CNC Programming for Batch Machining

Today, we’re going to answer a question that we get a lot – how do I program for batch machining?

What is Batch Machining?

“I need to make identical parts in one fixture. Should I take first position as a program zero or do I need to find zero point for each part and store to the position memory?”

VIDEO: Shows batch machining of aluminum parts using a vacuum chuck to hold sheet material.

The concept of batch machining is very simple – running the same part multiple times in one cycle to boost your machine efficiency. However, when it comes time to execute on this plan, it can get a bit complicated. Most CAM software packages can duplicate toolpaths over an array of parts but have the major downside of posting very large files, which results in a longer setup and loading times. You can also program a macro to run a toolpath again after moving an incremental amount and resetting the zero point. However, this involves even more time behind the keyboard laying out the program structure and slowing you down from making chips. The same can be said for a program that has multiple work offsets stored to memory.

Batch Machining with Multiple Execution Function

Luckily, the engineers at DATRON realized that this a major pain for machinists and have alleviated it with the most recent software update to the next control (v2.10) with a function called Multiple Execution.

Multiple Execution works in two ways: Machining multiple parts in a matrix (or grid pattern), or with Work Piece Zero Points (individual work offsets).

From here, you can activate Multiple Execution, and choose “In Matrix” for layout mode. At this point, simply define the distance between your parts in X and Y, and the number of pieces to create in each direction. From this input, information will be automatically generated on the size of the workpiece and the total number of parts to be milled. At this point, click OK and proceed to run in simulation to verify the correct spacing.

Batch Machining Using Work Piece Zero Points

The other method of executing multiple parts is to select With Work Piece Zero Points. This is the best choice when parts are being held in multiple vises, or other fixturing means, where they do not share the same piece of stock. Setting this up is also a piece of cake. First, load the program you want to run, and probe the stock in the first location, and set the zero point. Now, you will need to store this to memory: under Work Piece Setup, go to the Work Piece Management and add a new position to memory:

Then, populate some information about the new position you want to add, and at the bottom, click Save:

Next, to store your current zero point to memory, return to the Work Piece Management menu, select the position you just created, and select Overwrite.

Perform this task for each piece of stock that you want to mill. Once this is done, return to the Execution Options menu. From here, select With Work Piece Zero Points under Layout, then click Add Zero Points.

Then select all the positions from before and click Save.

Now your positions are selected, you can reorder them, or add more positions. Otherwise, click OK. Then simulate to verify the operation.

You can even further optimize the process by choosing Optimize Tool Change under Execution Options menu. This will use the tool in the spindle across all parts before changing to the next, thus reducing time spent changing tools.

And that’s about it – now you can batch mill parts easier than ever, without all the fuss on the front end.

Download Free Batch Production Case Study (real-world example):

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

Download the DATRON Milling Machines Catalog:

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.

Download the DATRON Milling Machines Catalog:

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.”

Download the DATRON Milling Machines Catalog:

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.”

Download the DATRON Milling Machines Catalog:

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.

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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

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How It All Got Started – Company President Reflects

In 1984, upon graduating from University with a degree in Industrial Design, I  started working for the family business. We manufactured architectural signage and wayfinding systems for larger corporate offices and retail shopping malls. I was working on product development along with manufacturing practices used in production. In 1995, I was involved in a project that used an electronic touchscreen, housed in a public display. This housing required large format 1/8-inch aluminum sheets with a lot of small grooves, pockets, drilled and tapped holes, and engraving. This was a difficult manufacturing challenge that turned into an opportunity that changed my life forever.

King Products, a family business making architectural signage and way-finding systems for office buildings and shopping malls.

We needed to accurately machine these large aluminum panels in a very efficient and fast manner that had enough flexibility for quick design changes. This ruled out punching, molding, and casting and it was clear that machining was the only option. Our research determined there was no large format, affordable machining center that could meet our needs. We decided to hop on a plane and attend a tradeshow in Germany called EMO in hopes that we could find a unique system that could meet our needs. That’s when we discovered DATRON.

We quickly realized this was the perfect machine to produce this assembly of flat aluminum parts. We learned that DATRON had no representation in North America for local service and support. This machining system, however, was just too perfect for our application so we rolled the dice and purchased one. It helped that we were assured that DATRON was already in the process of finding a local reseller and support partner. I just didn’t know at the time that it would end up being me.

Debbie King, at the onset of a walk that would change everything.

Over the next months, we successfully implemented the system and through that process, I got to know the people at DATRON and the power of this machine. Amazed by the technology, I couldn’t help but wonder what impact it could have on North America manufacturers. After a long walk on a Florida beach with my wife, Debbie, and our first-born baby cradled in my arms, I got the courage to ask her “What do you think about me approaching DATRON about starting a business to sell their machines?” In her reply were the historic words that got this whole thing going, “If you are going to make a change, it would be easier to do it now before we have more kids and they are older.”

DATRON Dynamics’ humble beginnings in Unit 21 of this building.

When I returned home, I agonized for hours typing a letter that I later faxed, only to receive a phone call just a few short minutes later. “What is this?” exclaimed Manfred Becker, machine developer at DATRON? I explained that I wanted to help DATRON bring their machine to North America. He asked, “How are you going to do this and work for your family business”? I said, “I wouldn’t, I would leave the family business and dedicate myself full-time.”

DATRON Dynamics East Coast Headquarters in Milford, NH consists of an Administration Building, Sales & Marketing Building, and a Service Building that features a Technology Center housing a full line of machines.

Three days later, I was on an airplane to Germany. Sitting at a round table and fueled by strong coffee, I joined an energized group to strategize how we were going to get this done. Six months later, DATRON Dynamics opened its doors for business with full support from my brothers, who continued to run the family business without me.

DATRON Dynamics’ sales and marketing building in Milford, NH.

I often wonder how many employees lives that I may have never touched, the many customers that would have never benefited from this amazing technology, the friendships both home and abroad that would have never developed …  and just how different my life would have been, if my wife had simply said “I don’t think it’s a good idea”. Thank you, Deb, for initiating and kick-starting this incredible journey that has impacted so many lives!

-Bill King, President
DATRON Dynamics, Inc.

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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)