Automation has never had so much potential to transform a business. It puts companies in the driver’s seat to lower costs, increases throughput and improves quality as market conditions continue to change.
“Several years ago, we used to do a lot of what I like to call ‘highway driving’ production,” said Brian Halwix, director of team development at New Dimensions Precision Machining. “We had vertical machining centers that would run large batches continuously, which allowed us to coast for miles and miles without changing gears. But all that has changed.”
Today, customers do less annual forecasting, they reduce inventory in favor of just-in-time (JIT) delivery, and they do not combine shipments. Customers want parts in small batches, the need for quick turnaround is urgent, and there is continued pressure to keep pricing low.
“Now it’s all about ‘city driving’ production, with many starts and stops—we can only go a few blocks before hitting another traffic light. In this type of environment, it no longer makes sense to spend a half hour doing setup on a vertical machining center, only to run one hour of production. To be competitive these days, we have to be able to get better city mileage. Our automated pallet handling systems and high-performance machine tools put us directly behind the wheel. We can be efficient no matter what the road conditions, or where that road takes us.”
New Dimensions knows that flexibility is the key to handling such requirements as it strives to lead the industry in efficiency. The company has found that it can meet these demands by moving toward a fully automated production environment.
For the last decade, New Dimensions has led an aggressive plan to add this type of flexibility. It started by replacing its vertical machining centers with high-performance horizontal machining centers. Then in 2007 the company began to automate, first purchasing four Makino a61 horizontal machining centers and an MMC2 automated pallet handling system that links the horizontal machining centers, cell control software and pallet loaders. The success it saw with this flexible manufacturing system led the company to add two a61nx machines to that cell.
Today, the company has three flexible manufacturing systems on its shop floor. In addition to the first, another was created with four a51 horizontal machining centers and two a51nx machines. A third cell features six a51nx machines. All six machines, within each of the three automated pallet handling systems, are running parallel processes with five jobs in production at a time. These jobs are prioritized and coordinated by a Makino MAS-A5 cell controller, which puts New Dimensions directly in the driver’s seat.
If You Are Going to Do Something, Do It Right
The Union, Illinois, company was founded in 1987. It specializes in the production of precision hydraulic manifolds and has gone from its early years as a small job shop to becoming a world-class organization. Despite the large growth over the years, New Dimensions remains very much a family business. Today, four of the owner’s sons work in the business alongside other family members and many employees with over 20 years at the company. While New Dimensions continues to excel in the fluid power market, its strong backbone of automated technologies gives it the capabilities to handle most any job—from small job-shop projects to larger production orders. These days, 70 percent of New Dimension’s parts are aluminum, and the rest are composed of iron and carbon steels.
With the right tooling and training, New Dimensions has been able to produce up to 300 percent more parts per spindle than on its previous stand-along machines.
According to Martin Halwix IV, who is the director of business development at New Dimensions, and Brian Halwix, the company’s philosophy since their father started the business has always been “If you are going to do something, do it right.” From the very beginning, New Dimensions has invested in high-performance machines to produce premium parts. The company’s road to flexibility has been an evolution from 3-axis vertical machines to automated cells, and by setting up three large, automated pallet handling systems, it has committed to a substantial investment in automation.
“We originally chose Makino for its manufacturing solution because they engineer their own automation systems,” said Martin. “Throughout the implementation of our initial flexible manufacturing system, Makino’s application support was second to none. Their knowledge and responsiveness have proven to be an asset in this transitional period, solidifying our partnership. Our investment in these automated systems has been opening up new market opportunities for us to grow.”
Brian agreed. “Makino gives us support with every machine we buy, helping us with macros, problem-solving and cycle times on difficult parts. They have assisted with so many issues that we consider them to be more of a team member than supplier. We have found that there is no man—or company—that can stand alone. The competition is so fierce that we need a strong team.”
He also pointed out that to be successful with automation, companies obtaining the new technology must be committed internally to working through any initial challenges related to the learning curve. New Dimensions personnel traveled to the Mason, Ohio, facility for training on macros and probes, since these had not been used with the company’s stand-alone equipment.
“At our training sessions, each Makino representative shared his or her experiences, to help make employees at New Dimensions more successful,” said Brian. “We believe the key to success is staying on the cutting edge. We have to be the fastest and the newest in order to be number one. This automation investment will help us stay there.”
“Our investment in these automated systems has been opening up new market opportunities for us to grow.”
Now with the right tooling and training, New Dimensions has been able to produce up to 300 percent more parts per spindle than on its previous stand-alone machines. Its new equipment has many options to customize the jobs, so New Dimensions can continue to dial additional parameters to further optimize efficiency.
“The automated pallet handling systems with the software-driven MAS-A5 system have given us the tools needed to make producing parts on demand a reality,” said Martin. “Because of the flexibility of these systems, we are now able to run 50 pieces quickly while charging per-piece prices that are comparable to what we charged when we were running 500 to 1,000 pieces. These systems give us that changeability, with the larger pallet capacity and large tool capacity. We are able to store up to 300 registered programs in each cell for active orders, and these can be accessed at any time without doing any setup and without taking tools in and out of the machines.”
These flexible systems are a perfect complement to the company’s long-standing tradition of customer responsiveness. “When our customers are in a jam, they know we will not let their urgent job sit on the bottom of a queue of work. We will always move around production schedules to get those jobs on a machine as soon as possible, oftentimes the same day it is ordered,” said Marco Alejandre, general manager at New Dimensions.
Adding to the flexibility afforded by the automated systems, each cell on the floor at New Dimensions has a 218-tool magazine, high-pressure coolant. The systems have over 100 pallet storage locations and five different workset stations. The automated pallet handling systems have given New Dimensions the vehicle it needs to keep up with the flow during high-mix, low-volume jobs. The company can handle the starting and stopping of city driving, and it has the efficiency to keep cruising through orders 24 hours a day, six days a week.
Ever since day one, the goal at New Dimensions has been to efficiently complete the job for the customer, no matter what it takes. Many companies cannot be this flexible, especially if they have a long line of work in queue. For New Dimensions, it is all about process flow. Speeds and feeds are the focus if you have big lots to run, but for smaller runs, the focus is eliminating setups.
A Unique Prototyping Solution
In addition to the large- and small-run production work, New Dimensions also machines a lot of prototype parts. The prototype work may go through several revisions before moving into production and some may never make it into production. Not wanting to interrupt the workflow on these automated cells in order to perform prototype work, the company sought an alternative solution. While many companies perform this kind of prototype work on their stand-alone machines, New Dimensions has taken the concept two steps further, using a custom pallet pool system created with the help of Makino’s Engineering Services.
Makino and New Dimensions customized the pallet pool with a MAS-A5 system, akin to those used within the company’s MMC2 systems. With the MAS-A5 software added, they then linked the prototype machine to the three MMC2 flexible manufacturing systems via the company’s internal network.
“Makino gives us support with every machine we buy, helping us with macros, problem-solving and cycle times on difficult parts.”
The programming and tooling on the prototype machine are also tied into the MAS-A5 system so that this data can be sent directly into the flexible manufacturing systems, should a job go into production. The prototype machine was designed to accommodate larger tool capacities and additional fixtures, enabling the company to pair this machine’s capabilities identically to the setups and processing methods conducted within the MMC2 cells.
Each system uses detailed tool and fixture drawings for the jobs it produces. This information is shared between the prototype machine and the automated pallet handling systems via the MAS-A5. This approach keeps all processes standardized.
This capability has enabled New Dimensions to transition prototype applications into full production orders quickly and easily. When these proven jobs are sent into production at one of the flexible manufacturing systems, all of the programs, fixtures and tooling data used in the prototype machine can be sent too, because they are identical to those found in the prototype pallet system.
Tooling and Maintenance
The cells and pallet pool were certainly the catalyst for change at New Dimensions, but what also enhances performance are the dedicated personnel assigned to each automated pallet handling system. There is an offline tooling manager and maintenance technician to keep things running smoothly for all three flexible manufacturing systems.
An automated tool management system is also in place in each cell, tied to the MAS-A5 cell controller, which directly links from the line to the tooling department. It is monitored 24/7 and can feed tool data into the cell and adjust the machine’s parameters or prompt a new tooling order. This system is notified before a tool expires so that an order can automatically be placed and the new tool sent.
“Because of the flexibility of these systems, we are now able to run 50 pieces quickly while charging per-piece prices that are comparable to what we charged when we were running 500 to 1,000 pieces.”
Another key to New Dimensions’ uptime is a preventive maintenance area that handles the grease, oil, lube and filter needs for the machines. The dedicated personnel, regular schedules and automated inventory systems are in place to make sure that all machines are being serviced proactively.
“While the machines have not needed much maintenance because they stand up to tough environments, we want to get the most out of them,” said Martin. “So we have a dedicated person assigned to attend to preventive maintenance.”
Thanks to the company’s automated equipment, it has the capability to produce additional parts with the same number of employees. By transferring work to the Makino machines, New Dimensions was able to more than double production per employee and offer customers a reduction in cost. This saving helps the company deal with continued pricing pressures.
Changes in the equipment technology also mean that the availability of technical positions at New Dimensions has increased. However, these are the very jobs that companies today are struggling to fill. To find a solution for this labor shortage, New Dimensions has been working with local high schools in order to encourage young people to enter the manufacturing field.
“Many parents do not encourage their kids to pursue careers in manufacturing,” said Brian. “This is because they remember back in the day when workers in the industry were lifting heavy equipment or dealing with dangerous chemicals. That is no longer the case. Today’s manufacturing facilities are clean, safe and filled with high-tech equipment. When we host student tours, we encourage students to bring their parents. We want everyone to understand the types of opportunities that exist.”
Brian says that one of the keys to attracting and keeping these young people is to have the kinds of technology that appeal to them. “Mobile phones can start and stop our machines. Younger workers are easily able to adapt to the high-speed growth of manufacturing. While technology is continually changing, New Dimensions is easily able to keep up with it.”
New Dimensions tries to encourage new solutions by creating a company culture of creativity through forming problem-solving teams, especially after seeing many of its ideas come from machine operators. “I believe America’s manufacturing strength lies in creativity. It’s why our country is so innovative,” said Brian.
“All of our employees—young and old—are excited that we have the technology to machine just about anything out there. We have the best machine tools, the best fixturing and many in-house classes teaching leadership and success.”
The way New Dimensions has applied creative thinking in attracting new talent through the high schools has also paid off. In 2012, the company brought along 200 students to the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) to showcase the manufacturing industry. The success of New Dimensions’ mentoring programs has enabled it to hire several of these students.
“Our team enjoys having these young people come on board,” said Brian. “They jump right in with CAD/CAM, and we help to develop them as workers. All of our employees—young and old—are excited that we have the technology to machine just about anything out there. We have the best machine tools, the best fixturing and many in-house classes teaching leadership and success.”
As New Dimensions builds its team and builds efficiency, what matters most is fostering a culture with new opportunities that keeps its employees engaged, all while growing the company.
“People today want to be part of something that is bigger than themselves,” said Brian. “They want something that they can be proud of. When a team loses vision, its morale drops, growth stops and there’s the tendency to lose good people. Having high-tech equipment in place shows our people that we are committed to and are focused on the longevity of this company.
“American manufacturing is all about responsiveness, flexibility and adaptability. It is that road that New Dimensions continues to steer toward, while partners like Makino keep us in the driver’s seat.”
“In the future, I see New Dimensions continuing to grow. We will be moving jobs from one cell to another, responding to our customers’ needs to make them successful, applying the flexibility to compete in any industry and serving global customers. Machining will continue to be our core competency, not necessarily a specific industry.”
Martin agreed. “American manufacturing is all about responsiveness, flexibility and adaptability. It is that road that New Dimensions continues to steer toward, while partners like Makino keep us in the driver’s seat.”