Targeting micro-parts

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by Jim Barnes

The Problem: Increasing productivity

The Solution: Grooving, threading tools with better tool life and chip control

Tooling investment supports precision, profitability



Small parts are the forte of Free Force Machining Technologies Inc. The firm produces miniature components and precision-turned parts in an array of challenging materials. There are no standard products for this small St. Catharines, ON, job shop. “We take the designs as they come, and tomorrow could change,” says Steve Charlton, the firm’s president and co-owner with his wife.

Established in 2007, the shop is about 455 sq m and employs ten staff in a single shift.

Charlton is well-versed in the industry. Before Free Force, he was involved in a family business. “I guess I’m third or fourth-generation,” he says. “I’ve been in machining all my life.”

Small lots of high precision parts for Canadian and US customers are the norm. “Our focus is mostly on critical component industries that are looking for low to medium volumes of parts,” says Charlton. This includes medical, aerospace and energy industries.

Producing small plastic and composite parts in low volumes is an important market niche for the firm. In that range, “it’s not economical to have the part injection moulded, but it’s too high a volume for a 3D printer. That specific area creates opportunities for us –to provide those 100, 500 or 1,000 pieces of small to medium-sized plastic parts,” he explains.

Free Force often works with materials like Delrin, PEEK, Teflon, Rexolite and Ultem. Various stainless steels, Inconel, titanium, nickel alloys, brass and beryllium copper are also commonly used.

Charlton says the firm is conservative with regard to feeds and speeds. “We tend to run at the low end of the recommendation for consistency of process. For us, it’s not about doing the job in as fast a time as possible,” he says noting that aiming at high quality and precision is “a different process.”

Meeting grooving challenges
The firm has a lot of expertise with grooving. “Grooving tools cover a wide range, and even branch over into threading a little bit. Typically, we use a wide range of ID or OD boring, grooving or threading tools, specially designed for stainless steel or high-temperature alloys,” says Charlton.

Free Force does about 80 per cent of its work with standardized tooling. “We use standard grooving tools or form tools of some kind. We don’t use the multi-function tools that often, although I have had some experience with them,” says Charlton.

The toughest grooving jobs usually involve internal grooving of hard stainless or nickel-base alloys. “Once you get down inside the part and can’t get the chips out effectively–even with 1,000 psi oil pressure–you’ve got a real challenge.”

A big part of the solution comes from working with the supplier. “Make sure the feed and speed and depth of cut are what they recommend,” says Charlton. “The more advanced the tooling, the more you have to use it within the specific parameters for which it was designed.”

“Horn [Horn USA of Franklin, TN] has done really well for us in a wide range of applications,” he says. In some cases, the firm needs data on standardized tooling to be used with a particular material. In others, it is custom tooling made specifically for a certain part profile.

When chip control is an issue, Charlton likes the through-the-tool coolant available on some Horn tools that helps flush chips away from the work.

A solid supplier is important to Charlton. Since the firm often runs very small batches, “there’s never time for test cycles and that’s why you have to rely on the tech support. Try to work as much as possible within the parameters that they give you. They’ve already done the groundwork.”

Charlton is an “astute” tool buyer, notes Jim Garfield of JLG Marketing Services, Burlington, ON, which represents Horn. “Steve will typically take a look at a job and send me information about what he’s doing. I usually don’t know the application. He just tells me the material and what he needs,” explains Garfield. “He’s not the kind of customer where you sit down with the part drawing.”

Charlton is constantly on the lookout for developments in tool base materials and coatings for the tougher alloys. “These alloys are becoming more prevalent and the industries that use them are growing, like aerospace or oil and gas,” he says.

With the tolerances Free Force often works to, quality control is a high priority. The firm is certified to ISO 9001:2008 and ISO 13485:2003 and is committed to Zero Percent Defect Production.

Lean manufacturing and continuous process improvement are standards at the company.

The firm uses SolidWorks solid modelling software to interpret customer drawings and program the machines. A proprietary post-processor was developed for the Fanuc controls, since Charlton could not find a post that did what he wanted on the market. The proprietary post enables the firm to generate complete machining sequences directly from 3D models. “That’s one of our competitive advantages,” he says.

“Steve is very open to looking at new ideas–things he can do better, quicker and more precisely,” says Garfield. It is not about the price of the tool. “If that were the case, there are far less-expensive tools to use than Horn.”

Charlton wants to save money by working faster, with better tool life, better chip control and better finishes, says Garfield. “He is looking at the big picture. Not everybody does that.” SMT

Jim Barnes is a contributing editor. [email protected]

Free Force Machining Technologies Inc.

Horn USA

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