High-Performance Horizontal Machining Centers Helps Pave the Way to a Secure Future at Valley Tool
Manufacturing has long been at the heart of the U.S. economy as well as the communities and livelihoods that it sustains. Despite times of turbulence, the industry has brought opportunity and prosperity to many, and Cayce Washington is no stranger to its promise. As owner of Valley Tool, Washington has delivered prosperity to his city of Water Valley, Miss., offering others like him a chance that they may not have found elsewhere.
Washington knew at an early age that he wanted to own a business, but it was a rough road that led him there. As a teenager, he lived on his own, working to support himself while still attending high school. His natural aptitude for mechanics led him through several odd jobs in bicycle and car repair, until he found steady employment with a local grocer. At age 21, Washington took notice of a new manufacturing facility that opened up in town. Eager for new experiences and opportunities, he took a low-level job at the shop to satisfy his curiosity.
“From the moment that I walked in the door, I knew that manufacturing was my calling,” he said. “I was filled with excitement at each opportunity to learn and grow, quickly mastering every type of machine on the shop floor and eventually becoming a floor manager. In 1997, the owner decided to open up a business elsewhere. He and I worked out a loan, and I became president of the newly named Valley Tool at age 25.”
“BY INVESTING IN THE a51nx, WE NOT ONLY MET THE NEEDS OF THE INITIAL REQUEST BUT ALSO EARNED SEVERAL ADDITIONAL LARGE BATCH ORDERS.”
Today, Valley Tool is one of the area’s largest employers, operating with a fulltime staff of 150 people. The company has made a name for itself in precision part manufacturing capabilities for the automotive, medical, energy, heavy equipment, aerospace, sporting good and refrigerant industries. These capabilities have captured the attention of several global original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), including BorgWarner, Caterpillar, General Electric, Illinois Tool Works, Medtronic, Parker Hannifin and Winchester. In addition to its U.S. business, Valley Tool also partners with companies in Canada, France, Mexico and South Korea.
“While this company has grown substantially, I’ve never lost sight of my humble beginnings. Those experiences have built the foundation of Valley Tool,” said Washington. “While everyone here has different roles and responsibilities, we are members of the same team and share a common value of what matters most—providing a decent life for ourselves and the ones we love. To ensure a prosperous future for all, we always put our customers first by producing quality tools on time at competitive cost.”
Customer Needs Drive Volume
Historically, Valley Tool has served the industry as a low-volume job shop. However, in 2011, the company received a customer request for higher volume production, producing batch sizes ranging from 200 to 500 precision parts. Under its traditional job-shop capabilities, the company was unable to manage that level of production or obtain the necessary degree of quality. To best serve its customer and grow the business, Valley Tool decided to seize the opportunity by investing in a Makino a51nx horizontal machining center.
“We always knew that Makino made a fine piece of equipment, and with customer requests growing, we needed a solution that could get us producing higher quality parts faster,” explained Washington. These orders continued to grow so much that we were able to rationalize a second a51nx investment in 2012. Between these two machines, we’re producing more parts than all other equipment on the shop floor. This has led us to a 20 percent increase in gross profits in just two years.”
“(WE WERE) PREVIOUSLY MACHINING A SINGLE PART ACROSS THREE DIFFERENT VERTICAL MACHINING CENTERS.”
Prior to the a51nx investment, the shop floor at Valley Tool was primarily composed of commodity-style vertical machining centers. This setup was considered a typical operating format for most job-shop environments, but it left little opportunity for substantial increases in part volume due to limited spindle utilization rates and intensive operator attention. To illustrate, operators would have to stop the spindle for extended periods of time whenever a tool change or part changeover was required. In addition, obtaining desired accuracies would oftentimes necessitate downtime in order to readjust machine offsets. Due to these types of issues, utilization rates of a typical commodity vertical machining center can be as low as 30 percent.
One appeal that Valley Tool saw in switching to a horizontal platform was the ability to disconnect tool management and part setup activities from the actual machining process, allowing for immediate improvements in productive time.
“One common-sense principle to any manufacturing environment is that a spindle has to be turning in order to make money, and this is especially true when dealing with larger volumes,” said Washington. “When we looked out at our current technologies, we realized that something had to change in order to be a cost-competitive resource for our customers’ needs.”
The addition of the a51nx has also provided Valley Tool with a rotational fourth axis, tombstone fixturing capabilities and programming of various fixture offsets to specific parts. The company employs these features for single-setup operations of multiple part types on a single fixture.
In one application that was transferred to the a51nx machines, the company was previously machining a single part across three different vertical machining centers. Each machine was programmed to handle specific operations. This approach required a total of five setups and three operators, with a total cycle time of one hour.
Since transferring the application, Valley Tool has been able to produce the part in just 15 minutes on one machine in a single setup with one operator. Now the company produces four parts in the same amount of time previously required for just one.
“MAKINO’S LEVEL OF CUSTOMER SERVICE IS UNCOMMON IN THIS INDUSTRY AND REFLECTIVE OF WHAT WE WISH TO UPHOLD FOR OUR OWN CUSTOMERS.”
“I could sit here and describe the productive benefits of the a51nx machines in a variety of ways, but the numbers speak for themselves—50 percent average increases in throughput; cycle times of just 20 to 30 percent that of previous processes. With these types of results, we could have these machines paid off entirely in just 18 months, if we felt the need to,” said Washington.
“Since installing the a51nx machines, we’ve changed our outlook on production orders, seeking out more large batch production runs, in addition to our typical orders.”
Precisely Positioned for Growth
While productivity is a critical factor in meeting customer requests, Valley Tool has also been focused on the challenge of improving part quality in tough materials.
According to Les Gilley, production machining manager at Valley Tool, the elimination of multiple setups has played a critical role in improving part quality by eliminating stack-up errors. In addition, the construction of the a51nx, combined with through-spindle coolant capabilities, has provided a rigid and thermally stable platform for hard-metal machining.
“In the past, we would have been required to drill titanium through EDM processes, which could have required upwards of 48 hours to machine complete,” said Gilley. “On the a51nx, we are drilling through-holes in titanium to a depth of 2.5 inches on both sides, while holding location tolerances within plus or minus 0.0003 inches. These parts are completed in less than 40 minutes.
“Accuracy and quality performances are even greater in standard-grade materials, where we’re seeing regular tolerances of plus or minus 0.0001 inches, with repeatability as tight as 0.0002 inches. The improvements are clearly seen in mating parts—they fit together perfectly each and every time.”
Valley Tool’s newfound accuracy performance was best demonstrated in dealing with a customer that was experiencing a 20 percent scrap rate in one of its product lines, resulting in a 50 percent decrease in sales. The job was outsourced to Valley Tool, where the team added it to the a51nx production queue. Since then, there have been no issues with part quality, and sales of the product have improved by 25 percent.
“THE IMPACT OF A HIGH-PERFORMANCE MACHINING CENTER EXTENDS TO ALL AREAS OF A BUSINESS. THE a51nx HAS PLAYED A MAJOR ROLE IN IMPROVING ON OUR OVERALL EFFICIENCY AND WORKFLOW.”
These performance benefits have also led to expanded capabilities, such as gun drilling. Without a gun-drilling machine on its shop floor, Valley Tool previously relied on outsourcing to support applications containing these features. Today these applications are machined complete within the walls of Valley Tool, enabling the company to reduce lead-times and improve profitability.
“The impact of a high-performance machining center extends to all areas of a business. The a51nx has played a major role in improving on our overall efficiency and workflow,” said Washington.
Making High Performance a Standard
In spring of 2013, Valley Tool was faced with the challenge of replacing one of its commodity verticals. Based on the type of small production runs associated with the machine, the company decided to stick with a vertical machining center platform, but invest in a high-performance machine that would offer improved accuracy, rigidity and speed. Already familiar with the Makino programming from its experience with the a51nx, the company chose the PS95 vertical machining center.
“When we heard that the PS95 used a similar spindle to that of the a51nx, we felt confident that this machine would help improve our performance in steel and cast-iron applications,” said Gilley. “We have just finished installing the machine, and if testing holds true, we expect big things from the PS95.”
In this same time period, Valley Tool had also purchased a Makino EDAF2 sinker EDM. According to testing estimates, the company is looking at decreasing EDM cycle times in carbide applications by 50 percent.
“These recent additions of Makino equipment weren’t made on a whim. We’ve worked closely with our local Makino dealership, Single Source Technologies, to determine the viability of each piece of equipment,” said Washington. “That being said, I can’t say that the idea of owning a shop full of Makino machines would be unappealing. The machines are durable and reliable, and our representatives at Single Source Technologies and Makino are extremely supportive.”
Paving the Road Ahead
Exceeding customer expectations is important to Valley Tool, and the company knows that high-performance technologies are critical to providing its customers with the immediate results they require.
Many operators at Valley Tool who are excited to take on the challenge of high-performance machining view the company’s investments in Makino machines as a benefit. Washington and others in management second this sentiment, and they believe that the experience can help secure its employees’ futures.
“I didn’t have an easy road in my young life. I suppose it could have been worse, but I still wouldn’t wish it upon others,” said Washington. “As such, it’s a true blessing to me, to have an opportunity to positively impact the community and help pave an easier road for other team members at Valley Tool. And by focusing our attention on customer service and technology, we can all go home to our families with a sense of confidence and security for tomorrow.”