Asking the Impossible

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by Andrew Brooks

An insistent customer helped Fidelity get used to going above and beyond

Saying no to a customer is something every business owner dreads, but the day generally comes sooner or later. Maybe you’re too busy to fit more work into the schedule. Maybe the job is outside your scope of expertise. Maybe it’s just too difficult.

The latter was the reason Jeff Litster, president of Fidelity Machine and Mould Solutions in Calgary, AB, turned down a work request in 2010. The call had come in from an existing customer based in Houston; he wanted Fidelity to build a part for a measurement while drilling (MWD) tool.

“It was a really ugly part,” Litster recalls. “We looked at it and we just didn’t think we could make it. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever returned a drawing to a customer.”

A few weeks later Litster was surprised when the same request popped up in his inbox again. He figured it was a mistake and was about to send a reply when the customer phoned.

“He said ‘I know what you’re doing right now. You’re sending me an email to tell me you’ve already refused this work,’” Litster says. “He told me he’d sent the part all over North America and no one took it. He said ‘you guys have done some amazing stuff for us before and I’d really like you to take a closer look.’”

Litster agreed, and he and a couple of his machinists figured out a way to build the part after all. Fidelity hasn’t looked back. 

EDM action shot.“It worked out and we learned a lot,” Litster says. “That tool became part of a product line that we specialize in now, and we’ve eliminated constraints to advance the tool further.” It’s still difficult work, rating a nine out of ten for difficulty today, but Litster says that Fidelity has so advanced its capabilities on this job that the impossible part of 2010 wouldn’t score more than four out of ten now.

That adaptability has characterized Fidelity since Litster co-founded the company in 2007, leasing 557 sq m (6,000 sq ft) of shop space and buying used CNC and EDM equipment at auction. The plan was to focus on injection mould making, but EDM quickly became a core line of work. 

“We knew EDM capacity would be crucial for the injection moulds, but we had no idea there’d be such a voracious appetite for it from other shops. Our willingness to work in a cooperative manner really opened the doors to other machine shops coming to us with work they were having trouble with.”

After burning a few keyways and hexes in some oil field parts, Fidelity began developing a good reputation across the province for its EDM work. EDM became the company’s fastest growing department and a high level of commitment to service started bringing in requests from different sectors. 

“Before we knew it our name had grown synonymous with tricky parts that couldn’t be made with conventional methods,” Litster says, “and our ability to handle specialty work increased.” Litster believes that today Fidelity may have more EDM capacity and advanced equipment than anyone else in Western Canada.

By 2010 Fidelity had aerospace and oil and gas customers as far afield as Texas, Florida and even Scotland. Today the company boasts 2,044 sq m (22,000 sq ft) of space with 836 sq m (9,000 sq ft) of that added last year to accommodate growth, 10 CNC mills, five CNC lathes, three wire EDM machines, six sink EDM machines, one CNC gun drill, and its own full QC and design departments. Fidelity is ISO9000 certified and has around 45 full time staff. The company does about $10 million in sales a year in the automotive, military and medical/veterinarian markets, in addition to the mainstay aerospace and oil and gas work.

2017 was an especially good year; it saw Fidelity invest around $1 million in new equipment. That includes completely revamping the EDM shop, adding two Makino U6 wire EDM machines with X, Y and Z axes of 650, 450 and 419 mm (25.6, 17.7 and 16.5 in.) respectively and maximum workpiece weight of 1,500 kg (3,307 lb) and two Makino EDNC6 RAM EDM machines with a maximum electrode weight of 100 kg (220 lb) and X, Y and Z axes of 650, 450, 350 mm (25.6, 17.7 and 13.8 in.) respectively.

The Makino decision almost didn’t happen. Litster had been on the shop floor and he noticed that a particularly expensive machine wasn’t running. 

“The operator told me ‘it doesn’t burn as fast as that machine over there and it also gives me more wear.’ He was pointing at a $15,000 Chinese machine that we got at auction. I said ‘well, that’s a problem.’”

As luck would have it, the Makino rep happened to call at the same time. Litster undoubtedly made his day by asking flat out “how would you like to fill this bay with Makinos?”

Fidelity, Makino and Martin Craven, president of SST Canada, distributor for Makino machines in Canada, mapped out a two-year plan to make the switch. But the performance gains with the first of the new machines accelerated the time line.

“They exceeded our expectations by so much it was an absolute no-brainer,” Litster says. “We said ‘no, we have to put in a second machine… we have to put in a third machine…’ and a two year plan got accelerated into one year.”

Equipment sitting idle isn’t a problem any more. Litster says the second Makino U6 was up and running an active job before the technician who calibrated it had even packed up his toolbox. The machine “hasn’t stopped since,” he says.

Changes may be afoot elsewhere. Fidelity is operating CNC mills from a big, well respected brand, and the machines “have been fantastic for us,” but Litster says the service he got with the EDM acquisitions has him eying Makino and SST Canada for some new equipment on this front too.

The company has also made major commitments to new CNC lathes as demand spikes for 7 in. (178 mm) diameter work. New machines from Okuma and its Western Canada distributor Thomas Skinner include the LB4000 EXII double big bore two axis CNC lathe with a maximum turning diameter of 450 mm (18.9 in.), and a new Okuma LB3000 EXII with a maximum machining diameter of 410 mm (16.14 in) and machining length of 500 mm (19.69 in.). The LB3000 has a slightly smaller envelope and is used for more high production, small to midsized capacity work. 

Other possible areas for new investment include large capacity five axis milling, horizontal high production milling, and more gun drill capacity. “Obviously we still have a large mould making department so we’re investing there,” Litster says. “Our new space is being dedicated to injection mould making. We’re upgrading a lot of the support equipment there such as cranes and work areas. It’s less sexy than bringing in new machines but it’s still expensive, and it really impacts production.” SMT

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