Five Axis Goes West

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Just as five to seven axis multi-function lathes were once the new kid on the manufacturing block,

one that many shops were at first reluctant to meet, so too are universal, or five axis, machining centres, and they’re gaining market share throughout Canada.

Greg Schroer, machine tool sales representative at Thomas Skinner & Son Ltd., Richmond, BC, says the growth in five axis vertical machining in Western Canada has been significant over the past four years, due in large part to the introduction of “affordable” five axis machines.

“Technology once limited to high end specialty manufacturers and OEMs is now within reach of even the smallest job shops, opening lucrative markets in which they were once unable to compete,” says Schroer. He cites the growth of Haas UMC series machines as an example.

“Looking at market share numbers for 2015, a total of three five axis vertical machining centres were sold in BC,” Schroer says. “All were Haas machines.” He adds that since its introduction at IMTS in 2012, the Haas UMC series has taken significant market share in Western Canada.

Thomas Skinner also represents Okuma, another builder of five axis machines, which he says also has a respectable following and has recently raised the bar on high production five axis machining with its introduction of the MU-series (MU-4000, MU-5000, MU-6300 and MU-8000), with a double column design the company says offers a “less problematic” work envelope, generous axis travel, and superior rigidity compared to traditional C-frame machine tools.

With lot sizes falling and skilled machinists and toolmakers becoming more scarce, it makes sense to eliminate part handling wherever possible and simplify workholding. Five axis machining centres do both. By gripping raw material along a thin section at the bottom of the part blank, five of the workpiece’s six sides can be machined in a single operation. Because there’s no need to move parts across multiple fixtures as with traditional three axis machining centres, manufacturers can improve machining accuracy and reduce costs.

Okuma's MU-5000V five axis vertical machining centre available in Western Canada through Thomas Skinner & Son/Haas Factory Outlet.Lindsay Harris, regional sales manager in BC for Elliott Matsuura, which sells five axis machines, such as the Matsuura MAM72 series, concurs with Schroer about the growth of five axis technology in the region. A 34-year-veteran of the machine tool industry, Harris says one of the reasons five axis technology was slower to take off in the region was, in part, lack of education.

“Five axis machining technology is definitely on the rise and it’s because of education and understanding what five axis can do for manufacturers. A lot of my customers are in the 35 to 40 year old range and they understand they need to embrace new technologies to compete. Just recently one customer purchased a 32-pallet five axis system and he says it’s the best thing that ever happened to his shop.”

That’s because five axis technology offers many benefits, particularly for small to medium size job shops. “By moving away from the multiple setups in favour of the ‘3 + 2’ and simultaneous five axis machining possible on these machine tools, shops significantly reduce set up time and increase efficiency on all their milling work,” says Schroer.

Five axis technology also opens the door to unattended machining, adds Harris. “Palletized five axis machining allows the customer to cluster different parts on each tombstone or fixture that may be scheduled to run unattended throughout the night. Running unattended means reducing manpower and making a shop more price competitive.” SMT

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