Taking a Big Step

This Indiana shop made a leap from manual machining and basic CNC technology to a sophisticated turning cell and has not looked back. It's been a customer driven transition.


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So much of the work that a metalworking shop does is application dependent. For shops, the customer calls the tune, contracting jobs based on capability, capacity, past performance and the promise of future performance. A track record of doing what you say you’re going to do seems to be the common denominator for success. Price is important, but reliable performance over time increasingly is a more important metric as is a willingness to keep up technologically.

Toolcraft, LLC in Fort Wayne, Indiana, built its metalworking business because of its historical performance for its customers. The 22-person shop’s owner/manager, Steve Meyer, sat down with us to tell his story along with how and why he has moved the shop in the direction of more sophisticated capital equipment.

The company started in 1961 as a family business and moved to its present location in 1969. Mr. Meyer started working at Toolcraft in 1974 as an apprentice. Like most apprentices, Mr. Meyer learned the business by doing. “I’d run the cutoff saw, work in the tool crib, and eventually work out on the shop floor under a veteran’s supervision,” he recalls.

Toolcraft still uses this hands-on approach for its younger employees. “It gives us a chance to evaluate the aptitude of new potential employees,” Mr. Meyer says.

Early on, the company was a machine rebuilder for local OEMs. “We would take machines, mills and lathes down to their base castings, scrape in the way system, and rebuild and retool the machines,” Mr. Meyer says. Making the tooling for these machines was excellent training.

“The volumes were relatively low, so the manual machines used were adequate for the work we were doing,” he continues. “Eventually, I was made foreman on the shop floor and would run the business when the owner was away.”

In 2009, after the founder passed away, Mr. Meyer and his brother purchased Toolcraft, so he went from apprentice to owner. A lot of the employees that work for Mr. Meyer have been part of the team for 30 to 40 years, and it continues to be a stable workforce.

Lower Volumes, Lower Tech

Part of the shop’s performance is using the right tools for the job at hand. When Mr. Meyer took over at Toolcraft, most of the work volume came in ones and twos. “Back then,” he recalls, “we called a four-piece order a production run.”

The shop had a stable of Bridgeports, engine lathes and sundry manual machine tools, but more important, they had the machinists who could run them. Much of the work was manufacturing high tolerance parts for customers making manual gages as well as complete gages such as pin gages, hole location gages, snap ring gages—most with dial indicators. Today, the company has 37 steady customers and another 20 that order periodically.

Within a year of purchasing the business, Mr. Meyer made his first foray into CNC with the purchase of a Fryer VMC. The machine used an Analam control, which was programmed manually. “It was limited and slow compared with what we have today,” Mr. Meyer says, “but a good starting point for a manual machine shop.”

Share Key

Toolcraft still has low-volume work moving through the shop, but a production run of four parts has been upped toward 800 per day from one of its good customers and has dramatically changed the way the shop operates.

John Taylor, Toolcraft’s sales manager, who had experience in CNC equipment, urged Mr. Meyer to consider looking at it for the new job. Sometimes the stars align, and that’s what happened for Toolcraft and systems integrator Gosiger Automation.

Mr. Meyer says, “Dave Werblo, sales engineer for Gosiger, was cold calling. Normally, I don’t talk to sales people, but for some reason, I took his call. He was told we were bidding on a job. He came in the next morning, checked out the job and said he’d like a crack at it. We went to Gosiger headquarters in Dayton (Ohio) and saw the Okuma lathes and robotics. They ran off the job and gave us a bid. We took it.”

The production cell that Toolcraft bought is comprised of two Okuma Genos L300M CNC turning centers fed by a FANUC M10 robot. The cell operation team took delivery of the turning centers first and hand-loaded them for a month to work out any and all bugs and familiarize his operators with the machines.

From the beginning, the plan was to automate the material handling, however by phasing in the installation—first the lathes, then the automation—it helped smooth the transition for Toolcraft. Mr. Meyer and Mr. Werblo call the installation “share key.” In a turnkey, the integrator basically takes responsibility of the cell. With a share key, both the integrator and the customer  are involved in all phases of the installation and operation.

The Job

In the early years, sometimes the jobs would be done while the customers waited. If the delivery was promised for the next day, it happened. “We established trust with our customers that we knew what we were doing and kept our word,” Mr. Meyer says. “It was a good beginning.”

The transition started with the customer, a pump manufacturer, giving Toolcraft some simple gage work and a few other jobs to run for them.

Eighty percent this customer’s pumps contained the part it hoped Toolcraft would machine. The customer’s existing supplier base was missing deliveries and interrupting production.

Because of the earlier work for this customer, it really wanted Toolcraft to be the single source for this job. “We knew we had the job, and that was about the time we were contacted by Mr. Werblo from Gosiger,” Mr. Meyer says.

After visiting Gosiger’s headquarters and seeing the company’s automation integration capabilities, Mr. Meyer was convinced. The green light for the automated cell was given in August last year, and the machines hit the shop floor around Thanksgiving. The robot and material handling equipment were installed and running before Christmas that year.

Daily production volumes average from 600 to 700 pieces a day. This is done with one, 10-hour shift. That’s a long way from production runs of four. 

In Operation

The cell processes two parts at a time. The cast iron blanks enter the cell from outside an enclosure using a sliding drawer arrangement that doubles as a pallet stacker. The robot picks up a blank and loads it into the machine’s subspindle, where op. 10 is performed. The blank is held with a custom three-jaw chuck made by Samchully Machinery (Lake Forest, California).

When op. 10 is complete, the subspindle hands off the blank to the main spindle on-the-fly, where op. 20 is performed to complete the part. The main spindle uses a custom two-jaw Samchully chuck that grips on the workpiece’s OD. At the end of the cycle, the robot first passes the finished part through a gaging station for quality checking before returning it to the drawer unit.

The drawers have fixtures that fit and orient the incoming blanks. After machining, the robot returns the finished parts to the drawer. However, it cants the finished parts for easy removal.

Cell control uses Okuma’s open architecture CNC to run the two turning centers and robot from outside the enclosure. The cell’s operator can perform all operations from a single workstation.

Included in the FANUC cell package is a remote offset function that allows the operator to set offsets on the machines without entering the cell enclosure. The offsets are measured manually, but can be set remotely at the workstation. The workstation uses a PC to interface with the PC-based machine and robot controls. The operator has full access to the machine, and the robot functions remotely from the PC workstation.

Change is Hard

In only a year, Toolcraft has evolved from being a manual shop to running a sophisticated production cell. Mr. Meyer admits he is not yet a full blown CNC guy. However, in stepping up to the plate and investing in the Okuma cell, he demonstrates that sometimes change is necessary.

As Toolcraft becomes more familiar with the capabilities of its lathes, and the CNC vertical machining center recently installed, the odds are good that more work will move across these machines. With the cell operating one shift, and with Gosiger’s resources at hand, this cell can be tooled for virtually any new or old job Mr. Meyers chooses to produce. “Where would we find someone to manually load these two lathes continuously,” Mr. Meyer says. “Automation is a no-brainer for this job.”

More than likely, additional work will be coming the shop’s way. It is how the business has been built with quality machine shop practice, skilled veterans who know machining and the willingness to invest in the best technology to get the job done. Moreover, knowing what you don’t know and finding ways to work with those that help is a key to moving forward. What a difference a year can make.    

Shop owner Steve Meyer's video interview above summarizes how his shop incorporated CNC automation into the traditionally manual shop.​


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