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Quick-Turn Metal Fabricator and Precision Parts Manufacturer Works at Cutting Edge of Emerging Markets
An Idaho-based company that serves numerous high-tech markets is utilizing problem-solving experience gained in the aerospace and defense industries, among others, to handle quick-turn prototyping for emerging automotive technologies.
By Mark Shortt
Editorial Director, Design-2-Part Magazine
Applying considerable technological prowess to customers' product ideas is a longtime specialty of Integrated Ideas & Technologies, Inc. (IIT), a Post Falls, Idaho-based company known for its ability to cut thin metals to exacting tolerances. The company began in the early 1980s, building its business around precision cutting of surface-mount metal foils for the printed circuit industry, and later extending its offerings to include sheet metal fabrication and custom part cutting. Today, IIT maintains a Surface Mount Technology (SMT) Stencil Division and a Metal Fabrication Division that provides one-source capabilities for bringing prototype ideas to market fast, combining in-house design with services such as laser cutting, hydro (water jet) cutting, CNC machining, welding, hardware insertion, and finishing.
Integrated Ideas & Technologies President Michael Ray spoke with Design-2-Part recently about IIT's services, particularly how they're suited to meeting the needs of today's changing automotive industry. A transcript of the interview follows.
D2P: We understand that non-disclosure agreements prevent you from discussing information about your client's projects, and we respect that. Are you able to describe, in general terms, the types of parts the company has produced for the automotive industry?
MR: We make quite a few auto parts. In general terms, if it's automotive and it's machined, we've probably built it at one time or another. General examples would include motor brackets, motor mounts, suspension components, steering components, and a variety of sheet metal components. We're seeing a lot of conversions from gas to electric in existing automobiles. I can't go into detail, but some of them are fairly exotic cars.
D2P: What types of automotive parts is IIT capable of producing with its manufacturing services?
MR: We're capable of making a myriad of complex automotive parts. Machining wise, we're capable of micro-machined parts with a laser system that we actually developed in-house and have multiple patents on. We're capable of holding tolerances down to tens of thousandths.
Our water jets and multi-axis, CNC machines are available for larger machining requirements, and allow us to do a variety of materials, both metallic and nonmetallic. We can cut everything from titanium to carbon fiber. A lot of these materials have been in the aerospace industry, but we're starting to see them in the auto industry, too. The aerospace industry has challenges finding manufacturing companies who can handle them on a quick turn basis and not have any scrap issues while they experiment with the products.
We can handle these materials because we have a pretty extensive background in the aerospace and defense industries, which has allowed us to transition into automotives easily. These exotic materials, which may be new to the automotive industry, are really old hat on the aerospace side.
We mostly use the water jet to cut the carbon fiber materials. Carbon fiber parts don't really stamp very well, and with laser cutting, you can come out with a ragged edge because of the burning associated with it. Machining them is very abrasive on the tools and is very slow. Cutting these fibers with a water jet machine is very quick.
Sometimes we will even do a combination of water jet cutting and machining to keep costs down. We can take a part and hog out, say, about 90% with water jet, and then take the part and put it on one of the mills to do the finish machining. The part may have taken 12 hours with other processes, but we can do it in two hours with the water jet and machining combination. This makes a tremendous difference in the bottom line.
D2P: What are IIT's capabilities for making parts that contribute to greater fuel efficiency through lighter weight or aerodynamics?
MR: The parts are getting lighter these days. Take, for example, titanium: It can reduce part weight drastically, while keeping the structural integrity where it needs to be. Carbon fiber materials are also big now; you're talking about a drastic difference in weight. In some cases, you can have a combination of two or more different materials.
We're capable of working with virtually any material. The only limitations we face are with the material itself, and basically we leave that to the scientists and engineers. We're not a metal shop and we're not a plastic shop; we're a model shop capable of taking on almost any project from concept to completion. Rather than having to deal with a machine shop, or a sheet metal shop, or someone who's used to dealing with ceramics, or someone who's used to carbon fiber, we pretty much handle it all. We try very hard to be a one-stop-shop for our customers.
Instead of a customer going to more than one facility, we can do the entire job right here. Most of the companies we are dealing with in the automotive field—about five of them—are experimental, new companies.
D2P: How are your manufacturing capabilities suited to the requirements of today's changing auto industry?
MR: Today's changing industry has a lot to do with emerging markets, and emerging markets are all about speed, efficiency, and lean manufacturing. Our business model has always been ahead of its time. We've always focused on quick-turn fabrication of prototypes and emerging technologies. Our experience in aerospace, as well as defense, brings a vast knowledge of manufacturing that easily transfers to the automotive industry. It's been a very easy transition for us to deal with the automotive folks.
D2P: What does IIT offer in terms of engineering and manufacturing some of the new types of parts required by today's and tomorrow's vehicles, such as heat sinks to manage thermal transfer under the hood?
MR: Our SMT (Surface Mount Technology) Division has been dealing with heat sinks and EMI shields for years, mostly for the military and aerospace. And we have a pretty rich history of manufacturing heat sinks for the electronics industry since the early 1980s.
It's similar technology, just on a larger scale from an electronics device to a car itself. Heat is a serious enemy to electronics, so a lot of these new auto parts will have to be stronger and more heat resistant.
D2P: Are you making any parts for the new hybrids or electric cars?
MR: Yes, we are seeing parts now for hybrids and electric cars. We're not doing anything in a production environment, but we're doing a lot of prototyping. A lot of people out there are testing and experimenting with this technology. The majority of the automotive parts that we've been making are to protect the electronics. Nine times out of ten that will be some type of aluminum component that might be hogged on a water jet machine and then machined to keep costs down. These are actually heat sinks to keep the heat away from the electronic parts.
As far as the prototypes are concerned, we can sometimes turn one around in as little as 24 hours. We run three shifts at our plant, and we look at ourselves almost like an emergency room in a hospital. We can never get over 60% capacity, period, because we never know what emergency may come up on any given day. A lot of the prototyping that we do for the auto industry is typically three days or less. You may go through eight or nine [revisions] before they are happy with it.
This morning we took on a job for a different industry where they are used to getting a prototype in about three weeks. We can turn it around for them in two days. We can do this because we're used to handling everything from soup to nuts, whether it's machined or sheet metal.
We do have engineers right on staff, so this is a value-added plus for our customers. From an engineering standpoint, we're able to go in there most of the time and give feedback to the customer so they can see how they can reduce cost, material, or manufacturing time to get the part built.
One thing that helps us with the prototypes is a proprietary software that we've written that allows us to take any product or project through the building very quickly. The project may start off on four different machines or maybe two. This program will stop one machine and start another, and follow that project, from machine to machine, all the way through the building.
Every machine in our building is CNC, so we can program every machine that will be needed for a particular project from the engineering department. We created this software ourselves, and I think this is the only one like it anywhere. Without the software, we wouldn't be able to have the speed and consistency because the human error would just be too large a factor. This is because multiple people on a project are all inputting different data. This way you have one engineer that takes a project from beginning to completion, and programs every machine in the building, and then networks it to each machine. Every job in the shop is logged in under an L-number, and from the L-number, the machine operator can queue up that project and each machine is ready to go.
D2P: Your website states that you've developed and patented the AXIS laser stencil cutting system. Can you tell us what part this machine plays in your manufacturing? Does it have any role in making parts for the auto industry?
MR: Its primary function is that it serves the SMT industry; however, it also touches the medical field. From the automotive side, there are a lot of thin parts that it makes. As I mentioned earlier, the AXIS laser system gives us the unique ability to produce parts from [a variety of materials that include] stainless steel, titanium, some ceramics, and copper. We can go down as thin as 0.001-inch thickness for materials. Lasers have the unique ability to produce precision parts quickly. We were actually forced to develop this system because we couldn't find anything on the market that we could use.
Typically, a lot of the materials that are cut on these lasers, unlike large CO2 systems, will get down to foils for electronics that could be anywhere from 0.001 inch up to 0.0025 inch. We can do this with practically no heat effect to the films.
So as far as getting into the prototype stage and making some of the parts that we need for electronics and automobiles, it's a pretty unique system. This system really saves a lot of money for the customer on prototyping. A stencil is a crude term, but it's for a tool that would be used. Typically, it would be 3044 stainless steel, and sometimes there would be holes in it that go all the way down to 0.005-inch in diameter. They would be used for depositing solder paste on electronics parts to make them a fully-automated system. It virtually removes any manual assembly involved in printed circuit board electronics.
D2P: Are you involved in printed circuit board electronics parts?
MR: Yes, we are. We don't make the boards themselves, but we build the stainless steel tools that are used to load the components on the boards. We have four of these laser stencil cutting machines, and we run them on all three shifts. These machines actually work in the SMT industry about 80% of the time. The remaining 20% would be for other parts. These machines are so unique that it eliminates, in a lot of cases, the need to make tooling for these very thin foils.
D2P: Can you explain how your laser and water jet cutting machinery expedites the fabrication of parts, and how it makes your operation more cost-effective for parts production?
MR: Because we have such diversity in our equipment, we're able to pick and choose which systems are appropriate to a specific job. This gives us the unique ability to serve our clients by creating quality products that incorporate speed and quality, with fairly attractive pricing. Rather than having to design something to be cut on a particular machine, the laser and water jet machinery is so diverse that we can just pick one of them at the beginning. These machines help us to give the customer the best product at the best price, so they allow us to be very cost-effective.
D2P: How does IIT integrate ideas and technologies for your clients, using your combination of machinery and people power?
MR: Our business model includes a statement: "If it were easy, anyone would do it." Our business model was created while servicing one of the most critical and demanding industries in the world. We can bring manufacturing time to a few days, instead of a few weeks, without compromising quality or consistency. So our customers can have accurate results quickly. We are told by our clients that they appreciate the fact that if we make a commitment, we make it happen. And it shows in our repeat business. Sometimes we can cut five to ten times off of lead times that they are used to seeing.
We are also a wholly-owned company, and we don't have a penny in debt beyond 30 days, except for the normal power bills and health insurance types of things.
You'll never find an automated phone system here; there is always a real person that answers the phone. From what we can tell from our clients, they really love this type of service.
For more information on IIT's Metal Fabrication Division, check out www.iitmetalfab.com.
For more on the company's SMT Stencil Division, log on to www.integratedideas.com
David Gaines contributed reporting to this article.
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