Making Your Mark

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article by Kip Hanson photos by Jim Barnes

Ontario mouldmaker tackles whatever comes its way, and does it faster than the competition

The Problem: Reducing manufacturing lead time from weeks to hours
The Solution: Five axis, high speed universal machining technology

The way Dave McCaughrin explains it, his father Lee retired twice. The first time was from his agricultural drain tile manufacturing business. He sold the company, took the profits, and set up a small machine shop so he could do his own repair work around the farm. News spread and pretty soon the semi-retiree was in business again, repairing his neighbour’s tractors and balers as well as his own. It didn’t take long to decide all the additional work was cutting into his fishing time, so in 1979 he decided to go back into retirement. He handed the keys to his son and headed for the nearest lake.

Fortunate phone calls
The younger McCaughrin never intended to own a machine shop. “It was kind of an accident,” he says. “During high school I was one of those students who had no idea what I wanted to do as an adult. When I received an award for getting the highest marks in shop class, I thought I’d follow a trade for a while until I figured things out. I took a mouldmaking course in college, then spent six years working for a shop in Wallaceburg. When my father suggested I move in with him, it only made sense for us both.”

McCaughrin has been updating and improving the business ever since. One of his first steps was the purchase of an entry-level CNC machining centre, a quantum leap for a shop built on hand-cranked mills and engine lathes. Leemark Enterprises soon began to earn a reputation as the go-to shop for precision tooling and mouldwork.

One of his big breaks came shortly after he started working at Leemark, when he received a phone call from a Tier 1 auto supplier known then as Rockwell International. “They wanted to know if we could make forging dies,” McCaughrin says. “We never had, but as a young, fresh business, of course we were eager for any kind of work that we could put through the machines. We established a great relationship with them early on and they’re still our number one customer.”

As the business grew, McCaughrin began shopping for additional equipment. He quickly realized there were far better machine tools available that cost just a bit more than his “first time buyer” CNC, and purchased a Dah Lih machining centre from Heinman Machinery Ltd. in Mississauga. Today he owns three Dah Lihs and says that, even after 20 years, they’re still going strong.

Another fortunate phone call came a few years later, from an acquaintance of a mutual friend at Rockwell. “We hear you can make wiper dies,” McCaughrin recalls. “I’d never heard of a wiper die at that point, but I said absolutely, send me some prints. It turned out to be a niche market, and now we have customers from all over North America asking us to make wiper dies.”

McCaughrin says wiper dies are used for bending tubing, and are used extensively in the automotive and furniture industries. “It’s what guides the material through a bender to keep it from collapsing as it bends around a corner. If you have an old-fashioned aluminum lawn chair, take a look at the bottom corners where the legs intersect the base. You see how they’re crinkled in? Wiper dies prevent that by guiding the material through the forming process, so it ends up with a nice smooth transition all the way around the bend.”

Moving beyond dies
While McCaughrin and his team were becoming experts on forging and wiper dies, they were also busy building up the mouldmaking side of the business. Leemark produces a variety of injection moulds for the automotive industry, including ones used to make seat adjuster knobs, air conditioner vent grilles, radio faceplates, seatbelt latch covers, and other such recognizable automobile components.

Dave McCaughrin, says his new Okuma five axis machining centre has the capabilities to meet his customers' needs.Along the way, McCaughrin decided he needed different technology if he were to remain competitive in mouldmaking. In 2004, he called Okuma distributor EMEC Machine Tools Inc., and purchased an MB-46 VAE vertical machining centre. “Dah Lih still has a place in our shop,” he says. “They’re workhorses, and I love them..”

Leemark now has six Okumas, including an LB200-M lathe, a Genos M-560V vertical machining centre, and a four axis MB-4000H horizontal with a spindle speed of 15,000 rpm. The most recent machine is a definite departure from tradition, however: an Okuma MU-8000V five axis machining centre that hit the floor in January, 2016. Since that time, the company has been on a learning curve, although it’s not quite as steep as some would expect.

“We’ve been machining with four axes for the past 12 years, so we thought it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch to do five,” says McCaughrin. “At this point we’ve been focusing on 3+2 work, and are just now getting into five axis simultaneous. It’s the old adage, you have to learn how to walk before you can run.”

One learning curve the company mastered long ago was the move to hard milling. Leemark began machining 54 Rc hardened A13 tool steel in the early 90s and encountered little difficulty, but the jump ten years later to 58 Rc D2 and then 60 Rc M2 high speed steel was admittedly a substantial stepping stone. Through some trial and error with feeds and speeds, along with adoption of ceramic cutting tools, they learned to deal with M2’s abrasiveness and became successful with these very difficult materials.

“After a while it became routine for us,” McCaughrin says. “The ceramic cutters knocked our cycle times down significantly. Today we drill most of our mould bases while soft, send them out for heat treat and then do all our cavity work in the hardened state. We use NTK indexable cutters, with cutting speeds around 300 sfm and feedrates between 0.12 and 0.05 mm per flute (0.005 to 0.020 in.), depending on the tool and material. And since ceramic has to be run dry, we’re thankful for the Okuma’s air through the spindle capability. This keeps the tools cool and gives us better insert life.”

Man to machine
Including McCaughrin, Leemark Enterprises currently employs five machinists, a “man to machine” ratio of two to one. Some shop owners might question why Leemark doesn’t hire a few more machinists. His response is simple. “I’ve always worked on the theory that I’d rather have more equipment available than worry about breaking into a setup for a rush job. I suppose it’s a carryover from the time we were doing repairs for local farmers, who rely on their equipment to work non-stop during the growing season. But it’s great to have the flexibility to jump on someone’s parts right away. It also allows us to work on multiple operations simultaneously, which decreases lead time.”

This level of flexibility has paid off, and McCaughrin is proud of his reputation for excellence and for his company’s strong customer base. When asked why he purchased the five axis Okuma when he was already machine heavy, he responded by saying the decision was spurred by a need to stay ahead of the competition. “We gained a major customer because their previous supplier was taking way too long to get them parts. They were looking for quicker turnaround, and that got us thinking about ways to get things done more quickly. Because five axis reduces part handling and the time needed to build fixtures, we’ve actually gone from two weeks to just two hours on some jobs.”

McCaughrin says he learned some hard lessons on quality during the automotive slowdown in ’09. “There were machine shop auction flyers coming every week,” he says. “And I started to notice the chopping block never had any high end equipment on it. My observation was this: the quality of the machine tool pays off in the long run. If you buy cheap stuff, it’s going to break down and you’re going to throw it away at some point, and maybe the business with it. Stick with quality machinery and equipment and you won’t have those issues. For Leemark, Okuma has the capabilities to do what’s needed, and do so reliably.” SMT

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