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The problem
Improving productivity in a highly competitive aerospace market

The solution
A Makino machining cell adds new level of five axis automation and productivity in titanium machining

Machining cell helps aerospace parts maker improve productivity

As a shop that specializes in the production of high precision aerospace components, Chicopee Manufacturing, Kitchener, ON, has built a worldwide reputation working with titanium and other difficult-to-machine metals. To do so, it has developed efficient systems, in its 100,000 sq ft facility,  for producing low-volume assemblies that include a wide variety of precision parts. And it has built much of that success on flexibility and automation.

“Almost everything we do is based on our use of flexible manufacturing systems (FMS),” says Chicopee president Rick Moes. “With the wide  variety of parts and assemblies we produce every day and the small batches that the work demands, our equipment has to be flexible in order to be productive.”

Most recently, Chicopee added to that flexibility with the installation of a state-of-the-art Makino machining cell built around an MMC-R (Makino Machining Complex with Robot) automated fixture plate distribution system. Designed to produce components for some of the most advanced aircraft in the world, the cell is helping Chicopee maintain its strong position in today’s marketplace and positioning it for continued success in the future.

“Aerospace engineering is constantly evolving,” says Chicopee technical director Dave Quehl in describing the challenges his company faces. “To keep ourselves competitive in the marketplace, we have to evolve with it, and that includes developing new expertise in machining advanced materials like titanium – and new expertise in making all our processes more efficient. In many cases, we’re finding that efficiency through automation, and we’ve been very successful in working with Makino to develop the automation systems we need.”

One example is an automated  machining cell, built around six  Makino A55 horizontal machining  centres, originally installed at Chicopee in 1998. “We needed a true FMS  system that could perform precision machining on a wide variety of parts every day and keep parts moving through the system efficiently,”  explains Quehl. “We got everything we needed with the A55 cell.”

Quehl says prior to installation, Chicopee evaluated five machine tool manufacturers, “but Makino offered the most flexible automation. We are looking at adding large equipment down the road and it will be a flexible manufacturing system-based cell.”

The cell was initially designed to produce components for complex  wing assemblies for Boeing, but it has since been adapted to a variety of a pplications, including power-generation components.

“The high cost of the raw materials we work with means we can’t have a lot of inventory sitting around the shop,” says Quehl. “For the wing assemblies, our just-in-time system meant we received a shipment every day with all the raw materials we needed to produce the parts for one aircraft – 34 different parts. Every day the cell produced those parts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for more than five years. The Makino cell controller handled more than 200 individual shop orders per week – assigning roughing and finishing processes among the machines, ensuring that each was being used in the most efficient manner possible.

“Over the years, we’ve achieved similar productivity with the cell on a wide variety of jobs. The Makino cell has proven to be a very versatile, very productive system. And that success played a large role in our decision to invest in the new robot system.”

The a81M machining centres are supported by Makino’s new MMC-R automation system. The system  includes the six axis robot, mounted  on a seventh axis floor track; two worksetting stations; innovative fixture plates that enable the cell to make full use of the robot and reduce part fixture costs; seven fixture plate racks, each capable of storing 16 fixture plates for  a total of 112 plates; and Makino’s MAS-A5 cell controller.

The cell operator secures a part to a fixture plate and programs the part and fixture-plate numbers into the cell controller, which then initiates and monitors all robot transfers among the work-setting stations, storage racks  and machining centres, as well as controlling the machining operations themselves.

Chicopee continues to optimize the machining cell for future production ramp ups.


This new automation system is  ideally suited to 5-axis applications such as Chicopee’s that involve high product mix and low-volume production runs. It enables Chicopee to operate efficiently by increasing spindle utilization and reducing setup times through accurate and reliable machine loading, unloading and part storage.

The innovative fixture plate design uses Delphin interfaces to provide secure transfer between the robot gripper and the machine tombstone for accurate and repeatable part production. By using the fixture plates in place of complete machine pallets, Chicopee benefits from reduced part fixture costs.

“These are complex parts that require full five axis machining,” notes Quehl. “The smaller fixture plates enable us to centre-mount them for full tool access. At the same time, they save on the cost of the fixtures themselves and on the amount of space required to store the plates in the cell.”

The Makino MAS-A5 cell controller coordinates all production scheduling of the fixture-plate transfers, monitors the schedules and issues appropriate transfer tasks to the robot. The machining centres are fitted with a Balluff read write tool system interfaced to a Zoller presetter as well as part probing to ensure each operation produces a part within the tight tolerances the components require. All data passes through the cell controller, automating and ensuring the accuracy of the entire process.

“The controller was one of the new cell’s biggest selling points,” adds Quehl. “We’ve had years of good experience with it in the A55 cell. We’ve been able to apply  that knowledge and experience to the implementation of this cell, and the MAS-A5 controller is capable of keeping pace with any technical innovations or changes in our needs that might present themselves in the future.”

Chicopee continues to refine the new cell’s capabilities and efficiency as it prepares for the fast-approaching ramp-up to many years of full  production.

“We’re working every day to  optimize our processes and advance our expertise in titanium processing,” says Quehl. “As production quantities continue to increase, we’ll be ready to add more machining centres and more storage racks, and we’ll be able to do it with the confidence that the cell will be more than up to the task. We’re always looking, too, for more ways to take advantage of the cell’s capabilities with new contracts, new customers and new opportunities. Automation is absolutely both the present and the future for high precision machining of demanding materials like titanium and demanding markets like the aerospace industry.” SMT

To get more information on The Makino A81M Advantage click here.

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