Small Parts for a Small Machining Niche
Offering short runs and fast turnaround has provided Swissomation with a niche offering of micro-machined parts that have not only put them in high demand from an array of industries, including electronics and medical, but have also made them sought after by other screw machine shops who can't handle the quantities and quick turnaround.
"We're able to turn parts pretty fast, which is a huge deal in today's market," said company president Chris Welch, adding that Swissomation specializes in shorter runs and therefore doesn't have to compete with China, which is typically focused on longer runs. China can't compete with 1,000, 500, or even 50 pieces, he said, adding that the company makes about six pieces for an electronics application for a large computer manufacturer. "We do a lot of short-run, quick-turnaround, need-it-tomorrow work where the customer doesn't want to wait. And that's really the biggest thing that sets us apart from other companies, is that most screw machine companies you talk to don't like short runs, and don't like tiny parts, and don't like fast turnaround."
The company's in-house tool making allows workers to offer the shortest lead times in the industry, according to Welch, who added that Swissomation grinds its own turning tools to "really get the sharpness that's required for the smaller parts." Off-the-shelf tools, he said, are not sharp enough. "The cutting pressure will push on the part and break the small part," he explained. "It's like cutting bread. If you use a dull knife, it smashes it. If you use a really sharp knife, then you can cut through without deforming the bread itself."
Swissomation (www.swissomation.com), based in Fredericksburg, Texas, specializes in micro machining an array of materials to very complex geometries with dimensional tolerances to +/- 0.0001 inch. The company's CNC lathes and CNC mills are capable of machining up to 3/4-inch parts—mainly in aluminum, beryllium copper, brass, bronzes, stainless steel, and even plastics, as well as other alloys—for any industry. With Swiss turning machines, multiple operations, including milling, cross drilling, and crimping, can be accomplished on parts that go down to 0.004 inch in diameter.
"When you start to get into really small parts, you have to be able to handle those small parts," Welch said. "So although there are other people who can machine a particular part, how do they catch it? How do they clean it? How do they separate it from the chips? How do they deburr it? So they may have the same machine we have, but if your shop isn't set up to handle smaller parts, and the support equipment and the size of the baskets aren't there, then they can't do what we do," Welch said.
Having grown last year from 8,100 sq. ft. to 16,350 sq. ft., Swissomation has 36 Swiss machines and about 10 CNC mills and other conventional lathes that help with secondary operations. The conventional lathes are not as effective with handling the smaller parts because the part that hangs off the machine can bend. Whereas the Swiss style centers have a little bushing that the part feeds out through and the tools cut right up next to the bushing.
"So the material is always supported [enabling] you to do a longer length to diameter ratio," said Welch. "When you really start to get into the micro parts with a diameter of, say ten thousandths, you can really stick that part out 25 thousandths. That's about as far as you can put out a ten thousandths part and do any work on it and expect it not to bend. If you're putting in a bar that's seven thousandths and machining it and then cutting it off, there's just no room to make a part that's useful if you were using a conventional lathe."
The company has an excellent quality program in place and is compliant with ISO 9001 standards, Welch said, adding that he does not agree that having ISO certification necessarily helps with quality control. "The problem with the ISO system is it doesn't make the person out on the floor check the parts," he said, explaining that quality control really comes down to whether the workers take pride in their products. "My family has been doing this a long time, and we have checks and balances in place to make sure parts are checked by multiple people and are documented and the dimensions are written down," he said. "It's about experience and the ability to look at a part and know. If you're just going off a piece of paper, saying you have to check it this many times per day, it's not really building quality in the part."
With one design engineer on staff, Swissomation encourages its customers to work together early on in the design phase to design for manufacturability, which can save much money in the long run. "A lot of engineers don't understand our machines and how they work. It's very simple to look at a part on a computer screen. But as people are designing smaller and smaller parts, they don't think about manufacturability," he said.
Recently, Swissomation was working on an eye implant project for a medical customer and was able to reduce the cost of the project by redesigning for manufacturability. The titanium part, which required milling, was very small and tightly toleranced, with intersecting holes below 0.015 in diameter. The size, complexity, and material used added to the challenge. Swissomation was able to devise a faster, more efficient way to manufacture the part than was originally designed.
"The easier it is to manufacture, the less expensive it is," Welch said. "If you can get all of the critical functions to be machined with one holding, where you grab a hold of the bar and machine everything that is critical in one chucking, then nothing is going to move to each other. All the parts are exactly the same. You don't have a variance for when you take the part out and put it back in."
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