Electron Beam Drilling is Fast Method for Producing Small Precision Holes
Owens Corning Ridgeview uses electron beam drilling to produce holes in this fiberglass spinner, a device from which fiberglass insulation fiber is extruded.
Photo courtesy of Owens Corning Ridgeview
Electron beam drilling (EBD) may not be what immediately comes to mind when you think of Owens Corning, a global company best known for its production of glass fiber materials and insulation products. To be fair, this under-recognized process isn't likely to come to mind when you think of most companies. But at Owens Corning's Ridgeview facility in Duncan, South Carolina, precision EB drilling technology plays a key role, far from the spotlight, in manufacturing the products that have earned Owens Corning recognition all over the world.
"The vast majority of parts we drill are for fiber glass spinners, which produce the insulation we all use in our homes," said Michael Palash, engineering manager at Owens Corning Ridgeview, in an e-mail response. "There's a very good chance the insulation in your home or office came from a spinner produced in our shop. Another type of part we produce, in a variety of forms, is for filtration purposes—often referred to as filter screens. We supply filters to the pulp and paper industry, food, plastics, aircraft, and paint industries, to name a few. The variety of parts we produce is only limited by the design engineer's imagination."
Palash acknowledges that electron beam drilling is something of a mystery to most of the company's new customers. "They usually call us because they find out we can drill tiny holes faster and deeper than laser or chemical etching, but they know little, if anything, about the technology we use to make those holes," he said. "We spend a fair amount of time upfront educating new customers about EBD, and how this service matches up to their requirements."
The EBD process, performed in a vacuum, is used to drill tiny, precision holes in materials as soft as aluminum and as tough as cobalt super alloys and ceramics. Holes are produced by training a sharply focused, pulsed electron beam—carrying highly concentrated thermal energy—onto the part to be drilled. According to Palash, the parts that Owens Corning drills have hole counts ranging from the tens of thousands on up into the millions.
"We produce parts with very small precision holes, in the range of 0.004 inch to 0.040 inch in diameter, with an aspect (depth-to-diameter) ratio of up to 25:1 in a host of different materials, including ceramics, without regard to material hardness," said Palash. "These parts cannot be drilled via conventional technologies and, even if they could approach our depth- to-diameter ratios, none could remotely approach the speed at which we can make a hole, which is what makes this technology so cost competitive for high-density/high-volume hole drilling."
Owens Corning Ridgeview, part of the $5 billion Owens Corning family, operates what Palash calls "the world's largest concentration of electron beam drilling equipment" to produce precision holes for applications in three main categories. The first relates to the production of glass fiber that's used to manufacture fiberglass insulation. "The holes we drill are used to extrude individual filaments of molten glass, which are used to insulate our homes' walls, attics, and pipes, along with a variety of industrial applications," said Palash.
The company also drills holes for applications in particle/liquid separation, a wide category that includes food processing, paper pulp, filtration, screening, and particle sizing, among others. Although the configurations of holes drilled for this purpose are dictated by the individual application, the "basic requirement components" of all configurations include hole size, hole spacing, and material thickness, according to Palash. "Our drilling configurations are unmatched by any other process available when all three of these components are required." The third category includes aerospace, waste water treatment, paint and pigment, and nonwoven products applications, among others. In many cases, these applications are proprietary or confidential by request of the company's customers or the government.
"We are always at the forefront of industry capability regarding hole size, open area, and material thickness," said Palash. "This also includes material types, part sizes, and flexible work holding devices. This is the case because we are always striving to improve and take on new challenges to meet our customers' needs."
Owens Corning Ridgeview (www.ebdrilling.com) recently upgraded the vacuum chamber of one of its EBD machines—an improvement that Palash says will allow the company to meet the rising demand for large filter screens.
"We find a lot of new business from those who need more from their mesh filter or screen to meet the growing demands their equipment places on these components," said Palash. "As equipment evolves and higher demands are placed on previously ignored components, like filters, we can meet and even exceed the customer's strength requirements for filter media. This is especially true for large filters for the waste water, pulp and paper, and food industries.
"With our higher aspect ratio, we can move the customer from a low strength, low pressure filter mesh screen up into a comparable mesh in a stainless sheet with a thickness 10 to 30 times thicker than they had before," he continued. "This allows them to step up to higher pressures in their process, where they were once limited by their filter's strength and capability."
As part of a large global corporation with facilities all across America, Owens Corning Ridgeview has access to a deep pool of resources—in personnel and equipment—that most other companies lack. Scientists and metallurgists with vast experience in materials are at their disposal, as are an array of testing and inspection resources at the Owens Corning Science and Technology Center in Granville, Ohio. The Ridgeview facility's sheer capacity to take on electron beam drilling projects is striking.
"We have more Electron Beam Drilling (EBD) capacity in our facility than the rest of the U.S. combined, and we've been doing EBD for almost 30 years," said Palash. "What this means for our customers is that we have more experience than anyone else in the business. Our customers understand that this level of experience, from engineering across the floor to the machine operator, translates into a knowledge base that drives results."
While Owens Corning Ridgeview has the backing of a Fortune 500 company's financial resources and 15,000 employees, it remains nimble enough in its 75,000-square-foot shop to function as a small business. "Our facility has the autonomy to serve our customers like the small job shop down the street, giving our customers that one-on-one personal attention they expect," Palash said.
Employees of Owens Corning Ridgeview are expected to work directly and closely with their customers, a goal that Palash said helps build a complete understanding of customers' needs and requirements. "We at Owens Corning take a partnership approach to serving our customers; we don't just give you a quote and expect a purchase order for our efforts. We take the time to educate you, as you educate us about your application and process. Our engineers work hand in hand with the customers from initial design, through process development, and, finally, inspect the parts themselves before they leave the dock."
In addition to complementing its precision electron beam drilling service with in-house metallurgical and engineering capabilities, Owens Corning Ridgeview offers manufacturing services that include sheet metal fabrication, welding, precision metal castings, and a full CNC machine shop. The company also licenses its technology and provides worldwide distribution.
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