Perfection Multiplied

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by Kip Hanson  | photos by Francis Vachon

Quebec aerospace supplier redefines the standard for machine shop efficiency


Difficulty meeting surface finish tolerances on a turned part without a secondary grinding operation.

Purchase an Index G200 CNC mill-turn centre with grinding capabilities.

When the manufacturing team at APN, supported by maintenance director Alain Bélanger, and the team at APN wanted to eliminate a secondary grinding operation on a 316 stainless steel bolt for an aerospace customer, they decided to invest in a G200 turn-mill centre from Index, one equipped with optional grinding capabilities. To their chagrin, however, they’ve never had to mount an arbor or dress a wheel, as the machine was able to achieve an 8 Ra surface finish using standard turning tools. 

“The G200 is so rigid, so accurate, and generates such excellent finishes that we never had to grind the parts,” says Bélanger, who serves as the maintenance director at this 125-employee, 2,300 sq m (25,000 sq ft) job shop. “I have many positive things to say about that machine.”

One of APN's "cobots" from Universal Robots tending one of the Index CNC machines.When one became three
That was in 2017, and in January of this year the company purchased the G200’s multitasking big brother—the G220—to sit beside it, for a total of three Index CNC lathes (the first was a C200, installed in 2015). All were bought from the area’s Index distributor, Mitcham Machine Tools Inc., and all have helped this subsidiary of Quebec-based APN Global increase throughput and part quality. 

If that were the end of this machine tool tale, you might chalk it up as a bittersweet ending to a story about yet another ordinary—albeit well-equipped—machine shop. But as Bélanger will tell you, APN is anything but ordinary. “APN is not a typical manufacturing company,” he says. “We’re different. You have to get to know us to understand that better, but believe me, we don’t do things the normal way.”

Every machine shop and manufacturing company thinks their processes and part mix are unique; their business model not quite like that of “the guys down the street.” What makes APN so special? For starters, this AS 9100 and ISO 9001:2000 certified shop places a disproportionate amount of engineering effort into every job. 

“We process the heck out of everything before it hits the floor,” he says. “All the preparation work is done up front, the programs are proven out, the tools assembled days in advance. Everyone here is focused on reducing setup time as much as possible, so that we can keep the machines producing parts as much as possible.”

APN co-president Yves Proteau (left) stands next to maintenance director Alain Bélanger.Continually improving
With complex and expensive machines like these, who can blame them, but there’s more behind APN’s engineering initiatives than setup time reduction. Joël Lessard, director of continuous improvement and optimization, can point to a number of projects that might seem bleeding edge to most shops, but are just a routine day at APN. 

One of these is APN’s homegrown quality software, which Lessard and his team of six C# programmers began developing around eight years ago to meet the extensive inspection requirements of its aerospace customers. Rather than track dimensional data in a logbook, they built a custom software package to manage that data as well as tell the machinists what characteristics to measure and when—if a value approaches the tolerance limits, APN’s software recognizes this and adjusts the inspection interval accordingly, resulting in a “nearly 100 per cent quality level,” Lessard says. That same software was leveraged when APN moved into automated machine tending two years ago, with the purchase of a collaborative robot, or cobot, from Universal Robots, equipped with a Robotiq brand camera and gripper.

“We taught our first cobot to clean the parts coming off a CNC lathe and load them into a tray,” he explains. “When our software system sees that a part needs to be inspected, it signals the robot to set that one aside. The operator then loads it into a vise that’s mounted to our internally-developed pallet system. The vise has an RFID chip containing all the relevant part information, so all the operator has to do is set it onto the pallet changer in front of a nearby CMM, which reads the chip, inspects the part, and sends the results back to the software. If a dimension is approaching a tolerance limit, the operator is notified accordingly and he or she can then make the appropriate tool offset.”

The frame in the forefront is a two-slot magazine used to store parts while the MiR100 AGV (automatic guided vehicle) is moving between the machine tool and CMM.Today APN has nine such robots, and in order to simplify the management of several hundred different inspection programs, Lessard’s team has developed a parametric robot program, which is uploaded automatically at each new production run. They are currently working to further enhance the system with automated tool offset capabilities, integrated part scheduling and tool crib management functionality, and an AGV (automatic guided vehicle) that will carry the part from the machine to the CMM, freeing the machine operator to do more important things. 

Their efforts are paying off. The facility is about to double in size, additional machine tool investment is in the works, and Lessard says revenue has increased by a whopping 40 per cent each year over the past three years, with only a 10 per cent per year increase in headcount. “When we started this project, Industry 4.0 wasn’t even a term yet. Now we’re at what I consider the leading edge of what’s possible with automation—I’m pretty sure there’s no other software program that can do what ours does. It’s been a lot of fun.” SMT

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