it’s extremely critical to have the surface finish that the DATRON gives us.”

Aside from quality, there is a corresponding cost savings associated with eliminating secondary operations like handwork, sanding, and polishing and Himmelein credits DATRON with a resulting 90% reduction in hand time. There are also limitations to sanding as Blandino explains, “You can always do handwork with sandpaper, but when you have a tool that’s multiple cavities, you’re not going to sand the part the same way twice. If you have 15 to 20 cavities, you’re going to get variation and that variation translates into forming, trimming and molding. What we’re essentially doing is pulling the part off the DATRON and we’re not touching it and that’s our goal. The parts are ready to assemble into our tooling assemblies right off the machine. Sometimes a light bead blast texture is a customer requirement, but no sanding or polishing is needed.”

Dave Blandino was instrumental in evaluating technologies and choosing the DATRON M10 Pro for the production of thermoforming molds and precision machining on match metal trim dies.
Hytech Tooling Manager, Dave Blandino with their DATRON M10 Pro high-speed machining center.

High Tolerance Required for Producing Match Metal Trim Dies (Stamping Dies)

So now, Hytech uses their wire EDM to make the A-side hardened steel component which represents their fixed tolerance. Then they fabricate the B-side hardened steel component which is the mating component to the A-side piece. They typically leave the die core between .0005” and .0008” heavy and they use the DATRON M10 Pro to take a tenth of at a time until it fits. Himmelein says, “This is where the DATRON really shines because we can do a tenth at a time relatively quickly, open the door leaving everything mounted and test our fit and if it’s not there, we close the door and run another tenth.”

The combination of the wire EDM and the DATRON machine has truly made the difference for Hytech Forming and they have become the global expert for 3-dimensional match metal trim dies for thin-film plastic.

Blandino explains, “We used to have to sub out these components to shops that had the equipment to be able to handle that and since we purchased the DATRON we brought all that work in-house. We’re doing light finish passes to hold tight tolerances on our heat-treated A2 steel parts. These parts are tooling components that we design and fabricate here. One of the visions of our company is trimming. We’re into thermoforming of thin-film plastics, but the other side of that is that we need to trim the plastic once it’s formed and these trimmed shapes have to fit exactly into the mold with tight tolerances of +/- a couple thousandths of an inch. But, in order for the trimming to actually occur, the tolerances of the components we machine have to be +/- a couple tenths of an inch. These are the components we’re using to build our trim dies with.”

Blandino also credits the DATRON technology with adding flexibility to their design process. “It’s allowed us also to design our tooling a lot more efficiently. Before, the only equipment we could use to maintain those tight tolerances was our EDM wire. Of course, the problem with EDM wire is that everything is not a through pocket. So, that limited our design flexibility because we had to design around that limitation. With the DATRON we’re able to design more freely and do things the way we wanted to do them.”

Thermoform molds an match metal stamping dies or match metal trim dies are an area of expertise for Hy-Tech Forming.
Some samples of the hiqh-quality thermoform molds made by Hy-tech Forming Systems.

The DATRON M10 Pro has become so critical to the quality of their end product and Blandino says that they are reminded of this any time the DATRON is backlogged with work and they are forced to move work to other CNC equipment. “Even with the handwork, you can’t come close to the surface finish that we get on the DATRON. Plus, we’re maxed out on spindle speed at 15k 12k and 10k on the other CNC equipment, so we have to cut our feeds by a good 100%. Because of the spindle vibration and backlash on the ballscrew with our other machining centers, the finishing we have to do is heavy sanding. That’s why I’m really pushing for a second DATRON machine. We use the other machining centers as our ‘Op One machine’ where we rough all the meat off the back and all the non-critical surfaces. These machines handle that task well.”

Opening Doors to a New Revenue Stream and a 25% Increase in Annual Revenue

CEO, Fred Himmelein gives credit to DATRON for the quality it’s helped Hytech to deliver to a wide range of industries including automotive and aerospace. Himmelein is also impressed with the flexibility of the DATRON and the other ancillary processes that it’s impacted and improved since it was installed. For example, they have a project that they’ve been doing for a customer for a decade where they cut .25” acrylic with a CO2 laser which does a great job producing a beautifully polished edge. But, after a decade the customer decided that they wanted to switch materials and use polycarbonate to reduce the risk of damage to the parts through their lifecycle. Since .25” polycarbonate cannot be cut with a laser without it burning and presenting a health hazard, they had to find an alternative process. So, they did a test cut on the DATRON M10 Pro using a DATRON end mill that is specifically designed for milling acrylic. The result was a big win for both Hytech and their customer. The DATRON actually cut the parts out of polycarbonate faster than the laser had cut them out of acrylic, the surface finish was comparable, and the customer was able to switch to the preferred material.

The DATRON M10 Pro is compatible with a wide range of CAM software packages and Hytech has invested in several of them and has done extensive testing to maximize performance and surface finish. Blandino says, “We’ve probably done more software testing than most shops. We use the DATRON software’s contour smoothing, but it’s also a combination of the dynamics and the programming strategies that all contribute to a perfect surface finish. We’ve done some testing with different programming software including SolidCam, SOLIDWORKS, FeatureCAM, Fusion 360 and PowerMill and we’re comparing apples to apples with different cutters, speeds, and feeds. So, we use a combination of what the software has to offer combined with what DATRON has to offer, and we came up with a formula for the best surface finish you can achieve with 3-axis milling. Fusion has a really good post for DATRON and provides excellent surface finishes in conjunction with Dynamics and Contour Smoothing that the M10 has to offer. Currently, our primary CAM
solution lies with Autodesk. Testing is done continuously, and the DATRON compliments all software’s post processors extremely well.”

They have to be tight-lipped about it, but Hytech could tell us that they are just entering an existing industry with a new way of making components that requires extremely precise machining. Manufacturers within that industry actually came to Hytech because they have a photo of their DATRON M10 Pro on their website. During the latest round of test cuts for this industry, the part ran for over 200 hours. That’s because the part requires very small cutters taking a small stepover to do 3D contouring and can even go dozens of hours without a tool change. With the machine currently running 24/7 adding and additional M10 Pro is imminent. This new business is projected to result in a 25% increase in revenue for the company.

Learn More: Download DATRON CNC Machines Catalog

DATRON Tools on Display at Expographiq

Over the past 30+ years Expographiq in Gatineau, Quebec Canada has designed and built cultural, corporate and branded experiences working with museums, marketing agencies, public institutions, government departments, exhibit and industrial designers, and charitable foundations across a wide spectrum of industries. Their custom displays are featured in many museums in Canada and the United States and the trade show booths that they’ve produced for their customers have been exhibited in cities around the world.

One of the many compelling, dimensional graphic displays produced by Expographiq in Quebec Canada.
One of the many compelling, dimensional graphic displays produced by Expographiq in Quebec Canada.

The company employs over 60 employees and houses an arsenal of equipment including flatbed printers, UV roll-to-roll printers, edge benders, table saws and drum sanders. The fabrication of many of the large-format graphics and panels that they produce involves cutting a wide variety of substrates often in the form of sheet material. So, in the late 1980’s they were the first company in their region to purchase a CNC machine. That machine was a gantry-style Cybermation that was originally designed for plasma cutting so it was extremely rigid and satisfied Expographiq’s need for industrial durability. In the early 2000’s they looked at an Axes CNC machine as a possible replacement for the 25-year-old Cybermation. However, when the Axes salesperson came to visit, he told them that the machining table on the Cybermation was much better than what the new Axes machine could offer. So, they decided to retrofit the Cybermation with two Axes machining heads. This kept the Cybermation going for another 5 years until the bearings finally went and they decided to replace it with an Italian-made Biesse CNC which was regarded as a great machine for woodworking. The Biesse has a 24,000 RPM spindle and an ample 5’ x 10’ table with 7” in Z travel making it well suited to milling sheet material.

Site Supervisor, Glenn Parent, who had been the operator of the Cybermation for 10 years before he moving to the installation side of the business, decided to come back to the machining side to run the Biesse. Logically, he chose to use the Onsrud cutting tools that had worked effectively on the Cybermation. However, he noticed that those tools were not performing well particularly when milling the plexiglass sheet material that was a common material selected by Expographiq’s graphic designers and 3D designers. To make up for the unsatisfactory milling results, they were using their staff in carpentry or graphics to flame polish the finished parts – and this secondary operation was costing them time and money.

So, Parent decided to research other tooling alternatives and a Google search brought up a DATRON video showing the milling of a bluish-green acrylic part (see above) with intricate detail and virtually glass-like surface finishes. He found out that DATRON offered an entire line of tools specifically designed for milling acrylic and he decided that despite the higher cost of the tools they were worth a try. He explains, “I started with a 6mm polished single flute end mill and it was just amazing. I was going through 5-6 per sheet of plexiglass and brand new the quality of the cut from the Onsrud tools is nowhere near the quality that I got from the DATRON tools … and I’m wasn’t even using coolant! So, I explained to management that even though the DATRON tools are double in price, I’ve been able to do as many as 76 4’ x 8’ sheets of plexiglass using the same router bit and the quality was almost as good from the first to last. With a ¼” Onsurd tool I would do 7-8 sheets of acrylic and then I’d have to change tools. The cut would not be nice at all, it would start bunching up and then melt.”

A University Donor Wall shows the use of large acrylic sheet material as well as milled parts in colored acrylic and aluminum.
A University Donor Wall shows the use of large acrylic sheet material as well as milled parts in colored acrylic and aluminum.

Aluminum is not used as much as acrylic in Expographiq’s designs, but the need to mill aluminum does come up frequently. Knowing that DATRON technology is designed for machining aluminum, the decision to use DATRON tools for his aluminum milling applications was logical. He says, “The aluminum router bits that I’ve gotten from DATRON are just out of this world. The edging is unbelievable, and the quality just speaks for itself. So now, I’m just playing around with RPM and speeds and I just love them. I will never go back. Again, they are more expensive, but they last 5 to 6 times longer and have a better-quality cut during their entire tool life than other tools.”

Parent is also pleased with the performance they’ve gotten from the Biesse CNC and notes that Expographiq was the first company to order the high-speed version of this machine. He elaborates, “I can do 60” per min feed rate which is really fast for woodworking. That was a 19mm router bit on ¾ inch plywood. We held it with two vacuum chucks and nothing moved. We do plexiglass letters, aluminum letters, HDPE (high-density polyethylene) and virtually any kind of material and I use the DATRON tools for almost all of it.”

In fact, Parent is so enthusiastic and experience with DATRON tools that he calls out part numbers from memory. “I go from 3mm or 6mm to 3/8” ½” and ¾” tools 78330E, 78360E, 68191E, Ball Mills (68406) and you’re the only ones who have extended tools like the 781035 which is a 4-5” tapered router bit where the 1st inch is 6mm and then it’s tapered smaller going down. I called every tool manufacturer trying to find something like this and they all told me, ‘Oh no you can’t do that, it’s too long, it doesn’t exist.’ But I needed it for 78mm thick solid wood where I had to go down 60mm but I had to have the smallest radius possible. That tool works really good! I’m finding more and more tools on the DATRON website, that I’ve been needing for years. I have a 068020 and 068004 which is a very small 4mm diameter tool that I can’t even see with my naked eye but there’s actually two flutes on there. I bought four of them and I’ve used three so far. The first one broke immediately, but now I’ve got the feeds and speeds dialed in. I used these for engraving. I had to put plexiglass parts into Sintra sheet material.“

Layers of milled parts comprise a dimensional, interactive display for Planet MTL in Montréal, Quebec Canada.
Layers of milled parts comprise a dimensional, interactive display for Planet MTL in Montréal, Quebec Canada.

Another challenging material that Expographiq uses a lot is Corian – so much so, that they have a Corian expert on staff and they have purchased an oven that allows them to heat and bend their Corian designs. As a result, they produce cubes and other parts with 45-degree cuts. Parent says, “Our Corian expert loves the finish we’re getting with the DATRON double-flute tools. Our ability to process this material creatively and efficiently has extended our capabilities and product offering which is something that the guys in sales are really happy about.”

Currently, Expographiq is running their CNC machine for a minimum of 40 hours per week, but sometimes over 100 hours per week and they are using DATRON tools 70% of the time. Parent explains, “Anything that has to do with graphics has to be done with DATRON tools because when we direct print our graphics the quality of the edges is critical. It has to be beautiful and I get that quality with DATRON tools.” He has on occasion met resistance from the folks at holding the purse strings at Expographiq because the DATRON tools average $46 -55 and the Onsrude tools were $28 – 32. But he explains to them, “Yeah, but I’m doing 5, 6, 7 times the work with each one the DATRON tools. Value-wise it’s not even a question and the end product that we’re producing is so much better with DATRON tools.”

Learn More: Download DATRON Cutting Tool Catalog