Smaller-Sized Machining Meets Larger-Sized Engineering
Focusing on supplying parts "shoebox size and smaller" for a demanding regional oil and gas market and offering an unusually large assemblage of degreed mechanical engineers—namely five on staff—has made Digital Machining Systems a unique standout machine shop in Lafayette, La., just over three hours from Houston, where many of its larger customers operate.
Digital Machining is located in oil and gas country, which, along with companies that make products for water treating, surveying, instrumentation, chemical, and award industries, makes up the company's biggest customer base. Because the demand from oil and gas has been so strong, Digital Machining has enjoyed 20 percent annual growth in recent years and is planning another 10,000 sq. ft. expansion this year after having expanded only four years ago. The ISO 9001:2008 certified-company currently has 53 employees and 16,250 sq. ft. of manufacturing space.
Specializing in small-to-medium sized precision mechanical parts and assemblies, Digital Machining (www.digitalmachining.com) focuses on the "shoe-box sized" parts and smaller, going down to 1/16-inch in diameter, but not yet entering into the micromachining realm. The company will venture into larger parts occasionally, processing milled parts as large as 30 inches by 80 inches. "Most of our customers would like us to do their larger work, but we've deliberately chosen to stay within our area of expertise and it seems to have paid off," said company founder Jim Carter. "We typically have more work than we can keep up with."
Demand for small parts within the oil and gas industry drives the company's success, and Digital Machining strives to stay at the cutting edge of technology with machinery and tooling in order to meet that growing demand for small precision parts. "Technology advancements have been incredible in that industry (oil and gas) and many of their components have become increasingly smaller and more difficult to machine over the years," Carter said. "The instrumentation and measurement fields in particular, but we are seeing similar movement to ‘smaller is better' across many of the industries we serve. So the precision machining work available has kind of progressed toward our smaller part specialty and remains the majority of the work we do. It has fueled a lot of our growth."
When the company started 21 years ago, very few small-parts machine shops were in the area to serve the existing demand. "Few shops did the small work well and that's how we first determined there was a need for small work in our area, so we began to look into it. We found there was quite a bit of small-part machining demand already here, but most of it was being manufactured in other states," he said.
Carter said that the company deals with a lot of exotic materials, such as a highly corrosion resistant, nickel-based material used in subsea applications. "MP-35N is a really difficult material to machine that we see quite a bit of, and the complexity of the associated parts has gotten more and more difficult," he said. Carter stays on the cutting edge by updating his machinery constantly; when he spoke with Design-2-Part Magazine in February, he had just installed two new CNC lathes. He typically adds or upgrades two to three machines per year. And he hasn't missed one IMTS show since 1986, often sending as many as 12 employees to the machine tool show. "It's not just about machines there; it's about seeing the latest in tooling technology, and the latest methods in machine tools and techniques that are available. It's an educational experience for our key employees that we bring there," Carter said. "And we are continually attending tooling seminars that are put on by companies like ISCAR and Kennametal, our main tooling suppliers, to keep up with their latest tooling technologies."
Carter's company never shies away from a challenge, he said, and is able to achieve a superior level of complexity through its engineering expertise, as well as its machining capabilities. "We have machines with every bell and whistle that's available, including in-process probing, in-process tool load monitoring, and live tooling," he said. "We just push through some of this difficult stuff along with our customers. We'll absorb some of the hits on the front end of the development process while trying to find a way to manufacture their new product design, and we'll take on some parts most shops won't even consider."
An example of a challenging job was working with a customer to develop a manufacturing process for a long threaded rod, which had a small diameter hole all the way through it and was specified in a particular alloy that was not available in that form. "Most shops would have thrown their hands up and said, ‘We can't find it, what else do you want to use?'" Knowing his customer's requirements for this alloy were very specific, Carter contacted a mill and convinced them to make a minimum run of this special-sized tube in the specific alloy. He then outsourced the thread-rolling and brought the special threaded tubing in to complete the machining, which included additional small-diameter deep boring, as well as some milling work, to complete.
"We were able to finally come up with a solution, and now we make in the neighborhood of a hundred of those a month for that customer," he said. "It turned into a regular demand for us and that's the kind of thing we look for because the price of entry for another competitor on that would probably be twice what we're now billing them. We've got the advantage of having the experience that we've bought on the front end, essentially. And someone else would take a look at it and say ‘Well, we can't make this.' They'd look at it and say they can't even find the material, and certainly can't match the price they are paying."
Digital Machining regularly machines exotic, difficult to handle materials, such as nickel, as well as chrome–based, high–temperature, and corrosion resistant alloys, including Kovar, Alloy 718, 725, 925, and MP–35N. They are experts, Carter said, in machining all common alloys of carbon steel, stainless steel, and aluminum, as well as common plastics of all kinds, including expensive engineering plastics like Kevlar, Torlon, and PEEK.
Along with expert CNC machining, finding a combination of processes that will allow for the success of a project is what Carter's company excels at, he said. And he will regularly outsource work for EDM, thread rolling, or gun drilling in order to get a project accomplished for a customer. He recalled recently receiving a thank-you note from a pleased customer. "We went out and found a combination of processes for them—some that we had to outsource. And it was a fairly complex combination of parts, of both material and outsourcing specialty machining. We were able to provide them with the part they were looking for, a design solution that, prior to us pursuing it, they said they would have given up on. Now we're at the prototyping stage and testing stage of this product and it looks likely to turn into a successful regular product line for them," Carter said.
The company might bring thread-rolling in-house soon because Carter said he'd like to reduce the lead times to his customers by streamlining the process and not sending it out. "We're going to buy a thread-rolling machine and probably at a loss," he revealed. "We probably won't be able to justify the cost; however, it will allow us to provide a particular customer that we produce a line of parts for with a shortened lead time. This particular item goes with a number of other parts that we manufacture and, due to the lead times and back-and-forth shipping, to get that outsourced is constantly a headache. So we're going to be bringing that in-house."
A Heavy Dose of Engineering
As a degreed mechanical engineer who started the company with a partner whom he later bought out 11 years ago, Carter likes working with other engineers, he said. "I was able to relate well with engineers as customers, and we primarily deal with engineers on the developmental end," he said. So Carter thus far has hired four other mechanical engineers to work with him and offer a level of service—with reverse engineering and design for manufacturability—not typically available. "We're able to provide a level of technical expertise throughout our company that many job shops don't have," he said.
Because of the number of engineers he has on staff, he can frequently offer customers a lower initial design cost by reducing the number of iterations that the OEM designers need to go through, just by looking at their initial drawings and making early suggestions. "We can advise them on shortcuts to prevent further iterations or unnecessary costs," Carter said. "We can often reduce their costs with a few minor, non-functional adjustments. In some cases, the design engineer will come up with a product design and just really not be confident it's going to work. We'll work with them on making those adjustments or changes. A number of times, we'll end up doing research for our customers for materials and process options that may be available to make their part."
Carter said that his engineers often end up educating some of his customers on how to design for manufacturability. "On the initial stages of a product development or design work, we are often deeply involved with the customer's engineering staff and we are able to discuss material selection and geometry options," he said. "We often end up educating some of our customers on how to design for manufacturability. We do a lot of that kind of interfacing with our customers, helping them work out the final details of their product design."
It is a rare ability to engage a customer on that advanced of an engineering level, from the beginning stages all the way through to the back end when dealing with finished part performance issues and requirements. "We're able to visit with a customer and speak to the geometric, dimensional, and design requirements on a level—engineer to engineer—that they can really understand and seem to relate well to," Carter said.
Working with so many vendors himself, Carter knows how frustrating it can be when requirements aren't communicated or interpreted correctly. He often gets multiple calls from a supplier questioning every basic detail about a drawing because they can't interpret the drawing. Sometimes, multiple people call with the same questions, even though the answers are already on the drawing or specifications. "We try to avoid that for our customers," he said. "And our engineering staff helps us do more of that than most shops. We can look at a drawing and understand a customer's product and their specific requirements and not have to bother them so much. We make a concerted effort to make it easy for our customers to do business with us. Assuming we are provided with all necessary information, we strive to have our regular customers' purchasing experience consist of placing their order, then receiving their parts—on time and ready to use."
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