The You Ji vertical turning centre in Williams and White's machine shop with lead operator James Bedford. Click image to enlargeby Kip Hanson

Vancouver job shop takes turning in a new direction

THE PROBLEM: Outsourcing large parts drives up costs and increases lead time

THE SOLUTION: Bring the work back in-house with new machine tool technology

Big machine tools are cool. The hum of a high horsepower spindle, the sound of chips bigger than your thumb striking the glass, the vibration of the concrete beneath your feet. How about a CNC lathe that weighs more than a bulldozer and has enough swing to turn parts bigger than a king-sized bed? Yet the risks that come with machining such large parts are significant. The thought of scrapping out a chunk of material that cost more than the weekly payroll is enough to give many shop owners pause, never mind the fact that the repair bill after crashing such a machine could mean a big dip in cash flow. Despite all this, ownership of a humungous CNC lathe or machining centre opens doors to work that would otherwise remain firmly shut, and brings shops out of the “me too” world of quoting everyday parts.

Weighing the merits of weight
Matt Williams knew these risks when he first began his search for a VTL (vertical turret lathe). The president and COO of The Williams & White Group of Companies in Burnaby, BC, he and his brother Justin have been managing the company since purchasing it from their father in 2010, which today employs 50 people and has 4,600 sq m (20,000 sq ft) of production space. When faced with the continuing high costs and uncertain delivery times that came with outsourcing a number of large aerospace parts, Williams decided to take matters into his and his company’s capable hands. He began shopping for a VTL at the most logical starting point: IMTS

“We were interested in two brands of VTL,” Williams explains. “Both could turn parts up to 2,500 mm (98 in.) across, and were equipped with C axis and live tool capabilities. But one was from a well-known Japanese machine tool builder and the other from someone I’d never heard of, a Taiwanese brand named You Ji. I’d heard good things about the Japanese machine and it was even 10 per cent less expensive, but what really struck me was the fact that the You Ji weighed 50,000 kg (110,000 lb), twice as much as the other brand.”

Equipped with live tooling, the You Ji vertical CNC turning centre can mill, drill and tap large parts.Click image to enlargeWilliams & White started as a Vancouver area machine shop in 1957 under the name Claxton and Williams, but the Claxtons sold their shares to partner Len White two years later. Williams and White changed hands again in 1963, when Chris and Margaret Williams (Matt’s grandparents) assumed ownership. Since then, the company has enjoyed continuous growth, spawning the subsidiaries Remtech Systems and Williams and White Equipment along the way. These companies, together with Williams and White Manufacturing, today reside under an umbrella business, The Williams and White Group of Companies.

Williams and White services a broad customer base, including aerospace, forestry, mining, amusement, civil infrastructure, and power generation. “We’re a very diverse company,” says Williams. “Over the last five years we’ve moved heavily into aerospace tooling and construction support equipment. Our forestry and mining business is also quite strong, producing OEM replacement parts and direct-to-mine repairs. On the civil infrastructure side, we’ve done projects like the roof replacement in downtown Vancouver’s BC Place Stadium, as well as a good deal of bridge work for the surrounding area. And as far as power generation, we’ve been involved extensively over the last 10 years in turbine work with utilities such as Quebec Hydro and BC Hydro.”

A telling testimonial
Turbine and tractor work spells big parts and tough materials. Aside from being impressed with the You Ji’s weight, Williams was leaning towards the newcomer because of its double column construction, a feature that would almost certainly mean greater rigidity for heavy cuts.

Making the right decision on a million-dollar machine purchase means more than comparing specifications, however. Even though the You Ji was represented by Absolute Machine Tools and local distributor Thomas Skinner and Son, both respected names in the machine tool business, Williams remained concerned over the scarcity of You Ji equipment in the Western provinces.

That’s when he spoke with the maintenance manager at one of Absolute’s customers, a major industrial electric motor and power transmission manufacturer that has close to a dozen You Ji CNC machines on its factory floor. “When I asked him how often he has to service them, he said he couldn’t remember ever needing to,” says Williams. “That’s what sold me.”

Faithful service
Williams and White took delivery of its You Ji VTL 2000 ATC plus C nearly three years ago. Setup of the machine required pouring a slab of concrete bigger than many residential swimming pools, and installation of an additional electric service. Despite this initial disruption, Williams says his experience with the You Ji since then has been identical to that related to him by the maintenance manager: no problems.

Matt Williams, president and COO, left, with brother Justin Williams, CEO. Under their helm, the company their grandparents Chris and Margaret Williams purchased in 1963, has grown considerably. Click image to enlargeStrike that. Williams points to an ongoing problem, one that anyone who manages a manufacturing company is familiar with: finding good operators. This challenge is made even more difficult when you consider the high stakes of large part machining. “With a machine this large, you can imagine that the cost of the materials is astronomical, and the impact of a scrapped part is huge. Proper clamping of parts this large is also a concern. You’re able to apply a tremendous amount of torque with the You Ji, and the last thing you want to see is a part the size of a refrigerator come out of the chuck. We have to be very careful, constantly monitoring the cut to make certain nothing goes wrong. With only a handful of large VTLs in all of Vancouver, it’s pretty tough to find a machinist with the experience needed to manage all that.”

Don’t ask!
Ask Williams what the You Ji is currently working on and you’ll hear the cricket chirp of non-disclosure agreements, but he was willing to disclose that the VTL sees regular action with close tolerance parts used in the aerospace and mining industries, as well as “a lot of very large brake components.” The materials range from 4340 and 316 stainless steel to aluminum and plastic, with one recent part made of alloy steel measuring 2,160 mm (85 in.) in diameter x 150 mm (6 in.) thick, and weighing more than four metric tons. The challenge of machining something this large is made even more difficult when you throw milling into the equation.

“You can machine the sides of a workpiece using a right-angle head, but most of what we do is milling and drilling of the top and bottom surfaces,” he says. “But the ability to do C axis machining definitely decreases the time needed to process components. It also makes us a lot more flexible. We find ourselves switching from massive parts that might weigh 4,500 kg (10,000 lb) to flimsy plastic ones that weigh a fraction of that. This is something the You Ji does seamlessly.”

Aside from securing a qualified machine operator, Williams says the only other difficulty has been measuring massive parts. For this, his team uses a Faro arm, a 3D sensor from Haimer, various laser scanning devices, and sometimes the machine tool itself to take measurements. “Some people shy away from this, but as long as you can certify the machine’s accuracy, it’s an acceptable method 95 per cent of the time,” he says. “It helps that the You Ji has linear scales. Between that and the different metrology methods at our disposal, along with some awfully large micrometers, we’re able to cross-check measurements and are confident of our part quality.”

Williams & White's versatile machine shop has the ability to grind, mill, turn and weld large parts. Click image to enlargeYou’d better shop around
None of this comes as a surprise to Paul Krainer, president of machine tool distributor Thomas Skinner & Son Ltd., which represents Haas Automation, Okuma, Tsugami, and of course, You Ji. “Many in the industry once looked down their nose at Taiwanese equipment, myself included,” he admits. “I’ve since changed my viewpoint, though. Taiwan’s machine tool technology has come a long way over the past 40 years, and You Ji is a good example of what the country is capable of today. The machine purchased by Williams and White has a 50 taper, 100 hp spindle with a 60 tool ATC, table load capacity of 10,000 kg (22,000 lb), and a 30 hp milling spindle with high resolution encoders. There’s no scrimping, or attempts to make the machine lighter like some builders do today. It’s simply a heavy duty machine tool that can remove metal promptly and accurately.”

Thanks to the You Ji, Williams and White Manufacturing has been able to bring its previously outsourced turning work back in-house. But the promise of cost and lead time reductions weren’t the only reason for the machine purchase. “Having a VTL of this size compliments our horizontal boring capability,” Williams notes. “We can now efficiently process anything that fits within a 2,500 mm (100 in.) cube. It’s given us a level of flexibility and a competitive advantage that very few shops have. My only recommendation to someone looking for a similar machine is this: do your research, find a good machine tool partner, and be sure you know the equipment inside and out before pulling the trigger on a million-dollar purchase.” SMT

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