Held back by its vertical machining centers, this small shop took the plunge into a flexible manufacturing system. VERICUT toolpath simulation software helped make it possible.
Like many who open their own machine shop, Bob Wolcott of Wolcott Design Services started out with a basic “commodity” brand vertical machining center. It was 2005. He was doing a lot of prototype research and development projects for the high-tech industry back then and the parts were complex, so Wolcott added a trunnion-style five axis table to the VMC. The business grew and he soon purchased a second VMC, again with five axis capabilities. It’s the road that many shops travel and most are successful with it, building on what they know and adding a similar machine or two each year.
But somewhere along the way, Wolcott realized that his equipment was holding him back. “We just weren’t running as efficiently with the verticals as we needed to be,” he explains. “Jumping from job to job with really short production numbers was a challenge. So I bought a high-end horizontal machining center. Because you could have multiple jobs set up on the different tombstones and even different faces of the same tombstone, it gave us a lot more flexibility.”
Pay now, or pay later
The problem was the price tag. The new machine cost $350,000, roughly four times what he’d paid for just one of his verticals. It was a sizeable investment for any shop, but especially so for one with only three employees, including Wolcott. He had to find a way to eliminate any chance of damaging the machine, an event that could bankrupt the small company. He turned to VERICUT toolpath simulation software by CGTech.
“I needed peace of mind on our program prove-outs,” says Wolcott. “Even a simple mistake on a machine like that might cost 30,000 bucks, and a major crash could be over $100,000 plus extended down time. I had to make sure that would never happen.” Wolcott says he’d tried a competing brand of toolpath simulation software to support five axis machining on his verticals, but found that it was “a complete waste of money,” despite his efforts to work with the company on bug fixes. “It was unfortunate, and I still regret going in that direction. It looked like a great deal up front, but I ended up paying a lot more in the long run.” With a much more expensive machine at stake, Wolcott invested in VERICUT. He says he’d always recognized it as being the best, so set aside his previous mistake and stepped up to the plate.
From player to pioneer
Of course, as a former baseball player—first for the Seattle Mariners, then for the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Boston Red Sox, he’s used to stepping up to the plate. But he suffered a shoulder injury after five years in the major leagues and was forced to retire. He soon enrolled in Oregon State University for a degree in mechanical engineering. In the summers he served an internship at a local semiconductor manufacturer, which ended up being the catalyst for this future career as a machine shop owner.
Wolcott has always loved manufacturing. Even when playing professional baseball, he spent his spare time tinkering on the Clausing lathe and Bridgeport milling machine he had in his garage. He was always looking for an excuse to buy a CNC, though, and when he bought the first one, his only goal was to get enough work to make the payment so he could “make cool stuff” for himself during the downtime.
The former ballplayer is making lots of cool stuff these days, but it’s all for paying customers. His vertical machining centers are long gone. His single horizontal has become three, one of which is part of a 12 pallet flexible manufacturing system (FMS). All are part of the same cell controller, and all use VERICUT.
Compared to similarly-sized “vertical” shops, Wolcott Design Services produces three to five times the revenue per month, he says, a staggering figure considering that he is running high mix, low volume work. “It’s really efficient, it’s really productive, and it doesn’t take much manpower to execute it. A typical project might run for day or as long as a week, but it’ll run in parallel with several other projects. We turn stuff around pretty quickly because our set-ups are basically nonexistent. And we have a rule that nothing ever runs on a machine without first being run through VERICUT, even if it’s a small edit.”
Running the bases
It took some effort to get there. Over the past six years, Wolcott and his team have modeled each machine, tombstone, toolholder, and fixture to within “about a ‘thou.” Every machine shares the same tool library—which is stored in VERICUT—and the 1/2-inch 4-flute carbide end mill that defines tool 7 on machine 1 will have the same definition in machines 2 and 3, with the same holder and stick out. Cutting tools are preset offline. Touch probes are used to check machine features in-process. Lasers are used to check for tool breakage. The CAM system’s post-processor has been tweaked to fit Wolcott’s needs. “It’s a complete package,” he says.
The result is shop-wide spindle utilization of roughly 70 percent over a 24-hour period, although Wolcott says that figure will likely go up. Because the FMS was installed less than two years ago, he’s still filling it up with work, so that machine is only at 50 percent or so of its capacity currently. But when the shop is busy and they’re “running hard,” he’s enjoyed seeing 98 percent uptime— an impressive figure, considering it’s just him and two others keeping the machines running around the clock. Again, he thanks VERICUT for much of this.
Says Wolcott, “It’s funny, because when we implemented VERICUT, the initial goal was just to avoid crashes. I saw it as an insurance policy on the more expensive machines. But as we unlocked more and more of the software’s capability, we realized it would actually produce a lot of revenue. VERICUT tells us when the machine is going to over-travel, or trigger an alarm by trying to initiate cutter comp on an arc command, or whether there’s any wasted machine movement. We’re catching this stuff on the computer while the machine is making parts. You’re not scrapping out an expensive chunk of material, or having to revamp a program while the machine is sitting idle because you missed something. That’s the part that I think a lot of people miss about VERICUT.”
Winning in overtime
Those people also miss peace of mind. Wolcott and his employees are so confident in VERICUT that they frequently run virgin programs at night. “We can load up a tombstone with a brand new job and put it in the FMS queue, no problem,” he says. “It might run at midnight, it might run at four in the morning, but we know that when we come in the next day, we’ll have good parts waiting for us. That’s unheard of. You know, it’s shocking to me when I hear about some of these shops that have $5 or $10 million in capital equipment sitting on their production floor but they can’t find money in their budget to buy VERICUT. To me, that’s just laughable, because our shop is just a fraction of that size and we found a way to make it happen. It’s one of the most profitable investments we’ve ever made.”