High-Performance Vertical and Horizontal Machining Centers Help Wolcott Design Services Shut Out the Competition
Ask Bob Wolcott what matters, and he’ll excitedly talk about his passion for doing jobs he finds interesting, challenging and rewarding; he has always followed that credo in his work.
As the president and owner of Wolcott Design Services, he oversees the design, analysis and fabrication that his Newberg, Ore., shop provides for racing, technology, outdoor equipment and other industries. From concept to creation, this small shop prides itself on having all of these capabilities under one roof—creating a fluid transition between design and production while offering increased part quality at a reduced cost and lead-time.
This is Wolcott’s second time at bat in what has been a doubleheader career. He started out as a Major League pitcher for the Seattle Mariners. After retiring from baseball, he studied mechanical engineering from Oregon State while working an internship at Intel. Running a milling machine initially began as a hobby for Wolcott, but he soon learned that the work he enjoyed doing on his manual machine could be the start of a lucrative business opportunity. He opened Wolcott Design Services while handling contract work for Intel. As the business began to grow, he found himself manufacturing the very parts he was designing—for customers like Gerber, PCC Structurals, Bridge City Tool Works and Rothsport Racing.
Today the company has hit its stride making prototype and production parts. Wolcott Design Services is small but competes easily with the larger shops.
“For a small-size company like us to offer the kind of robust manufacturing capabilities and high-performance horizontal and vertical machining centers that you may not even see in some mid-size manufacturing facilities, it shows our dedication in emphasizing quality,” said Wolcott.
“As the designers of many of the parts we make, we know exactly where the accuracies need to be, and this saves a lot of time and stress for our customers. They don’t have to wait for 1,000 parts to be produced before identifying design errors. We know these things before the part hits the machine, and we can accomplish all of this cost-effectively, which translates to a lower price for the finished part.”
Added Capacity Puts Wolcott in a League of its Own
Wolcott operates his shop on his own land, which means he has low overhead and routinely passes that cost saving along to his customers. The company had been using three vertical machining centers to produce its parts, but, as business grew, Wolcott found himself in a situation where he needed to add more capacity and flexibility without adding more floor space.
“We needed more speed than our vertical machining centers could provide—faster processing, quicker changeovers and improved workflow management,” said Wolcott. “It was too time-consuming to take down a big production job in order to squeeze in a smaller prototype job. We knew that a horizontal machining center could offer more parts per fixture, offline setups, higher-volume tool magazines and consolidated operations with multi-face machining. By employing these capabilities, we would be able to run production parts and prototypes in the same setup while preventing spindle downtime. Having that level of versatility was important to us, so we set out to find the right horizontal machining center platform.”
When evaluating machines, Wolcott looked at several brands before choosing the Makino a51nx horizontal machining center for his operation. He valued the speed and precision of the a51nx and the added benefit of its 5-axis programming capability for more complex parts, if needed. As he had hoped, the company found that the a51nx provided all the features required to accomplish their production needs.
“The 40-taper spindle is extremely rigid and robust, which has allowed us to expand our versatility and the variety of parts that we produce. The 14,000-rpm spindle gives us the range of speed necessary to machine a variety of materials and features. Whether we are hogging out material or producing a pristine finish, the a51nx provides the power and torque we need to produce parts from start to finish in a single setup,” Wolcott explained.
Wolcott praises the casting design of the a51nx and its roller-type linear guides which allow it to conduct precision machining even on the far extremities of the X- and Y-axes. Its expanded axis travels over the original a51 can also accommodate larger parts.
“The 14,000-rpm spindle gives us the range of speed necessary to machine a variety of materials and features. Whether we are hogging out material or producing a pristine finish, the a51nx provides the power and torque we need to produce parts from start to finish in a single setup.”
Because the machine can handle more parts per fixture and does not need frequent changeovers, it is always cutting. Its automatic pallet changer and high-capacity tool magazine helps Wolcott boost spindle utilization by loading parts and tools outside of the work zone without interrupting the machining process. The company has also improved its manual labor efficiency by allowing one person to operate both the a51nx and a neighboring vertical machining center—a task that was not previously possible with two verticals.
“We appreciate that we don’t have to interrupt the machining process on the a51nx,” said Wolcott. “We get up to 85 percent spindle utilization, allowing us to move lots of work through the machine. Producing batches of 10,000 parts is easy for us now—and, because of that, we are pursuing more high-volume jobs.”
Since installing the horizontal machining, Wolcott has dramatically improved its throughput, enabling the company to shift its workload from mostly prototype machining to production jobs that it previously didn’t have capacity for with standard vertical machining centers.
“When we first began to offer production capabilities, 80 percent of our business was in prototype parts,” said Wolcott. “Today, none of that work has left the shop floor; however, prototype parts now only make up 30 percent of our business.”
“We appreciate that we don’t have to interrupt the machining process on the a51nx. We get up to 85 percent spindle utilization, allowing us to move lots of work through the machine.”
These new capabilities have enabled Wolcott to be more competitive when quoting new jobs. They now beat their overseas competition by up to 15 percent on price. In addition, clients receive the type of face-to-face interaction that cannot be achieved with overseas suppliers—being local means that clients can physically come into the shop to have Wolcott create test parts on the fly. This has proven to be a valuable resource that has led to increased business.
Production Machining Strikes Out the Competition
The success of the horizontal machine led to so much throughput that new jobs were rapidly entering the queue. As business grew, Wolcott needed additional investment to keep up with his success on larger part production runs.
The company needed a cost-effective solution that would provide a much closer level of quality to that of the a51nx. What was necessary was another machine with the speed, rigidity and accuracy of the a51nx that would efficiently run in parallel to keep up. Besides having the ability to handle the increased production the company was experiencing, the machine had to be flexible enough to handle prototype work. Wolcott chose to replace one of his previous vertical machining centers with the Makino PS95.
“When we first began to offer production capabilities, 80 percent of our business was in prototype parts. Today, none of that work has left the shop floor; however, prototype parts now only make up 30 percent of our business.“
“Business is booming, and to meet these demands, we needed something economical that could take some of the load off of the a51nx, and that would produce the same parts quickly without any loss of quality,” said Wolcott. “The PS95 brings Makino’s quality to a vertical platform at a great value. The spindle is very similar in design to that of the a51nx, and it just blasts through the material with the rigidity we need.”
The PS95 offers a reduction in cycle time, increased productivity and improved quality at a tremendous value. The rigid construction, thermal stability and versatile 33.5-horsepower high-speed 14,000-rpm CAT spindle is ideal for achieving high-volumes of metal removal in wide variety of Wolcott’s applications. Its robust coolant system and scraper-style lift-up chip conveyor, efficiently remove chips from the workzone for improved production efficiency, accuracy and tool life.
“Customers don’t believe me when I tell them that I haven’t touched the part, and it comes directly off the machine. Truth is, some of the finest finishes are achieved without any polishing.”
Wolcott ran a comparison between his current equipment and the PS95. On the first run, with no changes to the program, the new machine beat the existing machine by 8 minutes. The next time the part was run, feeds and speeds were increased to an optimal level for the PS95, and the part was completed 30 minutes faster. On a separate part, Wolcott achieved metal removal rates that were four times faster than those accomplished on his previous machine.
“That speed makes a real difference. For instance, the extra 30 minutes saved allows me to complete one more part per day,” said Wolcott. “On a $200 part, with the same number of employees using the same floor space, that equals an extra $1,000 more profit per week. That kind of savings quickly justifies the investment in a high-performance machine.”
Besides enjoying the increased speeds, Wolcott has experienced improved quality—with repeatability as tight as 0.0001 inch on the PS95. Business is growing, and Wolcott’s customers appreciate the quality finishes that come off the PS95 without needing additional attention. When doing work on the previous vertical machining centers, the company had to manually polish the parts to achieve desired finishes—doubling cycle time. On the Makino machines, parts come out in half the time as on the previous machines and require minimal hand work.
“Customers don’t believe me when I tell them that I haven’t touched the part, and it comes directly off the machine,” said Wolcott. “Truth is, some of the finest finishes are achieved without any polishing. One example is a laptop casing we are producing for Intel, which has a thin design and complex geometries. These typically require hours of post machining prep work before they are ready to paint or anodize, but when they are produced on the PS95 they are ready to go right off the machine—with no additional finishing.
“The PS95 brings Makino’s quality to a vertical platform at a great value. The spindle is very similar in design to that of the a51nx, and it just blasts through the material with the rigidity we need.”
Wolcott had a similar experience when producing a mold for a power generation turbine. The part was very complex and measured 144 square inches. It ran for 18 hours, and when completed was probed to determine any shifts in accuracy from possible temperature variances over that 18-hour period. Because the PS95 has strong thermal stability, the results measured 0.0003 inches in the X-axis and 0.0003 inches in the Y-axis.
“I consider this phenomenal for a machine without linear scales,” said Wolcott. “My previous machine would routinely report deviations of 0.002 inches over just a short 2-3 hour cycle. With that level of performance, I would have had to pass on this type of job because the customer demands the utmost in accuracy.
“With the PS95 we have the ability to produce a quality finished part at a competitive price,” said Wolcott. “The PS95 is giving our company access to entirely new markets because of its accuracy and speed.”
In the next five years, Wolcott hopes to expand into another building on his property in order to allow for additional square footage for his business growth. He wants to add to his production capabilities with 5-axis machining capabilities, enabling him to design and produce complex geometries and three-dimensional features. Building on capacity, Wolcott intends to invest in automation by integrating a new machining cell with additional machining centers that can enable him to run a lights-out operation, carrying productivity into nights and weekends.
In the meantime, Wolcott plans to continue to improve current processes, including fixturing and programming, and go after more production jobs.
“Right now we have consistent workflow with occasional spikes in production when things get extremely busy,” said Wolcott. “As a company, we need to maintain the capacity to meet those demands. With the a51nx and the PS95 machines, we have the ability to take full advantage of those peaks, handling any work that comes our way. Having the capacity to nail those busy times with productivity, accuracy and reliability makes purchasing these high-performance machining centers well worth it.”