CAM Software Turns Operators Into Engineers

Like many other United Kingdom subcontracting companies, Jetblades Engineering has had to change its operating methods to cope with the new manufacturing environment. Managing Director Mark Kirby relies more than ever on the company’s CAM software as he moves the firm from production machining to short-run manufacturing.


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Like many other United Kingdom subcontracting companies, Jetblades Engineering (Coventry, England) has had to change its operating methods to cope with the new manufacturing environment. Managing Director Mark Kirby relies more than ever on the company’s PowerMill CAM software from Delcam Inc. (Windsor, Ontario, Canada) as he moves the firm from production machining to short-run manufacturing. At the same time, he is increasing the skills of his staff, effectively turning his machine operators into more broadly skilled engineers.

“We have to face the reality that most long production runs are going to be moved to countries with lower labor costs,” Mr. Kirby explains. “However, there is still plenty of demand for short runs of prototypes and one-off components. The problem is that we used to be able to amortise the setup costs over the production run. We need to persuade our customers that these costs will be proportionately higher now because they are concentrated on a few parts or even on a single item.”

Jetblades produces between 100 and 200 different components each year. Many of these are complex parts, often needing more than 100 tool paths to manufacture them. Therefore, a broader set of skills is needed for this type of work.

One significant change for the company has been a move into five-axis machining with a Variaxis 630 machining center from Mazak Corp. (Florence, Kentucky). “The machine is especially useful for aerospace and other demanding applications, since most projects can be completed in one or two setups,” Mr. Kirby says. “The reduction in setups saves time, but most importantly, the accuracy is increased. It is virtually impossible to keep to tolerances of less than 10 microns, which we often need, over a long series of different setups,” Mr. Kirby says.

“Machining times have also been driven down by developments in cutting tool technology, which has moved foward tremendously in the last 5 years,” Mr. Kirby adds. “We are now able to use speeds and feeds that would have been suicidal in the past. Our PowerMill software has kept up with these developments and allows us to get the most out of our machines.”

Now the majority of the time for any given job goes into planning the most efficient sequence of operations and working out how to hold the part at each stage. “As far as training the machine operators to use the software so that they can develop their own programs, I have moved the CAD/CAM office next to the shop floor so they can still see and hear the machines working,” Mr. Kirby explains.

The move to making a smaller number of parts means that every piece is more critical. Getting the process right the first time used to be desirable, and now it is essential. Mr. Kirby says, “You cannot lose the cost of a few defects over a long production run anymore, so reliable software is more important than ever. The simulations we get from ViewMill are an essential aid to planning for successful machining.” ViewMill is an option in PowerMill that includes enhancements such as the shading of each tool path in a different color for easy identification.

“The advantages of PowerMill are the ways in which you can refine the programs to make the process more efficient and the quality you get in the finished components,” he continues.

Jetblades also uses the software to capture its manufacturing knowledge. For example, automotive aftermarket and limited production run projects often require a series of iterations on a single part. The shop can save time by recording a session file in PowerMill for the first example. The same tooling and strategies can then be applied to each revised design.

“The regular seminars and user meetings held by Delcam are an important part of our training process,” Mr. Kirby adds. “In addition, the support has always been excellent. We pay a significant amount in maintenance, and we certainly make sure we get value for our money.”

Despite the many challenges, Mr. Kirby is confident of success with his new approach. “Designers still don’t understand manufacturing well enough, and the situation is becoming worse as OEM companies subcontract more and more of their production,” he explains. “The local suppliers’ main advantage is the ability to talk to the designer and discuss things face to face.”

One common problem with designers is that they often add cost without adding value, according to Mr. Kirby. Designers regularly set a tolerance based on what they believe is possible rather than on the real requirements of the specific part. A good local subcontractor can often save his customer significant amounts of money simply by asking “Did you really mean that?” In contrast, an overseas supplier will usually make whatever is on the drawing, without considering any cost implications, he explains.

With its CAM software now being in-house, Jetblades has an advantage over its competition. Not only can the company work more closely with its customers to customize their needs, but it can also do jobs with even more precision at tight tolerances.

Autodesk Inc.


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