by Mary Scianna
The Problem: Outsourcing $7 million a year for CNC machining
The Solution: Purchasing CNC machines, new building to bring work in-house
Alberta drill rig maker invests millions to transition from manual to CNC machining
Converting a manual machine shop and the machinists that work in it to CNC technology can be a daunting and expensive task. Yet that’s just what Ja-Co Welding & Consulting Ltd. did last year.
Within 15 months and $9.5 million later, the Nisku, AB, custom manufacturing business succeeded in turning a conventional operation into a modern one complete with multi-tasking machines equipped with the latest in tooling and CAD/CAM software housed in a new 15,000 sq ft facility that is already slated for a 12,000 sq ft expansion.
“This has been a huge transition for us,” says Don Adams, president and owner of Ja-Co. “We went from a three-man shop to a 12-man shop in six months. We’re running 60 hours [a week] just to keep up with industry demands.”
This isn’t the first transition for Ja-Co. When Don Adams and his brother Brian formed the company in 1987, the company’s mainstay was fabricating and welding. When it landed work to manufacture drilling rigs for Precision Drilling in 1994, it opened the doors to machining.
Today, Ja-Co is considered one of the largest steel fabrication and drill rig manufacturers in Alberta. Its operations encompass 73,000 sq ft of manufacturing–steel plate waterjet and plasma cutting, welding and CNC machining–consisting of ten bays dedicated to different manufacturing processes.
Bringing it home
The Precision Drilling work lead to the investment in several conventional machines, but fabricating and welding were the core operations at the time and as business ramped up, Ja-Co decided to outsource some of the work.
“We were shelling out $7 million a year with outside machine shops to get our work done,” estimates Adams.
To compete, Ja-Co knew it had to invest in CNC technology to bring work back in-house.
“We wanted to speed up our processes and improve our quality, especially with new work for our drilling rig business,” says Troy Martyshuk, plant manager, adding the company has API (American Petroleum Institute) certification for wellhead and christmas tree equipment and is working on new certification for drilling and production hoisting equipment (GA, 8C, 16A and 16C).
In March 2013, the first CNC machines, three Haas machine tools purchased from Thomas Skinner, and a Mitsubishi waterjet machine, rolled into the shop. Three months later, two more Haas machines, a small mill and a lathe, arrived. In October it traded one of its lathes for the first Okuma multi-tasking machine, the Multus B400II equipped with a Y axis and live tooling. Then in November another Okuma arrived, the VTM 1200 YB, a five axis multi-tasking machine. The Okuma machines were also purchased from Thomas Skinner.
The learning curve
“I hadn’t worked with CNC machines except for the experience in a trade school. It’s a lot to wrap your head around and there are not a lot of machinists available for hire who know how to run these types of machines well,” says Martyshuk.
Ja-Co initially hired someone Martyshuk had gone to trade school with and together, with extensive support from Thomas Skinner and prior CNC knowledge from attending courses at the Northern Alberta Institute for Technology (NAIT), they learned how to program and handle the new Okuma machines. Shortly after hiring its first person, Ja-Co hired more workers who have subsequently been trained on the new machines.
“Once the machines showed up, Thomas Skinner gave us hands-on training on how to operate each of the machines,” says Martyshuk. “Their guys really went beyond just training and gave us a lot of time to help us learn how to operate CNC machines. Joey [Warren] from Thomas Skinner really knows his stuff and he answered all our questions. It was a little rough going at first because no one knew CNC technology, but after about three to four weeks the lightbulb went on. It took in total about four months to get a really good handle on operating these machines.”
Some of Ja-Co’s staff also attended in-house training seminars at Thomas Skinner’s facility in Edmonton, says Peter Dahl, who handles machine sales for Thomas Skinner in that city. He adds the multi-tasking machines helped Ja-Co improve manufacturing throughput.
“Ja-Co manufactures many different components, many of which may require up to five setups for turning and milling. This added handling between multiple machines and setups increases takt time through the shop that they often can’t afford to have. The extra handling also introduces the possibility of error when setting up workpieces more than once.”
A key aid in helping Ja-Co’s workers transition to CNC technology was Okuma’s One Touch Interactive Graphics & Functions (IGF) conversational programming software, which Dahl says is designed to make programming of sophisticated multi-tasking machines more user friendly.
A plus for Martyshuk is that he and the other machinists can use MasterCAM software for both the Haas and Okuma machines.
“Most of our machines allow us to program right on the machine. The Okuma IGF, which is a conversational program, is built into the control, and shows the part representation and toolpath, and that’s a big help.”
The multi-million dollar investment in CNC technology and machines is paying off.
“Every week we’re cutting POs for more rigs for companies,” says Martyshuk. “We’re busy and can barely keep up with the demand. We’re always looking to grow and add to the shop and get into other processing such as machinery for coping beams and pipes, and more plasma equipment.”
As for the transition to CNC technology and multi-tasking machines, he says it was a big learning curve but Ja-Co is better for it because it now has workers with a higher level of machining skills.
“We have definitely come a long way from what we started with and what we knew going into this project. It wasn’t too long after each machine showed up that we were making parts. Within the first week of training on the Multus, we made parts and sent them to customers.” SMT