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Extreme Precision Pulls Out All the Stops with 4- and 5-axis Automated Production Machining Cell
Matt Ellis is a motocross racer and enthusiast who thrives on high-speed competition. He has built the endurance to easily take on sharp turns, handle uneven terrain and get air whenever he can. Ellis also applies that adventure and enthusiasm to his work, as a machinist and shop owner who enjoys tackling challenging parts. He has built the technical skills necessary to handle any obstacle, both on the job and on the course.
Ellis’ love for motocross and machining began in high school when a natural aptitude for the mechanics of his bike, and a desire to improve it, led him to begin making parts.
“I enrolled in industrial arts during high school because I was interested in how all of the parts on my dirt bike were made and fit together,” he said. “I was good at it [industrial arts], and received awards for my projects. This led to a job at age 16 for a company that made racing shocks. Soon I was producing the company’s prototype parts and tools, working with various metals. It was the perfect work for me, and it was during this time that my interest in machining really took off.”
Making parts grew into a passion that continues to this day. Ellis now machines them at Extreme Precision, the production job shop that he owns in San Jose, Calif. Rather than just taking a seat behind his desk in the executive suite, he is very hands-on. Ellis regularly gets out onto the floor to machine parts.
“The more complicated, the better,” he said. “I enjoy knowing how each piece will function and where it will go.”
Ellis knows that the right equipment is needed to produce excellent parts, and to be a value-added partner for his customers he pushes that machining equipment for great results. It needs the same endurance he calls upon in motocross racing, which is what led Extreme Precision to obtain 4- and 5-axis automated production machining capability to reduce cycle times by 50 to 70 percent.
Adapting to Changing Terrain
Extreme Precision got its start in 1994, in a manner not unlike many neighboring Silicon Valley companies—with only one employee, in a friend’s garage. The company was founded on a true passion and admiration for manufacturing and, at the time, specialized in conceptual tooling and prototype manufacturing for the local disc drive industry.
Today, Extreme Precision has grown to 20 employees and is housed in a 15,000-square-foot facility. What began with just a single Bridgeport has since transformed into a shop floor covered in the latest high-performance manufacturing systems producing a diverse catalogue of both plastic and aluminum products for the aerospace, medical, electronics, racing and defense industries.
“Right away, we saw a night-and-day difference in performance compared to our other so called ‘high-end’ horizontal.”
Like many job shops, Extreme Precision has recently experienced rising customer demand for just-in-time delivery of repeat, small batch orders. The company was concerned about how these requirements could affect pricing and cash flow. In past years, Extreme Precision found itself continually doing setups on its vertical machines, which was not profitable, no matter how many parts were being run.
“Our dependency on vertical machining centers required a considerable amount of manual labor, resulting in extensive machine downtime and human error,” said Ellis. “We needed a more efficient and productive manufacturing system, and identified horizontal machining technology as the ideal solution.
“Friends and colleagues kept telling me, ‘Check out Makino. They have some of the best horizontals on the market,’ but we ended up purchasing another high-end Japanese machine. In hindsight, this was a costly mistake. We found ourselves frequently adjusting offsets and running into tooling limitations. However, from this experience I learned quickly that price tags mean little, if you aren’t getting the features and capabilities that you truly need.”
To use a wider range of tools and obtain the speed, rigidity and accuracy it needed, Extreme Precision purchased a Makino A55E horizontal machining center.
“Right away, we saw a night-and-day difference in performance compared to our other so called ‘high-end’ horizontal,” said Ellis. “The A55E was stable, accurate and fast, producing better quality parts with average cycle time reductions of 30 to 50 percent. It’s cutting performance, efficiency and flexibility was exactly what we needed at the time to boost productivity, increase efficiency and reduce part cost.”
A Winning Combination
Over the next several years, Extreme Precision grew adept at horizontal machining, maximizing the capabilities of its machining processes. However, in 2008, the company observed a rapidly growing trend toward more complex, three-dimensional part designs featuring sweeping 5-axis contours. In addition, a growing number of customers were demanding small-batch orders ranging from 20 to 30 parts. This led Extreme Precision to expand its production capabilities in 2009 with the addition of automated 5-axis production machining capabilities.
“By combining the horizontal machining benefits of the a51 and A55E with the 5-axis capabilities of the D500, we were able to obtain the necessary flexibility to manage any type of job that would come through our doors—no matter the complexity, quantity or quality.”
The company’s positive experience with the A55E brought it back to Makino for a high-performance manufacturing system that could provide enhanced flexibility to manage these new production demands. Its solution was a Makino Machining Complex (MMC2) automated pallet handling system that incorporated a new a51 horizontal machining center, D500 5-axis vertical machining center, and the shop’s existing A55E.
“Our catalogue of parts was growing increasingly diverse; we never really knew where the next order would come from, or the type of design specifications that our customers would need,” said Ellis. “By combining the horizontal machining benefits of the a51 and A55E with the 5-axis capabilities of the D500, we were able to obtain the necessary flexibility to manage any type of job that would come through our doors—no matter the complexity, quantity or quality.”
“…we were a little worried about how quickly we could see a full return on investment. In the end, we had the system paid off in a year, which was much faster than even our best-case projections.”
For many manufacturers, this level of investment may have seemed risky during a period of economic uncertainty; however, Ellis and Extreme Precision knew that this level of 4- and 5-axis automation would place the company in an excellent position both during and after the recession. When the industry surged forward in late 2010 and most other companies struggled to ramp up production, Extreme Precision was picking up new orders rapidly without limitation.
“Our 4- and 5-axis automated cell was a big investment for us,” said Ellis. “Being a smaller shop at the time, we were a little worried about how quickly we could see a full return on investment. In the end, we had the system paid off in a year, which was much faster than even our best-case projections.”
The capabilities of the 4- and 5-axis automation system not only enabled Extreme Precision to improve flexibility and grow capacity, but it also supported the company in maximizing workflow. Prior to obtaining the MMC2 system, Extreme Precision was required to keep large batches of inventory on hand in order to effectively manage repeat orders. Today, this new system enables the company to manage fewer inventories while still satisfying customer demands.
“We only buy enough material to handle one week of production at a time, because that’s all we need to deliver the parts that our customers need, when they need them,” said Ellis. “As a result, we are minimizing inventory and work in process by approximately 50 percent, freeing up cash flow and mitigating the impact of fluctuations in material costs. But what our customers appreciate the most is our ability to maintain set per piece part cost, no matter how many parts are ordered.”
One of the biggest benefits that Extreme Precision saw in the 4- and 5-axis automated cell was its interchangeability of pallets between the vertical and horizontal machine platforms. This capability enabled the company to maximize the benefits and efficiencies of each machine, particularly the 5-axis D500.
It is possible to transfer pallets across machine platforms in this cell environment because Makino has maintained a consistency with its four-cone clamping system. Four cones are found at the bottom of each pallet to clamp to the machine’s table for a secure foundation. The straight line distance between the cones is called the cone pitch. By keeping the cone pitch consistent on all of its machines—whether newer machines and older machines, or when mixing 4- and 5-axis machines in a cell environment—everything stays compatible.
“…we are minimizing inventory and work in process by approximately 50 percent, freeing up cash flow and mitigating the impact of fluctuations in material costs.”
“While we would love to keep things simple and machine our 5-axis parts complete on the D500, we have to keep in mind that it’s our only 5-axis machine,” said Ellis. “The cell’s ability to transfer pallets across machine platforms alleviates this concern by allowing us to share operations between machines. For most 5-axis applications, we program the cell to perform roughing operations on one of the 4-axis horizontals. Their speed, power and horizontal part orientation are ideal for this type of processing. Once roughing is completed, the part is then sent to the D500 for machining of 5-axis features and finishing operations, without having to take the part off of the fixture to complete this 5-axis work. It allows us to save money and open up capacity between machines.”
According to Extreme Precision, these capabilities have also helped to support the company in its lean initiatives by reducing operator intervention. Where the company once required an operator to be assigned to each machine, it now has one person managing three machines simultaneously.
“We’re constantly striving to do more with less time and labor,” said Ellis. “The automated cell has enabled us to accomplish this while giving our operators better training and experience on newer, more capable equipment. Instead of standing in front of a machine all day just to load and unload new parts, our team is learning how to program for both 4- and 5-axis operations, understanding how to operate automation systems, and taking charge of complex workflow schedules.”
“We’re constantly striving to do more with less time and labor. The automated cell has enabled us to accomplish this while giving our operators better training and experience on newer, more capable equipment.”
The MMC2 system’s MAS-A5 cell control software offers a familiar Windows CE Operating System to manage production scheduling as well as equipment, program and tool monitoring. By using this software, operators can gain visibility into the cells’ processes and adjust for order changes on the fly.
“Operators appreciate the user-friendly nature of the MMC2 control software. It looks and operates similar to [Microsoft] Outlook, so just about anyone can feel comfortable with the interface. Loading programs and managing production schedules was never this easy in a stand-alone environment,” Ellis explained.
While lean processes and efficiency are critical to the flexibility, efficiency and workflow at Extreme Precision, Ellis is also a fanatic for raw speed and power. The enhanced design features of the a51 and D500 were too much for him to resist testing the machines’ limits.
“It’s never been my goal to try and crash these machines, but I have admittedly pushed them to a point where I began to feel uncomfortable,” said Ellis. “Yet, every time that I begin to worry about pushing the machines too hard, I look up at the screen only to find out that they are only at 30 percent cutting capacity. It’s absurd how much of a punishment these machines can take.”
The enhanced design features of the a51 and D500 machines have enabled Extreme Precision to apply shorter tools at higher feedrates, even in complex 5-axis parts. In many cases, Ellis reports doubling and even tripling feedrates over previous technologies, providing significant boosts in both speed and quality.
“With these new technologies in-house, we’re holding tolerances of 0.0001-inch all day long while reducing cutting times with more aggressive processing techniques and seeing substantial reductions in non-cut times through faster tool changes, rapid movement, and spindle acceleration and deceleration. Factor in the automation, and we’re looking at average cycle-time reductions between 50 and 70 percent compared to stand-alone equipment,” said Ellis.
While Extreme Precision’s investment in automation has clearly provided many benefits, Ellis did explain that his shop has created a new and very unique challenge: keeping the machines full.
“…we’re looking at average cycle-time reductions between 50 and 70 percent compared to stand-alone equipment.”
“The cell is constantly hungry for more parts, and we can’t seem to keep it full,” joked Ellis. “That being said, we do appreciate the modular nature of the MMC2. We have peace of mind that there’s still plenty of room for us to grow within our current setup, and even more space to expand from there when needed.”
Staying Ahead of the Pack
The results of the 4- and 5-axis automated cell have been everything Extreme Precision expected and more. The company is able to handle short lead-times and reduce inventory, gaining a competitive edge in the global market.
“We feel that having these flexible capabilities put us 10 to 15 years ahead of most other manufacturers.”
“Manufacturers are now relying more and more on local companies like us to get this work done,” said Ellis. “In today’s manufacturing world, it’s all about cutting costs and saving the customer time. It’s no longer cheaper to make something overseas. With our 4- and 5-axis automated cell, we haven’t found anything we can’t do. With our old processes, we sometimes had to send parts to someone else, but now we can easily accomplish what our customers want.”
Just like when he is riding motocross, Ellis strives to keep his company ahead of the curve, and its 4- and 5-axis automated cell has enabled it to take on anything that comes its way. The company knows that having the capabilities to do more with less is the key to staying competitive in North American manufacturing.
“We feel that having these flexible capabilities put us 10 to 15 years ahead of most other manufacturers,” said Ellis. “What matters to us is having the ability to do something unique with our automated cell system. We have been able to reduce operations by completing parts in just one or two operations. That is where manufacturing is headed, and we’ve been pleased that we have been accomplishing this for a few years. We intend to lead by example.”