APS Plastics & Manufacturing (Tomball, TX) has been machining custom composite components since 2006. In 2016, Framework Capital Partners, an investment firm committed to optimizing manufacturing operations, acquired APS. Led by CEO Mushahid (Mush) Khan, APS specializes in small high-precision components made of thermoset plastic composites, glass films, and other plastics measuring from 0.030″ (0.762 mm) to 25″ (635 mm) in diameter for inclusion inside valves, high-end electrical connectors, and insulators for the energy industry and others. The non-corrosive composites are suitable for harsh, corrosive environments.
Prior to the acquisition, APS had a solid reputation for making high-quality parts and meeting customer expectations. But, when the processes were analyzed, Khan (who is an engineer) and his team realized they could be even more efficient. “We really began to look at how we were making parts and, in particular, looking for ways to optimize the programming,” said Khan.
He began working with consultant Rob Burton, who brought years of experience with machining and Mastercam CAD/CAM software from CNC Software Inc. (Tolland, CT). “This is part of a bigger strategy to digitize our business and look for ways to gather data on what we’re doing and then to use that data to optimize our business, not just in machining but in our QC processes,” said Khan. “For example, if we realize that a particular machine or operator is not as consistent as another one, using the data we can start making changes either by optimizing the machine or by providing additional training to the operator.”
Three Rungs on the Strategy Ladder
According to Khan, there are three “rungs” to the company’s strategy: Manufacturing design to help customers optimize the way they design and manufacture parts; mechanical design; and materials design for proper material selection.
When Burton evaluated APS, he first looked at programming and then manufacturing. He found that the CAD/CAM software was not being used to its full potential. “One of the first projects I worked on was reprogramming some parts to demonstrate the advantages of the software’s high-speed machining and immediately cut roughing time in half. And that was the start of the relationship between Mush Kahn and I,” said Burton, who is now general manager at APS.
Burton was charged with training the manufacturing team to use Mastercam software, sometimes introducing a whole new program to people with little exposure to software. He credited its user-friendly interface with helping the team get up to speed quickly and alleviate fears of new technologies. “You have the ability to build templates inside of Mastercam so, if you have a family of parts that you’re programming, you can program one, export all of that out, save it, and re-import all of that information (i.e. toolpaths) to reapply to a similarly styled part, re-associate your geometry, and your program is done,” said Burton.
Both Khan and Burton were frustrated with the lack of time available to explore and learn the full capabilities of the software, equipment, and tools available to not only machinists in their own shop but also in the industry in general. Burton’s familiarity with the software helped solve this problem. “We have taken the more powerful tools that are available in Mastercam and applied them directly to programming strategies in our toolpaths to reduce cycle times and increase throughput,” said Burton. “We recently purchased and implemented Solidworks, which works fluidly with Mastercam. When we make a change to a part, Mastercam, due to its change recognition with Solidworks, recognizes the changes in the model, updates inside Mastercam, and prompts us to accept or reject the new toolpath, which cuts out the time in having to go back and reprogram that model from scratch.”
Maxing Out the Machines
The team can take full advantage of the shop’s new seven-axis Swiss and bar feed machine which, according to Burton, reduces set up time by about 70% and increases throughput by roughly 40%. The shop can switch from a Swiss-style chucker lathe to a fully automated bar feed lathe for short runs and high-volume runs. The machine does all milling and turning, including complex parts, in one operation, freeing up APS’ five mills and five lathes for other work.
According to Burton, all of the shop’s spindles are “maxed out” at 10,000 RPMs and are run “wide open.” Plastics are run at the maximum feed rates possible—between 400 to 1200 ipm—before the materials break down. On steel, the carbon-based material is cut around 600 ipm with high-performance end mills on the high-speed machine. The software’s Dynamic Motion technology, which consists of high speed toolpaths programmed with proprietary algorithms that detect changes in the material as the tool moves through it, permits the tool to be constantly engaged with the material, significantly reducing air cuts and material damage. The tool plows through the material, making the faster speeds possible.
“Currently, we’re going from doing 2D to 3D model-based programming. Everything is modeled up in Solidworks and then Mastercam. We simply swap out the solid model of our product part in our Mastercam file, drag and drop the part in, program it, and it’s ready to go with the same fixturing all the way across our equipment, so we can send that part to any machine and process it quickly,” said Burton. APS has reduced set up times from one to two hours down to about 10 minutes.
Taking a Peek at PEEK
An example of this involves a global energy company based in nearby Houston that asked APS to machine parts they struggled to run internally. The part was molded over tin with some Iconel on the end with the rest being PEEK material. “We were trying to cut Inconel and plastic at the same time, which is extremely difficult to do,” recalled Burton. “We worked with the customer directly in getting our manufacturing set up, and by the time we were done, we improved the entire process and the manufacturability of that part. By being able to implement the proper button tooling, we could cut both materials and limit the amount of deflection on the part.
“The latter was a major problem when cutting from plastic, because all of a sudden, the tool becomes buried in the Iconel,” Burton continued. “There were several inherent problems with the chatter push-off and tools breaking and we were able to eliminate all of those with the Dynamic toolpaths.” Additionally, the team used a feature found in Mastercam 2018 that allows machining along the Z-axis on a lathe in specific increments. Using this strategy, APS turned an Iconel section, backed out, ran the Dynamic turning on the Iconel, then went back in on the other segment to machine the plastic out.
“As we developed the tool, we needed to specify different variables in our software in terms of, if a whole diameter is X then you can use tools A, B, and C. So that way, when we populate that information into the window, it knows what tool to select in the background and apply to that part when it generates a toolpath. We know that part is already loaded in the machine, we know the tool number and it matches across the board. We can take a part that would take somebody maybe half a day to program, literally program it in five minutes, and have the machine running before they even finish the program,” said Burton.
Saving Time with Tool Library
The software’s Tool Library helps APS shave time as well. Burton can “shop” for tools via its connection to the online databases of leading tool manufacturers, downloading the end mills and 3D models he prefers into the Library. “We establish optimal machine parameters for a specific material with specific tools and we save those into the Library, so it doesn’t matter to me if I have a titanium part from a medical company or a large titanium part from an oil and gas company because I already know how that tool runs the best in that material. I simply bring in that saved tool with its own toolpath and reapply the geometry. It cuts out all my guesswork. Our lathes are all set up the same way so when we program, we already know what’s in that tool pocket and all our saved tools in the Library already have that number assigned to it,” said Burton.
With the technology on the shop floor running optimally, Khan is turning his focus toward how workers interface with the machines. “There are many changes in technology and manufacturing, but the human capital equation is not being solved the same way so I’m focused on how people can interface with the machines and systems we are building,” said Khan. “Some of that means re-approaching the way machines and systems are designed.” APS is currently working on a project to automate Mastercam, so that all the VB and SQL databases are tied into their Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system. A visual GUI running Mastercam will automate all programming, tying the databases to the quick change fixtures and standard tooling on all the machines, tying all systems together for seamless manufacturing.