By Kip Hanson
When Shop Metalworking Technology magazine last spoke with Chris Lichty of Rainhouse Manufacturing Canada Ltd., he was a lead machinist trying to wrap his head around a new machining method. That’s because this small job shop in Victoria, B.C., had recently invested in an MX-520 vertical machining centre from Elliott Matsuura Canada, and like most who make the scary leap into five-sided milling, Lichty was learning firsthand its many benefits together with the operational and programming changes needed to be successful.
“I personally ran that machine for a year and a half,” says Lichty. “During that time, I developed our five-axis processes and figured a lot out as far as tooling and fixturing and programming, then handed it off to another experienced person. He’s been running the machine ever since. We’ve gained multiple customers because of that machine.”
New faces, added responsibilities
That was in 2019, and in addition to new customers, a great deal has changed since then. Lichty is now the company’s vice president (founder Ray Brougham remains president and CEO), former University of Victoria engineering student Carling Stokes has taken over the shop’s scheduling and planning responsibilities, and there’s another new team member on the floor, albeit one that doesn’t talk much—a Fanuc M-10iD/12 small payload robot that services Rainhouse’s other recent addition, a Fanuc RoboDrill compact machining centre. “Between automation and the move into five-axis, it’s been a big step forward for the company,” notes Stokes.
Ironically, it wasn’t the step they had in mind at that time—when Rainhouse first bought the RoboDrill in mid-2021, their robot sidekick remained on the nice-to-have list. But thanks to an Advanced Manufacturing Grant (AMG) from the provincial government, a lot of hard work, and “a huge chunk of change,” they were able to automate the machine by year-end.
As with their five-axis journey, the road to automation was long. Upon receiving news of their grant proposal acceptance, Lichty reached out to Lindsay Harris, Elliott Matsuura’s B.C. technical sales manager, for a recommendation. Rainhouse ended up going with a system from Agile Robotics of Erlanger, Kentucky, an integrator that Harris had worked with in the past. Their solution was the Fanuc M-10iD/12 mentioned earlier, along with a custom-built drawer and pallet arrangement, magnetic grippers, and fence enclosure.
Fortunately, Rainhouse had planned ahead and bought the RoboDrill with a side load door, an air blast for in-process chip clearing, and spare M-codes—they were ready for automation, even if the supply chain wasn’t. Port shutdowns and COVID-related shipping hangovers brought them down to the wire on the B.C. government’s January 31 installation deadline. “We put in a bunch of long days getting it all going, but the cell’s been running ever since,” says Lichty. “Flawlessly.”
No one’s home
Flawless is an understatement. The custom drawer system allows Rainhouse to produce large quantities of two different part numbers completely unattended—the larger of the two workpieces can go twelve hours with no one around, while the smaller one runs twice as long. Says Lichty, “We’re generating a lot more opportunities with this project than initially expected.”
There have been other improvements as well. When they installed the robot, Lichty and his team brought in yet another machine from Elliott, a Zeiss DuraMax CMM. “It sits right across from the MX-520 and the RoboDrill, but everyone uses it,” he says. “I’ve been here on weekends working on getting complicated one-off parts out the door and have to say that it’s been very nice to have a CMM at your disposal. You can stick a part in there, run a quick inspection routine, then put the part right back on the machine and make it perfect. It’s a huge timesaver.”
Looking back over the past few years, there’s little that Lichty would change. Owning the RoboDrill for six months before the robot installation allowed him and his team to gain familiarity with the equipment and time to tool up for the project without the added complexity of automation. He also did extensive research into robot setup and programming and soon became concerned that he might have bitten off more than they could chew.
“I wish I’d taken some training, because no matter how capable the interface—and ours is quite good—you’ll run into situations where you’re reaching for the pendant and using it to get yourself out of a bind,” says Lichty. “As things turned out, though, I spent a lot of time with one of the installers and learned a great deal from him during those long days. Without that, I would have been pretty lost. So yes, I’d tell anyone who’s making a move into automation to take some robot training classes.”
He also recommends a good toolpath simulation tool, especially where five-axis programming is concerned. As noted in the article from three years ago, Rainhouse is a long-time CAMplete user, and that’s not about to change. “CAMplete significantly increased the machine’s usability, and helped us to jumpstart our five-axis machining efforts,” Lichty said at that time.
Nor are they easing back on their efforts at cross-training. Getting multiple people up to speed on a critical piece of equipment or technology not only increases shop floor flexibility, but also reduces risk to the company if key personnel go elsewhere. “I probably should have started that process sooner with the five-axis, but I was having so much fun, I wanted to keep it all to myself,” he laughs.
Phone a friend
Lichty has one final piece of advice, one that might sound odd to those who grew up in the pre-Internet age: use Instagram. “If I see somebody on Instagram with the same machine or doing work similar to ours, I’ll send them a DM [direct message] and ask, ‘Hey, that’s cool. How are you doing it?’” he says. “I think we as an industry deal with too many complicated problems on our own, so to me, it’s important to collaborate with as many people as possible.”
He does that by using the hashtag #instamachinist, thus reaching out to “an entire community” willing to share their ideas and knowledge. “There was an instamachinist meetup at IMTS this year, which was really cool,” says Lichty. “There were probably 50 of us there, most of them in their mid-twenties. It’s cool being able to reach out to random people—I was DMing with a guy at a shop in Florida a few days ago and we spent maybe an hour exchanging ideas and talking about some of the challenges we all face. It’s a very powerful tool.” SMT