Wired for success

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The problem
An EDM that didn’t live up to expectations 

The solution
Replacement EDM that better fits requirements

New wire EDM improves machining time on tool and die work

by Mary Scianna

If there is one important lesson that Les and Arnold Rackham have learned running a machine shop for 33 years, it’s that you need the right equipment to succeed. For Burloak Tool and Die, Burlington, ON, its EDM technology.

Trained tool and die makers, the brothers established Burloak Tool and Die in 1979, when Les was 25 and Arnold was 21. From the beginning, the brothers took a conservative approach to establishing their machine shop. That approach meant investing in competitively priced machine tools to meet their manufacturing needs, purchasing real estate in 1998 to house their growing business, and not accumulating a lot of debt.

“Had we not owned the building, with what we went through a couple of years ago with the economic downturn, we wouldn’t be in business today,” says Les Rackham, president. “I assessed what we would have been paying in rent if we didn’t own the building and it would have been about $15,000 to $20,000 a month. To pay that on top of dealing with a bad situation would have been the end of us.”

Instead, the ISO 9001/2000 company is in business today, thanks to the Rackhams’ business strategies. But it hasn’t been easy, says Les Rackham. The custom job shop market is a competitive business and the only way to survive is to set yourself apart from competitors. Even that though, is no guarantee, as the Rackham brothers found out a few years ago.

“Even when you think you’re doing things right, the perfect storm can happen,” says Les Rackham. “We had a job that was to last three to four years. It was for the mining industry; components for boring tubes that retrieve core samples in underground mines. We invested in new machines—high speed CNC mills, CNC lathes and deburring equipment—with associated tooling and fixtures, hired staff, invested in training and purchased the raw materials for the job. We started working on the job and about three months into it, the economy turned, and everything went dead. We had invested approximately $1.8 million over the course of 18 months and had no work to justify it.”

It was the most challenging time in Burloak’s long history. The company went from 65 employees down to 29 and everyone in the company, including the owners, took a 10 per cent cut in pay with the commitment to increase salaries when business conditions improved.

Since then, the economy has rebounded and business for Burloak has improved. Les Rackham says one reason for the company’s staying power is its reputation for being able to produce large amounts of work in a short period of time. Les attributes this ability to the equipment in the shop and to the employees, who are crossed trained to work on different machine tools.

The company has also expanded its capabilities and now offers complete engineering and designing, in addition to machining of dies for steel, brass, copper and aluminum parts.

From the start, Burloak made the commitment to purchase new machines. So when it purchased its EDM machines—in many ways the heart of the machine shop because so much of the tool and die work is machined on them—Les and Arnold purchased two Fanuc wire EDMs—the 1993 OA and the 1995 OB from Methods Machine Tools, Sudbury, MA. (The Fanuc EDMs are distributed in Canada by K&K Productivity Solutions, Rockwood, ON.) That was almost 20 years ago and the machines continue to work today. While there were other EDMs on the market, Burloak chose the Fanuc EDMs in large part because most of its other machines in the shop used Fanuc controls.

Then a few years ago, Burloak was in need of additional EDMs. The inclination was to purchase a new generation Fanuc EDM, but after visiting some shops, Les and Arnold decided to go with another builder because the machine was considered a higher end tool with more bells and whistles.

Arnold Rackham, vice president, who runs the machine shop, soon discovered that the new EDM simply wasn’t a good fit for the shop. 

“The biggest problem for us was that the EDM didn’t have a Fanuc control and all of our other machines—the CNC machining centres, the mills and the lathes—use Fanuc controls. They’re user-friendly and since we have them on all our machines, our machinists can run the different machines. When you introduce a new control, it takes time to learn it and if you’re not using it that often, you forget how to use it and then have to relearn it, and that takes time.

He adds that the Fanuc EDM machine—Burloak purchased Fanuc’s a-1iE wire EDM—is faster too; wire feeding takes approximately five seconds compared to the other EDM machine, which took up to a minute and a half. 

“What is great about this machine is that you program the machine to cut your big parts during the night and once the cut is complete, the machine shuts itself off. Our other machine (non-Fanuc) wouldn’t turn itself off after the process was complete; it would just run all night until someone came in the morning to turn it off. So the water would drain out once the machining was done, but the part would start to rust and the machine was still running wasting energy.”

Arnold adds that with the Fanuc, he has the ability to program the machine to start a cut at a certain time “so that if you know it’s a three hour cut and you’re going home at 6 pm, you can program the machine to start at 5 am the next day so that when you come in the morning there may be only 20 minutes left of cutting; it’s still submerged in the water and you prevent that surface rust from accumulating on the part. I’ve not used this standard feature yet, but it’s good to have it in case I do need it.”

An important feature of the lights out capability is the remote access and monitoring. “I can access all the data from my home computer and can see if the machine is cutting. I can change the conditions right on the screen too.”

Perhaps one of the most important features of the Fanuc EDMs is their reliability, even with the two older generation machines. “We’ve always found Fanuc machines to be very reliable. I have two older Fanuc EDMs and I’m amazed at how many times I come in in the morning and the job is finished,” says Arnold Rackham. SMT

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