Precision Hardmilling and EDM Automation Maximize Workflow at Fairway Injection Molding Systems
To compete in the global market, North American mold makers must actively hunt down and eliminate process and operational inefficiencies wherever possible. Fairway Injection Molding Systems, located in Walnut, Calif., maintains a vigilant search for improvement of its manufacturing processes in order to remain at the forefront of the mold manufacturing market. Serving a wide variety of markets from around the world, Fairway builds high-cavitation molds for medical devices, personal hygiene and consumer products, and works closely with its customers from design through implementation in order to deliver the best possible molding system solutions.
Fairway manages its own business with this same attitude of doing things right, always evaluating the overall impact of work processes, technology and investments. New ownership in 2006 instituted the philosophy of “if there’s a better way to do something that improves results for customers, it’s on the table.” That’s not to suggest that Fairway jumps at every hot, new trend to hit the industry. But when management’s internal research, comparisons and testing prove out a technology as a true productivity or quality enhancement, Fairway is willing to invest.
“The entire team at Fairway is fully committed to being recognized as a premier global mold solutions company,” explains Dave Cockrell, general manager at Fairway. “At every stage of workflow, we are analyzing opportunities to remove inefficiencies. It’s an endless battle, but exactly what’s needed to rise above the competitive global landscape.”
“At every stage of workflow, we are analyzing opportunities to remove inefficiencies. It’s an endless battle, but exactly what’s needed to rise above the competitive global landscape.”
With almost every project moving through the shop landing in Fairway’s sinker EDM and vertical milling machines, revitalizing and upgrading these capabilities were natural first steps for continued growth.
“While we no longer use the EDNC32 to produce modern tools, it has been reliably burning metal for us every day for nearly 30 years. It’s this type of value that changes the ROI equation and enables companies like us to succeed,” said Schissel.
Moving to Automated High-Performance Machining
The first clear opportunity for improvement that Fairway management observed was in the replacement of its outdated manual machines. While these machines performed admirably for years, the company understood that this level of technology wasn’t enough to become a globally recognized mold-making operation.
“With the industry rapidly turning toward automated solutions to increase machine utilization and enable unattended operations, we knew that our current labor-intensive equipment couldn’t compete,” said Cockrell. “We needed to unlock throughput. We needed to get more out of our machines. We needed to run lights out. We needed automation.”
While increasing throughput was Fairway’s primary objective in expanding its capabilities, accuracy also remained a critical concern. With this in mind, Fairway management tasked Bill Black, EDM team leader, and Jim Gabel, CNC milling team leader, with researching high-performance EDM and milling machines to replace the company’s outdated equipment in order to meet production goals.
“While attending a trade show in Anaheim, I visited Makino to see their current line of both EDM and vertical milling machines,” said Gabel. “My expectations were exceeded with every demonstration that I saw. After leaving the convention, I immediately called the shop and told the team that I had found a solution. Accuracy and productivity would no longer be a concern.”
A series of test cuts verified that the Makino equipment was perfectly suited for achieving Fairway’s goals in accuracy, productivity and automation. This realization started Fairway on a path that transformed its workflow through two phases:
1) A robot automated sinker EDM cell featuring Makino EDGE2S and EDGE3S sinker EDM machines along with S33 and V22 vertical milling machines
2) A second robot-tended cell featuring two Makino EDAF3 sinker EDM machines and an additional V22
Phase 1: Leveraging High-Performance Technology
As when developing solutions for its customers, Fairway’s sinker EDM strategy has been driven by process requirements, capabilities and technology, even if this plan required rearranging functional cells and reworking infrastructure.
Fairway’s first automated sinker EDM cell featuring the Makino EDGE2S and EDGE3S machines was installed in 2006. An EROWA robot, which managed distribution of both electrodes and work pallets, tended both machines. With constructive cooperation among Fairway, EROWA and Makino, installation of the cell was completed in a smooth and efficient manner.
The robot was configured to feed the EDM machines with 248 electrodes and four work pallets. Fairway typically mounts as many workpieces as possible on each pallet, enabling production of eight or more completed workpieces in a single pallet load. Efficient and reliable pallet transfers are facilitated by the drop-tank design of the sinker EDM machines, letting the robot easily reach into the work tank. This setup meant that with electrodes prepared and work pallets loaded during normal business hours, machining processes could continue unattended overnights and weekends with only a brief visit to the shop by an operator to set up new work pallets.
“This was a transformative moment for Fairway,” explained Cockrell. “The excitement and relief we felt after the first night of unattended operation were more than enough to convince us that this was the future of our business. Since then, we haven’t looked back. We had already set our sights on continued expansion with a second cell, but the time between investments was certainly warranted as we continued to learn and adjust to the physical and mental changes that this new style of manufacturing system required.”
Within the milling department, Fairway experienced similar improvements in capacity and efficiency. The company’s V22 investment provided the benefit of new hard-milling capabilities, while the S33 replaced older equipment. Across both of these investments, Fairway is consistently holding tolerances of plus or minus 0.0001 inches and 30 percent average reductions in run times for both hard and soft milling. “It’s a huge difference,” said Gabel. “It’s a game-changer and really has changed how we set up our workflow.”
“Another big change for us has been the addition of FF/cam software, which we use to program all of the high speed CNC mills. The ROI on it was clear to us in our first demo that it was an instant addition,” explains Cockrell. “Makino came out and demonstrated its capabilities to us on our shop, and they left that day with a purchase order for two seats.”
“The excitement and relief we felt after the first night of unattended operation were more than enough to convince us that this was the future of our business.”
“We had a project in-house at the time that the FF/cam software was installed that exemplifies our efficiency gains,” said Gabel. “The regeneration and posting time was two hours, and we saw an 80 percent reduction in cycle time. So what once took hours literally turned into minutes. On cutting, the improvement varies from project to project, but we see a 50 percent improvement on average with FF/cam. It’s incredible software.”
Phase 2: Adding More Capacity and Optimization
In 2012, Fairway consulted Makino on a second set of investments that would expand on its milling and EDM capabilities.
To grow its overall milling capacity and workflow flexibility, the company decided to add a second V22 to its milling department. The hard-milling accuracy and productivity of the machine would enable Fairway to replace EDM operations in many features of its mold inserts, especially where there are no requirements for an EDM finish. In addition, the company planned to incorporate hard-milling considerations into its mold designs to remove features that would typically require EDM processing.
“We are able to look at overall machine utilization for a given period and shift projects between the EDM cells and the mills as needed to ensure the most efficient use of machine time,” explained Cockrell. “If we see that the mills have hours to spare, we can use them to rough out workpieces that we then move through the EDM cells for finishing, allowing us to cut the overall EDM time per job. It’s incredible what it does for productivity, and we have the peace of mind of never having to worry about accuracy, no matter how we run the jobs.”
Despite these efforts to reduce EDM operations, Fairway recognized the need for additional EDM capacity in applications featuring complex feature geometries that cannot be milled. The company set out to build upon its previous cell investments with additional machines, configured in a way that connected EDMs would face in the same direction for optimal access and productivity. However, in order to accomplish this goal, the sinker EDM on the left side would require an alteration that would move the position of the control panel to the opposite side of the machine.
“We discussed the matter with Makino, and without hesitation, they understood the situation and agreed to make the needed alterations,” said Cockrell. “There was no debate or concern of complications. The machines were delivered as requested with no delay. They were the first two left-side-controlled EDAF3 machines ever installed.”
“We are able to look at overall machine utilization for a given period and shift projects between the EDM cells and the mills as needed to ensure the most efficient use of machine time.”
Fairway dismantled its existing automated cell to separate the two existing right-hand control machines to be used on the right side of each new cell. They then paired each of the existing machines with a robot and one of the new EDAF3 left-hand-control machines. While this approach took extra time and effort, it provided an optimal arrangement with all of the machines facing forward. This new arrangement decreased the total floor space required for the cell while also minimizing the time it took operators to work within the cell. As a side benefit, all tool and workpiece changes in the carousel are handled from the non-working side of the cell, keeping the work area clear.
“Since investing in these automated EDM capabilities, we’ve witnessed astounding growth in EDM efficiency and overall growth of the department,” said Cockrell. “Uptime on the machines has reached up to 99 percent in long cycle-time applications, leading us to a 90 percent rate in on-time deliveries. Over the last two years, our sinker EDM business has doubled with only a 10 percent increase in staffing, providing for substantial growth to our bottom line.”
Changing the Mind-set
In addition to the raw productivity and throughput that the new EDM cell afforded Fairway, an additional feature of the Makino EDAF3 EDMs truly changed how Fairway produced finished molds—SuperSpark.
“Over the last two years, our sinker EDM business has doubled with only a 10 percent increase in staffing, providing for substantial growth to our bottom line.”
The SuperSpark technology built into Fairway’s EDAF3 machines uses a combination of shortened jump cycles and spark-gap adaptive power control to improve cutting efficiency and productivity. More than 60 percent of the total process time is spent out of the cut in standard sinker EDM jump cycles. According to Makino, SuperSpark cuts the jump time by more than half due to the shortened jump height, requiring less time for electrodes to return to the workpiece. This saving of time lets Fairway accomplish more at faster rates than ever on these two machines, further leveraging the maximized utilization rates provided through automation.
“Makino’s SuperSpark technology took us from a position of not being able to deliver to being done in a matter of hours.”
Further improvements to machining efficiency are afforded by the machines’ spark-gap adaptive power control, which enables electrodes to discharge sparks during the jump cycle for continuous cutting. As the electrode depth increases, the power and spark gap decreases to prevent overburn. Together, these technologies improve total machining times by 20 to 30 percent over standard sinker EDM technologies.
Prior to the installation of the EDAF3 machines, Fairway was struggling to burn a 0.013-inch subgate with a copper-impregnated graphite electrode on a 64-cavity mold that had proven impossible on any of its existing machines without significant pitting and electrode wear.
Bill Black puts it this way, “SuperSpark was a lifesaver. That part was unachievable without it—without a doubt.”
“Makino’s SuperSpark technology took us from a position of not being able to deliver to being done in a matter of hours,” added Cockrell.
Reliable, Repeatable Unattended Precision
Overall, what these investments have taught Fairway is to look at manufacturing differently. This outlook extends far beyond changing the part design or altering programming methods, but what it also means is that Fairway can rethink its entire business process and strategy.
“The Makinos always hit the numbers. There’s no need to second-guess or adjust.”
Based on the accuracy and precision afforded by the new mills and EDM cells, Fairway has seen a virtual elimination of hand-fitting, something that was once a significant requirement for finished parts, and a significant reduction in polishing requirements. “The surface-finish capabilities and repeatability take a lot of the stress out,” according to Black.
“The Makinos always hit the numbers. There’s no need to second-guess or adjust,” says Cockrell.
Similarly, electrode wear, a critical factor in any sinker EDM process, has also been an area of significant improvement for Fairway.
“One of the best examples of reduced electrode wear is in deep rib burns,” explains Black. “Under our older processes, we used to anticipate pitting and arduously long cycle times. The deep rib technology on the Makino machines has removed these issues, providing dramatic improvements in speed while simultaneously decreasing electrode wear, especially in roughing operations. On average, we see at least 25 to 30 percent better electrode life.”
“The confidence we’ve gained from knowing that we can run lights out with full confidence plays a big factor in how we work. We may run on a single shift, but we think in terms of three shifts.”
While those are bottom-line benefits of these investments, the greatest impact on Fairway’s business is the repeatable .0002 inches precision delivered around the clock, 24/7. True “lights out” operation has been a game-changer for Fairway, enabling the company to dramatically increase throughput without requiring additional labor resources.
“To be a globally competitive force, you have to ask the question: ‘Are my machines running?’ And the answer needs to be ‘yes, 24/7,’” explained Cockrell. “The confidence we’ve gained from knowing that we can run lights out with no worries plays a big factor in how we work. We may run on a single shift, but we think in terms of three shifts.”
The Future for Fairway
“These investments have allowed us to broaden our sights, focusing on the things we haven’t done and plan to do. It’s a different type of mentality,” says Black. “We can think beyond the sinker EDMs, because they take care of themselves, and look at other areas for improvement.”
Indeed, the process improvement and optimization efforts at Fairway are ongoing. Always looking to identify and remove the next business constraint, Fairway is exploring other potential additions to the shop to keep up with the performance of its Makino sinker EDMs and verticals. “5-axis is next for us,” said Cockrell.
As a growing company, winning business globally and poised at the top of the mold-making industry, the path forward looks very bright indeed and Makino is ready at every turn.
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Fairway Injection Molding Systems