by Kip Hanson
The Problem: Machining capabilities come up short with larger part orders
The Solution: New larger and more flexible machine tool
Ontario machine shop takes a gamble on new equipment
A less self-assured shop owner might look for a lengthy contract or huge project to justify a multi-million dollar equipment investment. Not so Dan Boaretto. With customer parts growing in size and complexity, the president of Superior Machining Ltd. saw the need for a machine tool to enhance his company’s large part machining capabilities. That’s why Boaretto recently became the proud owner of a Toshiba machining centre big enough to machine components the size of a pickup truck.
That’s not to say he didn’t look long and hard before taking the leap. Boaretto investigated several competing equipment brands, and made two trips to the Toshiba factory in Numazu, Japan, before signing on the dotted line. Even then, he knew there were no guarantees that Superior would have work for the new machine when it arrived at Superior’s facility in Concord, ON. “Part of running a successful business is taking calculated risks.”
That risk came in the form of a Toshiba MPC-3680B double column machining centre, a super-sized machine capable of hitting five sides of a workpiece in a single setup, and equipped with a table beefy enough to carry a 40 tonne workpiece–the weight of a sperm whale or fully-loaded big rig. The additional capacity would go far to meet the needs of Superior’s oil and gas customers.
“Our parts have been getting larger,” Boaretto says. “With offshore oil extraction, companies are going deeper under the ocean floor. As a consequence, their equipment designs must handle higher voltages and fluid pressures, which as a rule calls for bigger, more complex components. If we don’t keep up with the changing designs, our customers will be forced to look elsewhere for their manufacturing needs.”
In all fairness, it wasn’t a huge risk. Superior Machining has a long and prosperous history, and not finding work for a new piece of equipment is unlikely for a shop with a track record like this. Since opening its doors in 1969, the company has made parts for offshore oil and gas, construction and transportation, mining, food processing equipment and, more recently, components for hi-tech vacuum chambers and coating systems.
The company’s 5,574 sq m (60,000 sq ft) facility carries a variety of metalworking equipment from different builders but Boaretto admits he’s biased towards the Toshiba brand, and already had half a dozen or so machines equipped with Tosnuc controllers. This made it easier for Superior’s thirty-five machinists to operate the new machine. “Familiarity with the control reduces training time,” Boaretto explains. “This meant the machine could go into full operation more quickly after installation.”
The people factor is important at Superior. While there was certainly a business opportunity with the new Toshiba, Boaretto is always on the lookout for ways to make the company more dynamic. “Change is exciting, and the best people want to work in a place where they can use their full potential. A big part of our success is having high performers who care for and take pride in what they do. Part of that is working for an employer that doesn’t stay stagnant—those companies that do are quickly left behind, as are their workers.”
The style of the machine was a main selling point for Boaretto. Because of the large table size, medium sized parts can be set up on one side, while the other can be used for emergency work, a common occurrence at Superior. And the vertical bridge design makes loading of large, bulky workpieces much easier compared to their other machines. Rigidity is also improved—where a vertical machining centre or horizontal boring machine relies on a single column for support, the MPC has two, and a ram with a cross section wider than a coffee table.
Skeptics might wonder about the machine’s double column construction—with 3,600 mm (141.7 in.) between the vertical columns, keeping both ends of the horizontal upper bridge in perfect alignment might seem improbable. Yet Boaretto says it’s nothing to be concerned about, and cites sophisticated electronics and glass-scaled axes as the means to eliminate any potential cattywampus. “We recently milled a 40 in. diameter pocket. It wasn’t a huge feature for us, but it was situated on a tilted plane, so we had to use all five axes simultaneously to interpolate. Even so, we held better than 0.002 in. without difficulty.”
A machine this size needs a well-planned homecoming. The MPC weighs 97,000 kg (213,400 lb) and requires a whopping 344 sq m (3,700 sq ft) of floor space, more than most houses. Boaretto said the foundation alone cost more than $100,000, the electrical work another $10,000 or more, factors that would-be machine buyers should be aware of early on in the sales cycle.
There’s also the work environment to consider. As Boaretto points out, there’s no use in having large equipment if you don’t have the floor space to support not just the machine footprint, but also the parts storage requirements, clear space around the machine to manipulate parts, crane capacity and ceiling height.
“We’ve experienced a significant learning curve. The machine is quite different from our current equipment. New programming software was implemented to support it, and we’ve had to rethink many of our manufacturing processes to take advantage of the MPC’s multi-axis capabilities. Also, our tooling requirements have changed. Larger parts frequently have deep cavities that require extended length tooling and anti-vibration milling bodies. Although we’ve had some substantial upfront costs, we can already see how the investment will pay for itself in a rather short time.”
It’s clear that the MPC has been a game changer for Superior. Because of it, the shop has been able to bring in new work such as split housings for the oil industry, high pressure hydraulic duplex rotary unions, and large fabricated frames used in mining equipment. In the past, these parts would have been no-quoted, or subcontracted to a larger shop. However, past experience has taught Superior this can be a dicey proposition given the short lead times and high quality standards asked for by their customers, never mind the shortage of machines in this size range—according to Tracy Small, general manager of Toshiba Canada, there are only a handful of these machines throughout Canada.
“It’s like having five machines in one,” says Small. “When you transfer work from one machine to another, you incur additional setup costs, handling time and loss of accuracy associated with multiple operations. A properly equipped MPC can eliminate all that.”
The difference is the tooling. Aside from up to 240 tools in the magazine, the MPC can be equipped with multiple auto-loading spindle heads, including a five-face cutter, fixed and programmable angle heads, and heads designed for planing and drilling operations. There’s also an optional pallet changer for automatic load/unload of workpieces. It sounds complex, but Boaretto explains the MPC is little different to program than his other five axis machines. “If you have an angled hole to drill, for example, you just call up the angle you want and go. There’s no need for a separate head to adjust or complex mathematical calculations.”
According to Boaretto, large and modern machine tools are great, but they’re useless without the right people. “A machine is just a tool. It doesn’t think for itself, and can only follow exact instructions. Because of this, any manufacturing company is only as good as its people, and we as an industry need to remember that our employees are the most important assets, not the machines. Unfortunately, there’s a lack of skilled workers in this field, and I think many young people are missing out on great opportunities for well-paid, challenging and highly technical and stable job opportunities.”
Best of all is a feeling of pride. Superior machines parts that go all over the world, from the oil fields in northern Canada to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Boaretto points out that it’s not always easy work—especially considering the larger, more complex parts the shop is now capable of—but it’s definitely interesting, something that helps the day pass quickly and provides a sense of accomplishment. “We make things that help humanity,” he says. “Sometimes I see our parts on TV—there was a documentary not too long ago on oil platforms, for example, and these huge FPSO (floating production storage and offloading) facilities. We made some of the parts used to build that equipment. It was a good feeling.” SMT
Kip Hanson is a contributing editor. [email protected]