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Waters Corporation Measures Competitive Edge with Precision Micro Machining Center
When your competitive edge depends on being first to get products to market, research and development (R&D) must happen quickly and often. For Waters Corporation (NYSE: WAT), one of the keys to achieving this leadership is having the ability to rapidly produce prototypes in-house. When these prototypes are designed to separate compounds at the micro level, what is needed is a precision micro machining platform that can handle the extremely precise tolerances.
“Reaching as far upstream in our process development as we can helps us remain an industry leader,” said Bob Jencks, consulting principal engineer at Waters. “We recently sought enabling technology to help us speed up product development, after determining that the future of our business depended upon the ability to achieve micro-tolerance machining capabilities in our product prototypes. To accomplish this, we researched equipment with exacting tolerances, high-speed spindles, exceptional repeatability and tool life. We found what we needed in the Makino iQ300 vertical machining center.”
“Reaching as far upstream in our process development as we can helps us remain an industry leader.”
Waters is a global operation that designs, manufactures, sells and services precision analytical technologies, such as liquid chromatography (LC), mass spectrometry (MS) and thermal analysis, all of which are indispensable tools in today’s research and quality control laboratories. The company is regarded as a technology innovator, a premium supplier and one of the largest companies in the analytical-instruments industry, supporting scientists working in 100,000 labs. At its Milford, Mass., headquarters, it is developing high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) equipment. Used to separate and identify components in a mixture, HPLC measures the concentration of synthetic and natural chemicals in just about any sample—in the pharmaceutical, food, cosmetics and fragrances, environmental, forensics, clinical and industrial-chemicals industries. For example, the results derived from a chromatographic analysis can tell a synthetic chemist whether the batch reaction produced the right amount of active pharmaceutical ingredient and what, if any, impurities are present as well.
HPLC is a technique that Waters pioneered in the early 1970s. It performs several important tasks that precisely separate mixtures of chemicals into their individual chemical components and measure their concentration relative to one another. HPLC relies on high-pressure pumps to pass a liquid solvent, along with the sample mixture, through a column filled with minute (1.7 micron) particles made of highly refined coated silica that separates the mixture into its individual components. High-pressure tubing and fittings are used to interconnect the pump, injector, column and detector components in the system.
The trend toward small-particle chromatography has led Waters to research and develop instruments with a smaller internal volume and higher pressure. These instruments, known as ultra-performance liquid chromatography (UPLC) systems, are far more sensitive and efficient than their predecessors, and they produce more information in less time on much smaller sample sizes. As Waters R&D takes chromatography to routine microscale and beyond, it relies on its machine shop to produce its prototypes quickly, so it can determine if the company is on track to producing a promising new product.
Its Milford headquarters is the location of Waters’ separations technology R&D center. It is dedicated to high-value-added activities, such as instrument design and testing, prior to their release into manufacturing in its Class 10,000 clean room or, in the case of higher-volume products, released to its Singapore manufacturing plant. To produce parts that keep it on the cutting edge, the 200-employee machine shop continually upgrades its technology to handle the variety of highly complex, low-volume part concepts that come out of R&D. Shop employees are integral to the success of these prototypes, as they are trained to not only handle the often unconventional processes required but also to have an eye on quality, identifying any changes that R&D should make.
“We’ve found that producing 150-micron LC channels provides the perfect blend of speed, sensitivity, resolution and robustness needed for this testing.”
Recently, the R&D group challenged the machine shop with its desire to pursue microfluidics, in order to improve low-flow LC. Microfluidics would require micro machining tiny columns, tubes and fittings to critical tolerances for channel width, depth and surface finish.
“We decided to invest heavily in microflow LC/MS because it offers many benefits for our customers,” said Pete Claise, senior product marketing manager at Waters. “Microflow LC/MS provides increased sensitivity, consumes far fewer solvents, requires less sample to be injected and allows researchers to use fewer test subjects for case studies. All of this contributes to data that could not be achieved previously in a laboratory production environment, enabling our customers to get their products to market faster and cost saving to the end user.”
Developing this type of LC/MS system requires extremely precise manufacturing processes that are capable of submicron positioning tolerances and surface finishes. To produce the next generation of LC/MS devices, Waters knew it needed the capabilities to make micro parts.
“We’ve found that producing 150-micron LC channels provides the perfect blend of speed, sensitivity, resolution and robustness needed for this testing,” said Claise. “But the challenge for us was delivering that same performance customers expect with 2.1-mm internal-diameter columns in a 150-micron device. It requires very tight tolerances from our equipment.”
“We needed a precision micro machining center that could accomplish both the fine features and the traditional milling and tapping.”
A challenge with the silica tubing used in its previous LC models was its fragility. To enhance this technology, the company sought to produce these microchannels in a fully contained metal device, which would require the surface finish of the capillaries to be very smooth.
“As the sample goes through the tubing, it can stick to the walls, while the sample in the center of the tubing keeps moving forward; this is known as dispersion,” said Jencks. “When the sample hits a corner, this tendency gets even worse, degrading the performance of the analysis. The goal is to maintain the integrity of the passage until it reaches the separation channel, where the separation takes place. We wanted to achieve at least a 5-micro-inch Ra surface finish in metal.”
The company first tried getting these micro parts from outside vendors, but this proved to be very time-consuming. “One issue we constantly face is that our product-development cycles keep getting more compressed,” said Jencks. “Lead-times from our outside vendors were not where we wanted them to be, in order to meet these time frames. In fact, one of our products took over two years to develop, due to outsourcing.
“I’ve been involved in machining for over 30 years and haven’t seen anything like this.”
We just can’t have this wait, if we want to remain competitive. Outsourcing can also be cost-prohibitive, or the quality might not be where we want it to be. It was definitely not the solution for us.”
When Waters first tried producing these tiny parts on its own, it struggled with equipment that did not provide the required tolerances and eventually returned it to the manufacturer. That is when the company began looking at other suppliers.
Waters was challenged by not only the micro machining requirements but also weighing into its decision was acquiring a machine that could handle larger features, such as counterbores and ports. It did not want to produce these larger features on a separate machine, because of the critical accuracy of those other features in relation to the microchannels. “We needed a precision micro machining center that could accomplish both the fine features and the traditional milling and tapping,” said Jencks. “We did not want to worry about tooling up parts from a smaller machine to a larger machine. The size of our channels does not tolerate any variability. For example, on one of our projects, we are looking at machining fluid passages below 0.0060 inch in width. We cannot have misaligned passages, or they will impact the operation of the device.”
A Helpful Start
The folks at Waters visited Makino’s booth at the International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) and had spoken with John Bradford, micro machining R&D team leader. With these new challenges facing them, the Waters reps contacted Bradford about their project. After discussing possible solutions, several Waters personnel traveled to Makino’s Auburn Hills, Mich., Technology Center, to see the equipment in action. They sent part drawings to Bradford ahead of their visit and took along the parts that they had been trying to machine on their previous equipment. Before they arrived, Bradford and his team had programmed the iQ300 vertical machining center and selected tools for this specific application. The Waters team was astonished to come away from that visit with finished parts.
“Makino had the size and support that other specialized companies don’t have. We really appreciated the guidance they gave us in getting the machine and our application up and running.”
“Our visit to the Auburn Hills Tech Center was thoroughly impressive,” said Matthew Howland, machining operations manager at Waters. “The team was extremely accommodating, and what they accomplished immediately was what we had struggled to achieve for more than a year with the equipment we had on our shop floor. The speed with which they got parts in our hands was amazing. Going to a tech center like that and coming away with usable parts is something you don’t get many chances to do. We knew our application was going to be difficult; but Bradford and his team made it look easy, because they knew the equipment inside and out. Our visit went a long way in helping us make our decision, because before we even made the equipment investment, we knew the machine would work.”
Waters personnel made three more trips to the Auburn Hills Tech Center to machine additional parts, before purchasing the iQ300. “We saw that the iQ300 could do the job. In a matter of days, they caught us up on a project we had been behind on for a year,” said Jencks. “We saw this machine as the complete package. It could do the high-precision micro machining as well as our standard part machining. It was high-end equipment that we could grow with. We rationalized the investment with its ability to get our product out the door faster.”
Howland agreed. “Makino had the size and support that other specialized companies don’t have. We really appreciated the guidance they gave us in getting the machine and our application up and running.”
With the iQ300, Waters has been able to meet all of its critical tolerances in channel width, depth and surface finish on its fully contained metal parts, just as was done in Auburn Hills with its test parts. “We have been able to use the machine to enhance performance in several components, producing a variety of features, including channels of 0.0060-inch wide and 0.0070-inch deep,” said Charles Murphy, senior mechanical engineer at Waters. “Positioning adjustments could be made to 0.00001 inch, helping us maintain 0.00005-inch true position in critical hole features relative to our microfluidic channels. We required a 5-micro-inch Ra surface finish in our metal parts. We were able to not only accomplish this, but, in fact, to achieve a surface finish of 1- to 2-micro-inch Ra.
“Since the iQ300 has come on board, we’ve been able to develop products we had no capability of developing in the past.”
“This level of accuracy and precision is maintained, whether a part runs for four to five minutes or four to five hours. And we can use tool diameters as small as 0.0030 inch, without any issues in breakage or tool life. This capability has opened a whole new avenue of product architecture. For us, the size of the fluidic bores influences the behavior of the instrument dramatically. To be able to operate in the hyperfluidic realm—a place where we hadn’t been able to operate previously—has really opened doors for us. I’ve been involved in machining for over 30 years and haven’t seen anything like this.”
In addition to having the capability to micro machine, Waters can now create prototypes in the shorter time frames that it envisioned, maintaining control over the most critical aspects of product development. “Having this ‘business within the business’ to support R&D has been valuable,” said Jencks. “As we are making a part, if an engineer changes things, we are able to quickly pause the machine, update the model and machine the new feature. Iterations that used to take five to six months to outsource can now be accomplished in two to four weeks in-house. And we can get prototype feedback to our scientists within days instead of weeks. This means our R&D is happening much more quickly, and our next big product idea has the potential to become a reality much more quickly. It’s really been a time-to-market multiplier for us.
“We have been able to use the [iQ300] to enhance performance in several components, producing a variety of features, including channels of 0.0060-inch wide and 0.0070-inch deep.”
“Since the iQ300 has come on board, we’ve been able to develop products we had no capability of developing in the past. The magnitude is greater than anything we’ve ever had in the shop. We have already been able to develop a dozen new product lines that will eventually go to market. For us, it’s not just about cutting faster; it’s the end result. The iQ300 has allowed us to physically demonstrate our confidence to our management that the product concepts we are developing are actually worthy of future development. This machine has made all the difference.”
As Waters moves forward with its research and development, it still sees a lot of opportunity for growth. “There is still so much room to expand, using this machine,” said Howland. “We have operated it now for almost a year, and we are still learning. There are capabilities we have not even tried yet, and we are looking forward to optimizing our processes even further.”
“What matters most to us is to continue to drive innovative products. Having this micro capability internally gives us tremendous advantage for getting products to market faster.”
In the meantime, Waters has embraced the iQ300 as its next level of core competency, because it provides innovative solutions for its customers. “Waters is a world leader in chromatography separation science,” said Claise. “What matters most to us is to continue to drive innovative products. Having this micro capability internally gives us tremendous advantage for getting products to market faster. By being ahead of the curve, we can help our clients reach the market faster with their products and reduce the expenses of running their business while staying cutting edge. Our competitors don’t have this capability, so we see it as our strategic advantage. This is the future.”