by Michael Ouellette
For an Ottawa job shop with an uncertain future in the pandemic, having the right machines on the floor saved the day, and the company.
For many job shops, 2020 started off looking like it would be a good year. There were orders on the books and the economy—which was a little slow through 2019—was showing signs of growth. Things were looking up.
This was the case for Excel Precision Machining Inc. The 18- person job shop near Ottawa was humming along nicely, making its standard slate of prototype parts and short run specialty products for customers in the aerospace, medical and automotive sectors.
In fact, things were more than looking good at Excel. Since owner Carl Miller bought the existing shop in 2014, revenues grew at a good pace—about 250 per cent. During that stretch, Excel had built a reputation as being skilled at machining aluminum, and its schedule was filled with orders from aircraft and medical manufacturers to prove it.
A good 85 per cent of its work is aluminum, much of which are panels destined for the cockpit of well-known aircraft, such as the Airbus A380. Some orders are for parts that go into the black boxes that record flight details. Medical is another specialty, with small-run production of an assembly used to develop stem cells. The assembly contains more than 80 machined parts, all of which are produced at Excel.
Considering this, Troy Crosby, Excel’s operations manager, was feeling optimistic.
“In January and February of this year, we were firing on all cylinders. We had great report cards with all our customers and our on-time delivery was at a place we had never been before,” says Crosby. “Everything was nailed down and we were looking at getting our AS9100 (aerospace quality) certification.”
And then, the COVOD-19 pandemic hit.
Come March, Excel had finished the orders on its books and Crosby found himself staring down at a 30-50 per cent drop in sales for the summer months. Excel wasn’t alone—the pandemic and ensuing lockdown basically put a full stop on almost every purchase across every industrial sector. Yes, most of these jobs shops and their manufacturing customers were considered essential businesses and allowed to stay open, but when consumer activity tanks, no one makes more stuff. Job shops across Canada were facing a stark new reality and with bills to pay and no money coming in, a very uncertain future.
So, like many similar shops, Excel answered the federal and provincial calls to action to produce medical supplies.
“In early April we applied to the government to make respirators and ventilators. But thousands of other companies did the same thing and, ultimately, we weren’t selected.”
This marked the end of the uncertainty for Crosby, at least in a way. He was certain that things were bad and that Excel would likely be forced to lay off its entire workforce. But an off-the-cuff remark during a chat with a shop worker turned his mind towards a possible solution: What if we make our own COVID product?
His brainchild was a personal tool you could carry with you so you didn’t have to touch things like stair rails or seats on public transit—and it had to be able to tackle a round doorknob. He started 3D printing some shapes and taking measurements. When he showed his hook-like-door-grabber-pick-up-anything tool to Excel’s owner Miller (who is also now a partner in the project), Crosby got the go ahead.
Naming it the Linc, they immediately filed with the patent office to ensure they protected the design, but also to make sure it wasn’t already patented. By early May, they had a patent approved, and even though they hadn’t produced a single production version, this new product changed the fate of everyone working at Excel.
“We were going to lay people off but instead we put our effort into the new product and for the past few months we have been making the aluminum body in our shop, building up for the launch,” said Crosby. “We spent a lot of time on the design and if we could get this product working in our shop, that means all our employees’ jobs would be safe.”
Investments Pay Off
Not every job shop is able to perform this kind of pivot. While there are plenty of talented designers capable of working through the stages of new product iteration, it’s the shop floor where reality often sets in. Shops that have held off on investments in new technology often don’t have machines with the advanced capabilities required to adapt to a whole new set of processes and parameters, or they would take months of trial and error to prove-out tooling paths and fix the errors that pop up in every new production run.
Luckily for Crosby, Excel’s owner had the foresight to maintain a high level of capital investment in his shop.
“That’s one thing the owner Carl was adamant about, we put all the money back into the shop,” said Crosby.“When he took over, the company had a bunch of old, well-used machining centres and no CNC lathe. We quickly got rid of those machines and now all the machines in this building are basically less than two years old.”
Excel is well stocked with new machines purchased through Elliott Machinery Canada Ltd. The shop floor has two Fanuc Robodrills, which are versatile high-speed vertical machining centres. The company also acquired a large four axis Matsuura VX 1000 vertical machining centre, a Nakamura-Tome AS-200 mill-turn machine, as well as two live tooling lathes and a wire EDM.
“When they first contacted me, the owner had a slew of new work and wanted us to conduct a needs analysis to look at the machine tools that would maximise their productivity and gain the best cycle times,” said Mike Ballersheff, regional sales manager at Elliott.
“Carl is a smart guy with a strong machining background. At the time he had some pretty old machine tools and the company was pouring a lot of money into repairs. He knew what he needed and we were able to look at the work and recommend a certain machine versus doing it in multiple operations requiring two separate machines.”
This new-found versatility payed dividends when the chips were down, as Crosby was able to quickly program trial runs and different set ups to produce his Linc protoypes. When he found a process that worked, he was able to reprogram the new machines for a full-on production run.
From Design to Production
Starting with a solid piece of aluminum stock, the Linc’s shape is cut in two operations. The main challenge was holding the workpiece for the second operation because of the shape.
“Because of the holes and the hook, there wasn’t enough real estate to hold on to. We had to have tight tolerances to add the rubber piece, so we needed a solution,” said Crosby. The answer was to design his own internal mandrils to clamp the piece, which he describes as “…more like an internal collet that we cut on our wire EDM to get the perfect fit.”
Almost every one of Excel’s new machines played a role in the development and production of the Linc, and that doesn’t surprise Ballerscheff at all.
“By going with more modern technology, Excel maximized their output by making it easier to do set ups,” he said. “The programming and technologies built within the controls allow a lot more than anyone could do with the previous generation of equipment. The new technology, even on the entry level machines, is leaps and bounds ahead of the older machines.”
Excel has produced 500 of the Linc so far but its shop floor is poised to scale up to a much heftier production run when the orders start rolling in. And with the product launching on Kickstarter in early September of this year, those orders could start anytime. SMT