Get on TRAK

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by Kip Hanson

Ontario machine shop takes unique approach to employee training, keeps up with customer demands  

Not enough skilled CNC machinists to go around

Train them on cost-effective combo machines

Marc Lapointe, co-owner of Lindham Industries Ltd. in Windsor, ON, will tell you he doesn’t want his company to get any bigger in square footage. This 16-year old prototype and low volume detail shop has 900 sq m of floor space (about 10,000 sq ft.), fewer than a dozen employees, an assortment of customers in the balancing equipment, textile, vibratory welding, and tubing industries, and Lapointe is just fine with the way things are going. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t share some of the same problems as larger manufacturers. One of these is finding machinists, an activity even more challenging in automotive-rich Windsor than it is in other parts of Canada.

It’s all in the details
Lapointe and business partner Graham Wright once worked together at a neighbouring company. Wright was in sales while Lapointe managed the shop floor. In 2001, they decided to give self-employment a try and opened the doors of Lindham Industries. Today they have a number of CNC machines, including a 60 x 30 Fadal, two axis Hyundai and Milltronics lathes, and the usual assortment of engine lathes, saws, and knee mills. There’s also a row of TRAK DPM SX5P bed mills from Southwestern Industries.

“We don’t do production,” Lapointe says. “For us, fifty pieces would be a large quantity, and most of our work is a couple of this, maybe ten of that. That’s the main reason I kept pushing John off when he told me I should look at the TRAKs. It took him nearly two years to convince me.”

John McGonigle is the area sales representative for Ferro Technique, the machine tool distributor that handles ProtoTRAK in eastern Canada. Based on his experience with shops similar to Lindham, McGonigle knew a “combo CNC” would be the way to go. “I once represented this line for a different machine tool distributor, and I am so convinced it’s a money maker for shops of all sizes, I managed to bring the line with me when I came to Ferro Technique,” he says. “Thanks to the conversational control, ProtoTRAKs are easy for anyone to learn, even those with no machining experience. People buy the first machine and they quickly end up with three or four of them. For shops that routinely produce job quantities between one and twenty parts, they’re a no brainer.” 

Part of the family
The DPM5 is part of a machine family, McGonigle explains, ranging from the smaller DPM2 to its much larger counterpart, the FHM7. All use the same SMX control, which is also available for retrofit to existing knee mills. The machines can be operated in two and a half axis manual mode by cranking the handles as you would on any conventional knee mill, but also have “teach” and three  axis, full CNC modes. This gives the operator a number of part making options:

Simple milling operations such as squaring a block of material or roughing a slot can be performed manually as they’re used to doing, using the control as a digital readout (DRO).

Machining bolt hole patterns, pockets, and other regular part features is accomplished by answering a few questions about the part and following the onscreen prompts.

More complex features such as arcs and profiles can be programmed conversationally, and the machine will drive the axes through the necessary movements. 

For repeat work, the operator can combine any of the above functions, as well as pre-programmed subroutines, to teach the machine how to make the first part, after which the TRAK will repeat whatever it was shown.

Prefer to program offline and treat the TRAK like the fully capable CNC machine it is? Go ahead. The control accepts standard G-code and has USB, flash memory, and RS-232 capabilities for program upload. 

The TRAKs have proven to be a good learning tool for those new to machining, while still providing revenue to the company. Working on the machines is Jamie Zappio, left, and Alan Malcolm.“I showed Marc how the TRAK would fit in with his existing CNC equipment,” says McGonigle. “I knew the shop’s more experienced people would have no problem leveraging the control’s advanced features, while Marc would be able to bring on young people with no prior machining knowledge and quickly get them up the curve while performing useful work. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

Employee training
Lapointe took his advice. The first employee to run the new machine was his own son, fresh out of high school. “He had no trade experience at all, not even a shop class,” he says. “After two, maybe three days of training, he was off on his own. Of course, he still had a ways to go learning how to actually make parts, something I’ve been helping him with, but in terms of machine operation, he picked it up pretty quickly.”

On the other end of the spectrum are those veteran machinists who’ve never operated a CNC, and really have no desire to do so. For these folks, the ability to operate the machine in manual mode reduces the fear factor, while the control’s ease of use allows them to step into CNC gradually, using as much or as little automation as needed to get the job done efficiently. 

Lapointe laughs. “I have one guy that at first wanted nothing to do with the TRAKs. Now he won’t turn the handles at all, and lets the machine do everything. It’s that simple to use.”

Looking ahead
Today, Lindham has four TRAK DPM5s, and although Lapointe is currently looking at a large Fadal machining centre for plate work, it’s unlikely he’ll ever buy another manual machine. The TRAKs make short run work far more efficient than is possible on a traditional mill. They provide a place for overflow when the machining centres are overloaded, and customer rush orders can easily be squeezed in without breaking down a setup. The ability to “mix and match” operational modes gives the operator flexibility to machine parts in the most effective manner. Small but complex parts and part features can be programmed offline and machined on the TRAK, opening doors to new work and creating greater availability on the larger CNCs. And perhaps most important of all, the TRAKs offer an invaluable way to train new operators, avoiding potential risk to more expensive CNC equipment while offering a no stress environment to those who might be uncomfortable around automation.  

“The TRAKs are just super friendly,” Lapointe says. “Setting tool heights and part locations is easy, and once someone grasps the CNC part of it, even an inexperienced person becomes pretty efficient. I run one maybe once a month and it’s just like riding a bike. And with the shortage of skilled machinists in our area, I can almost grab someone off the street, put them to work and they’ll make money for you. They’re phenomenal machines.”  SMT


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