Small Manufacturer Finds Personal CNC Fits Just Right

2 Dec, 2007 By: Cadalyst Staff

Hit with growing outsourcing costs, a one-man company brings his operation in-house with lightweight machining for prototyping and short production runs.

Computer numerical control (CNC) technology is an immensely powerful tool for the manufacturing industry. Traditionally this technology was limited to the realm of the large machine shop because it required an operation that had both the space for a seven-ton piece of equipment and the budget for a price tag of $20,000-$200,000, not to mention the highly trained personnel to operate it. Those major drawbacks meant that most small businesses had to outsource their CNC work.

Yet outsourcing also could get expensive quickly for companies like Erospace Technologies Inc. (ETI), which makes a line of OEM replacement gas tanks for high-performance motorcycles, and MagiCine, which manufactures accessories for high-definition video equipment. Both Los Angeles-based businesses are owned by John Harvey, the sole employee, and serve niche markets with a small number of customers who need high-quality, customized products that have short production runs.

Since 1989, Harvey cut his wares on a manual mill. Recently, he looked into CNC) mills. "I had a source in England where I was getting my fuel caps, and it was getting expensive," he explained. "I wanted to be able to private-label the caps and make some modifications. The only way to do that was to have them custom made, which was also very expensive."

ETI makes the FuelCel Kevlar tank, which reduces a motorcycle's weight by 7-10 pounds, giving the rider greater acceleration and maneuverability.

MagiCine's product line includes the Z-Box, a depth-of-field adapter to HDV/DV cameras, which allow directors to shoot in a 35-mm depth of field.

Looking for the Right Fit
Harvey turned to the Internet to search for small-envelope CNC machines. "I came across the Tormach PCNC 1100. I read the design intent paper, and being a machinist, toolmaker, and designer myself, I appreciated where they were coming from and what they were doing with that design," he said.

The intention behind the PCNC 1100, according to Tormach company founder and CEO Greg Jackson, was to develop the first "personal" CNC (PCNC) mill -- a small, affordable mill that could plug into single phase household current, be easily programmed to cut CAD models from a laptop, and have the flexibility and power to cut almost any material in any fashion.

"Like the first personal computers, the design achieved a size, price, power, and usability that made it a practical tool for the individual," Jackson said. "Essentially, we wanted to develop the ideal mill for prototyping and short production runs."

The Tormach PCNC 1100 is designed to enable small businesses to do their own prototyping and short production runs.

For Harvey's requirements, the Tormach mill seemed like a more comfortable fit for his one-man, two-company operation. "The alternatives were really just 4" column drill-mill machines with CNC conversions on them -- things like that," he said. "They weren't really adequate. Anything else besides the Tormach had a much bigger footprint. I didn't really want that large a machine. It would have been used, it would have had way too much horsepower, and tooling would have been very, very expensive. It would have been just too big an initial investment to implement CNC."

Since Harvey would also operate the machine, ease of use was key to implementing the technology. "I've had no CNC experience personally," he said. "I've had some second-hand experience just by being around them a lot over the years, but I'd never actually been responsible for programming, debugging, and setting up tooling myself. The learning curve wasn't too bad. It was steep maybe for a couple days, and after that, I was pretty much up and running."

In-House Production
Harvey's new lightweight CNC capabilities now allow him to produce all his fuel caps in house. "I'm doing a cap run now -- 48 caps and bezels that would normally be mostly a turning job, but with the PCNC, I can gang-mill a plate of eight pieces using the CNC's circular interpolation capabilities and do all sorts of complex operations with minimal second operations on my small lathe," Harvey said.

The PCNC mill also saves Harvey a lot of time, something that is always in short supply when you own and operate your own business. "What would probably take me a couple weeks full time on a manual mill and lathe, I can do now in about four days," Harvey estimates. "The Tormach frees me up to do other work. Knowing that the program's debugged I can hit go on the machine and walk away. That way when I come back in an hour, the machine is waiting for a tool change, and after a few of these I know I'll have eight parts finished. That allows me to be productive in other places in the business."

The tooling setup also helps in the more intricate fabrication of MagiCine camera parts, allowing Harvey to customize aluminum billet components especially to his customer's needs. "It enables me to make complicated tool operations in various materials quickly and accurately. I can make short production runs for accessories where there's niche markets," Harvey said. "Definitely, quick turnaround and especially the low initial investment are the biggest advantages of the system."

About the Author: Cadalyst Staff

Cadalyst Staff

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