In Kentucky, a request from an equine podiatrist for special aluminum corrective horseshoes for horses with hoof or gait problems or for thoroughbred yearlings might not seem unusual. At least that’s how it appeared to Paul Strippelhoff, vice president of manufacturing, Carbide Products Inc. (Georgetown, KY), especially when some pretty big orders came in for a local equine facility.
The pedigree of Carbide Products, which is adept at producing small runs of very small parts to exacting tolerances with superior surface finishes, is well known. In 1985, Danny Strippelhoff became a partner in the business that his grandfather established in 1943. Today, he oversees the day-to-day operations of Carbide Products as president and CEO. In 1987, another of the founder’s grandsons, Paul Strippelhoff, joined the business and now oversees manufacturing operations as vice president.
Carbide Products operates in a 15,600 ft2 (1449-m2) climate-controlled facility and services more than 200 diversified industrial customers in 26 countries each year. The company employs highly-skilled personnel using advanced CNC machines and equipment to manufacture made-to-order parts, tools and gages, using a wide variety of materials and material combinations. All Carbide Products machining processes, as well as heat-treating, brazing, assembly, inspection, and documentation, are performed in-house for total quality control.
“Most of our jobs are 2 to 50-piece runs,” said Paul Strippelhoff. “In terms of size, in many cases you can hold a dozen parts in the palm of your hand. Customers often provide us with prints and the job is quoted based on that print. Other times, we ask the customer if we can change the print a little bit to make it easier to manufacture. We work closely with customers to save them money.”
In fact, when those big orders for a local equine facility came in, Carbide Products began looking for something different from its vertical machining centers. “They just weren’t fast enough,” Strippelhoff said. “We were looking for something easy to program and control with faster feeds and speeds when machining aluminum.” During research to find the ideal machine for this project, the company came across the M8Cube from Datron Dynamics Inc. (Milford, NH). The German-engineered, high-speed milling machine has a 40 × 30″ (1016 × 762-mm) work area and spindle speeds up to 60,000 rpm. “It just seemed perfect for the horseshoe job. In addition, we had a date stamp screw job for the mold industry that we had earmarked for the M8Cube,” Strippelhoff said.
A trip to IMTS in Chicago in September 2016 confirmed the company’s confidence in Datron technology, but what they saw exhibited altered their plans slightly. Datron was demonstrating a smaller machine called the Datron neo. “The newer touch-screen control on that machine just blew us away,” Strippelhoff said. “Our kids these days are using their fingers on touchscreens to do everything. So we decided that we really had to get one of those in our shop and be on the front end of this technology.”
Carbide Products purchased the Datron neo almost as an experiment, with its long-term plans still focused on larger Datron machines. “We decided to get started with the Datron neo in hopes that the same software and touchscreen would be added to the M8Cube and M10 Pro machines, so that we could replace our traditional VMCs with them,” said Strippelhoff. “The price point on the Datron neo was good, and it doesn’t take up much floor space, so it gave us a chance to get involved with Datron and see if we liked the product and the support without making any huge investments.”
The experiment has turned out well, and Strippelhoff was surprised that the Datron neo, with its 20.5 × 16.5″ (520 × 419-mm) X,Y travels, has been able to supplant the company’s smaller Haas machines. “Currently, we’re making some special lightbulb parts on the Datron neo that we were making on our Haas Super Mini Mills. By using the vacuum chuck to hold sheet material on the neo, we’re able to batch machine these parts, which has reduced cycle time by nearly 50%,” he said.
Strippelhoff is pleased with the US-based service that Datron offers to support their German-made machining centers. The Datron neo was easy to set up, use, and integrate into the shop’s production flow, he said: “Honestly, I haven’t personally programmed a CNC mill or written a program for 22 years, and I was able to use this machine right away. The controller with the integrated probe and camera system for part location makes it incredibly easy to set up a job and operate. You don’t have to have your workpiece set up and trammed in. It does the skew alignment for you.”
Ultimately, all the bells and whistles in the world amount to nothing if the machine isn’t making money. That isn’t the case with the Datron neo. “I currently have six different 200-piece jobs running on the Datron neo, all being made with aluminum sheet material,” said Strippelhoff.
“Running multiple parts out of a sheet is completely new to us, instead of making solid-piece parts one up. It gives you the ability to keep the number of tool changes down over a 200-piece order, because while your tool is in the spindle it does all of its work. I’m getting 105 parts out of a sheet and the drill is going to drill all the holes before the machine makes a tool change—and then the machine doesn’t have to pick the drill up anymore. Reducing the number of tool changes has a huge impact on cycle time and this is a big difference between the Datron and our VMCs,” he explained.
Carbide Products also found a unique use for the Datron neo. It replaces the cutting tool with a diamond grinding wheel to use the Datron neo like a jig grinder to grind a counter bore in solid-carbide rolls.
As the example above illustrates, it isn’t simply the technology that drives innovation, but rather skilled personnel who find the best ways to use it to impact efficiency, capability, and ultimately the company’s bottom line. Carbide Products President/CEO Danny Strippelhoff said, “It takes the best of the best employees to make us successful enough to have the opportunity to invest in the latest and greatest manufacturing technologies. The Datron neo that we’ve installed is a testimony to their hard work.”