“A man with innovative ideas and a dedicated entrepreneur.” Whether it was his new and improved grease gun design or the scraper gate he developed to keep earthmoving equipment from stalling, inventor Clarence Isert would be proud of his headstone. But what he was probably most proud of in life was a device that “provides total control of airflow, keeps radiators clean, maximizes engine performance, saves fuel, and is robustly built and maintenance free.”
That’s according to the assignee of Isert’s patent, Edmonton-based Flexxaire Inc., designers and manufacturers of reversible fan systems for the diesel engines used in forestry, agricultural, mining, earthmoving, and other industrial machinery for more than 35 years.
“We found that overcooling more so than overheating tends to reduce a diesel engine’s lifespan, and is a common problem in northern climates like ours. A Flexxaire fan connects directly to the ECM [engine control module], so if the engine’s running too hot or cold, the blade pitch adjusts automatically to bring everything back to the correct operating temperature.”
So says Chris Nieuwendyk, Flexxaire’s chief technology officer, who adds that the company’s fan technology solves another everyday problem: radiators getting plugged with debris on job sites. “Take forestry, where you’re grinding up trees and brush into little pieces that then get sucked into the radiator. When the engine senses this, it will tell the blades to reverse their pitch angle, blowing out the radiator and keeping it clean.”
Fans of efficiency
Nieuwendyk and the others at Flexxaire are big fans of such efficiency. So are their customers, apparently. The company has enjoyed consistent growth since its founding in 1983 and now employs close to 50 people, has sales offices in Germany, Italy, and Ontario, and expanded its Edmonton manufacturing facility several years ago to 4200 sq m (45,000 sq. ft.). Some of that success comes from its early and ongoing relationship with Caterpillar, the rest from its employees’ collective drive for continuous improvement in products and processes alike.
These improvements depend on regular investment in modern machining technology. Flexxaire boasts an eclectic mix of CNC lathes and machining centres from Okuma, Miyano, “an old Hitachi Seiki,” and DMG MORI, with its most recent addition a 117-tool NTX 2500 multitasking lathe from the latter. “We also have an NLX-series mill-turn from DMG and one of Miyano’s ABX-51 three turret lathes,” says Nieuwendyk. “Pretty much everything out there is mill-turn capable.”
With a few exceptions, everything is also equipped with Capto quick-change toolholders from Sandvik Coromant, a transformation that began during a difficult financial period. “When the economy tanked back in 2007, we weren’t sure how it would affect us and we became very hesitant about hiring anyone,” Nieuwendyk says. “At the same time, we needed to keep up with demand, so several of us began looking at ways to increase machine uptime without adding people.”
Curing the disease
Nieuwendyk and his team quickly realized that Flexxaire was suffering from the same disease that affects so many machine shops: overly long setup times. Unlike many of them, however, they decided to do something about it. Nieuwendyk reached out to Jim Cordoviz, regional sales manager for Sandvik Coromant in Western Canada, and asked him for a presentation on the company’s Capto quick-change tooling lineup. And to make certain his i’s were dotted and t’s crossed, Nieuwendyk requested the same for a competing brand.
“We had a bunch of meetings with both companies and ended up going with Capto for two pretty big reasons,” he says. “One of them was the extensive component library, which covered practically all of our tooling needs. Secondly was the support. Jim spent a lot of time with us. He showed me the Capto Calculator and addressed all of my concerns over quality, longevity, and rigidity, so I felt comfortable that it would be a good investment.”
He was right. Flexxaire soon watched its setup times fall by upwards of 75% on Capto-equipped machines. And while that alone would have been enough to convince management to install Capto on all of the shop’s CNCs, Nieuwendyk was able to make an even more compelling argument: simplification.
As everyone in manufacturing is well aware, the skilled labour force is not only dwindling—it’s also largely comprised of people in need of additional training. Nieuwendyk found over the coming years that machines with Capto tooling are easier to set up, less prone to crashes, and much more productive besides.
“It was maybe five years ago that we began building standard tool assemblies and laser marking them with the tool number and offset,” he says. “Because of this, there’s no longer a need for notes or work instructions telling the operator how far a boring bar should stick out of the holder, or worries about hitting the part because he missed it by a hundred ‘thou. Setups have become very simple.”
That level of standardization has since expanded throughout the shop. Wherever possible, every machine—whether lathe, mill, or a combination of the two—now carries the same set of Capto-equipped toolholders and cutting tools, eliminating guesswork and making operator training a matter of “a half hour or so.”
Reduced setup times are great. Lights-out machining is even better. Flexxaire’s five machinists spend their days running low-volume jobs and R&D work on the shop’s 15 CNC machines, and as afternoon rolls around, they prepare for the second and third shifts, both tended only by robots and automatic barfeeders. In fact, their machines have become so much more productive that they encountered another problem—running out of cutting fluid during the night.
Rather than hire someone to tend the machine sumps at four o’clock in the morning, they came up with one more Flexxaire invention, the FlexxCool coolant system, which tops off CNC equipment with cutting fluid mixed at the correct concentration for each machine, and does so automatically.
None of this would have been possible without Capto tooling, says Nieuwendyk, nor would Flexxaire have realized an unexpected though equally important benefit. “I found that our processes have become more stable. For one thing, I figure the Capto tooling with its dual contact interface is ten times more rigid than what comes standard on the machine. This in itself makes everything more predictable, but we no longer have to worry about stuff like whether the operator forgot to tighten down a stick tool or accidentally set the boring bar off-centre. If there’s a problem with chatter or tool life now, we can be confident it has nothing to do with the toolholder. Between that and the standardization, we’ve eliminated many variables from our machining processes. The setup time reduction is huge, but I have to say this last part is one of Capto’s biggest advantages.” SMT