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Precision machining of large structural airframe components is central to the company’s strategy to compete for work globally.

Aerospace Manufacturing Machining takes centre stage

Feb 8, 2017

Achieving maximum productivity, efficiency and profitability in machining operations results from optimisation of the entire metal cutting process. The article highlights how the investment in 5-axis machining centre has helped an aircraft part manufacturer to attain tighter tolerances in machining with high performance.

Walk into Cam-Tech Manufacturing’s Mansfield, Texas, USA operation and you can’t ignore that the company is poised for growth. The visitors’ entrance leads to a mezzanine overlooking the manufacturing floor. Directly in front sits a new Makino T1 5-axis horizontal machining centre. ‘Sits’ is perhaps not the best word to describe a mill that cuts commercial and military aircraft parts from titanium at 12,000 rpm and 32 inches per minute throughout two 10-hour shifts, including Saturdays. Cam-Tech’s management strategically located the impressive T1 to ensure it was the first thing seen upon entering the 80,000 square-foot facility— and for good reason.

Precision machining of large structural airframe components is central to the company’s strategy to compete for work globally. Not only did the company invest in advanced T1 technology, but they also designed an expansive, state-of-the-art assembly area to support rapid growth as a premier fabricator of wing and fuselage components. As a supplier to major OEMs and Tier 1 integrators, Cam-Tech caught the eye of Newington, Connecticut, USA, based PCX Aerostructures LLC, a global leader in highly engineered, precision machining of complex parts from both aluminium and hard alloys. PCX ultimately acquired Cam-Tech in December 2014, increasing their breadth of services in the aerospace manufacturing arena. It was a perfect fit.

“Our customers are not going to wait for us to develop the capabilities. We’ve got to be ready when they have opportunities to make a part and parlay that into an entire-subassembly,” said Trevor Hartman, Vice President—Sales and Marketing, PCX. “The T1 certainly is a great capability. When they see that, our customers in the detail part procurement business understand PCX and Cam-Tech are committed to investing in technology to manufacture parts more cost-effectively and with higher quality,” he added.

Growth through acquisition & investment

PCX funded the T1 following its purchase of Cam-Tech, another signal to help convince industry OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers that the combined company is investing to expand its capabilities and to grow with them. The return on the T1 investment makes Cam Tech very competitive. Ribs for a Boeing application initially were produced 40 per cent faster compared to the company’s existing commodity machines. The company worked with engineers from both Makino and Single Source Technologies (SST) to improve tooling, work holding and programming. Ultimately, Cam-Tech was able to reduce cycle times by 50 percent.

“PCX looks for a return on our investment in 24 to 36 months. With the programmes we’re running on the T1 and how well they’re running, we’recertainly going to realise a payback on the short side of that period,” Hartman said. The company purchased this 5-axis machining centre to produce 28 part varieties, supporting production of three aircrafts a month. The OEM has since raised its manufacturing rate to four aircrafts a month.

“We were already exceeding our original expectations based on the time studies provided by SST, and now, we have the capacity for an additional 25 per cent. With the assistance of the Makino applications engineers, we’re able to go to an unattended situation to keep the machine continuously running,” stated Roger Hagger, General Manager, Cam -Tech.

Setting up for more growth

About two years ago, Cam-Tech’s leaders decided that the way to remain competitive as a supplier of critical structural parts for large commercial aircraft and military contracts was to become a sub assembly provider. Parts such as centre wing-box frames, blocker doors, leading-edge ribs, bulkheads and fittings would be produced and assembled
at Cam-Tech and ultimately shipped to OEM and Tier 1 integration centres. Cam-Tech subsequently built a 65,000 square-foot building in 2011 and added another 15,000 square feet in 2015 to make room for additional machines and structural assemblies. The employee base grew by 30 per cent. Now operating as a wholly owned subsidiary of PCX Aerostructures, the company invested in Makino’s T1 5-axis machining centre, the most advanced equipment they owned that was capable of machining titanium—a hard alloy used in approximately 40 per cent of the company’s parts.

“PCX brings financial and technological resources for Cam-Tech to become a go-to shop for the aerospace industry for their complex assemblies that other shops have not been able to succeed in. A lot of the parts we have bounced around the world and ended up landing here and stay here because we’ve got the know-how to get it done. With the right vendor base and the right machine capabilities now, that will continue to happen,” Hagger said.

Cam-Tech’s leaders teamed up with SST and Makino to leverage the unique features of the T1 to win a Boeing contract for a military jet-door stiffener rib. Hagger visited engineers at Makino’s North American headquarters in Mason, Ohio, andtravelled to Makino’s factory in Japan with Steve Neidigk, the company’s local SST representative. SST prepared accurate time studies that demonstrated Cam-Tech could produce parts faster and with better quality on one T1 machine versus two of its existing machines. SST and Makino offered engineering application support and on-site training far beyond anything Cam- Tech’s team had received from previous machining centre providers.

High performance; Tight tolerances

The T1 mills large aircraft structural components with ease, some starting out as titanium billet weighing up to 2,500 pounds. The T1 hogs out as much as 1,600 cubic inches per minute on structural parts for military jets, including one that Cam- Tech had originally produced on one of its commodity machines. “It took 12 hours to cut the part on existing equipment. On the T1, it takes six hours,” Hagger said.

Based on the proven speed and efficiency of the T1, Cam-Tech began transferring numerous jobs over from other machines. Operators didn’t change existing programming, but simply moved them from an existing machine onto the T1. As a result, Cam-Tech reduced the cycle time for a complex, thin titanium fuselage component by half, while holding tolerances of plus or minus 0.00014 inch and positional hole tolerances of plus or minus 0.0010 inch.

The accuracies evidenced by the T1 also helped Cam-Tech save on inspection costs by requiring only sample testing. The same parts historically produced on the
company’s existing machines all require inspection because the mills cannot hold the required tolerances with consistency. The T1’s laser-equipped tool setter checks tool length and automatically replaces worn cutters and end mills before affecting tolerances and surface finishes. Currently, 35 tools are stocked in a 120-tool magazine, with multiple backups for high-usage cutters and finishing tools.

“We have other machines that cut titanium, but the T1 is becoming our go-to machine because it’s reliable and accurate, and it’s so much faster than anything in our shop now,” Hagger said.

Make what matters

What matters most to Cam-Tech’s leaders is growing their business into a build-to-print shop, manufacturing and assembling large structural components for commercial and military applications. To accomplish that, they’re investing in advanced machining technology and people.

Hagger has made it his mission to reshore work lost to Southeast Asia, because he believes American workers can make aircraft parts competitively with the right equipment and training. The company started in 2000 with 16 workers and six machines in 15,000 square feet. They have now grown to more than 60 employees, 21 machines and 80,000 square feet.

Cam-Tech’s goal is to build another 40,000 square feet to add assembly capability, more machining centres and another 40 employees. The addition is designed to house component subassembly for projects now in development for business-class jets from Embraer and Gulfstream. This expected growth relies on the performance of the existing T1 and the addition of two Makino MAG3.H 5-axis horizontal machining centres. Built for high-productivity machining of complex aluminium parts, the MAG machines are going to share a linear pallet pool system as Cam-Tech adds automation for the first time.

“We’ve designed the expansion of our facility in Texas to accommodate large aerospace subassemblies. We’re trying to stay ahead of the needs of our customers with capability that they’re hopefully going to help us fill up,” said Hartman. ☐ Courtesy: Makino

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  • Achieving maximum productivity, efficiency and profitability in machining operations results from optimisation of the entire metal cutting process.

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