High-tech shop on the prairie

High-tech shop on the prairie

middle-of-nowhere location
Natoma Corp.’s middle-of-nowhere location works to the shop’s advantage when it comes to maintaining a workforce and low overhead costs.

There’s a machine shop located halfway between Denver and Kansas City in an area the shop’s president affectionately calls the “middle of nowhere.” Its location may be rural, but the shop operates on a high-tech level to service customers hundreds of miles away.

Natoma Corp., (www.natomacorporation.com) in Norton, Kansas, specializes in machining small, close-tolerance parts for the aerospace, medical and laboratory instrument markets. The shop is thriving, and Gail Boller, company president, attributes that success to top-quality work from reliable high-quality equipment; short runs of small parts; an experienced and stable workforce; low overhead; and on-time deliveries that promote customer loyalty.

As part of its reliable high-quality equipment lineup, Natoma has 13 Fanuc RoboDrill high-speed CNC vertical machining centers purchased from Methods Machine Tools Inc. (www.methodsmachine.com) through McClain Tool & Technology, a Methods dealership in St. Louis.

Fanuc RoboDrills
Fanuc RoboDrills deliver the speed, accuracy and versatility Natoma needs for its milling, drilling, tapping and deburring operations.

Five of the machines are 4-axis RoboDrill E models, three are longbed PC2 pallet-changer RoboDrills, three are older standard RoboDrills, and two are RoboDrill Mates.

Natoma’s RoboDrill E model machines, the newest models available, deliver the speed, accuracy and versatility the shop needs to machine a wide range of parts. The machines provide rigid tapping to 8,000 rpm, peck tapping for blind holes, high-speed reverse tapping up to 20 times faster than infeed, feedrates to 2,362 ipm, accelerations to 1.5 G, and 0.9-second tool-to-tool changes.

Precision-enhancing thermal compensation and HRV controls give the RoboDrills their accuracies of 0.0002 in. and repeatabilities of +/- 0.00008 in. Fanuc 31i-A5 Nano CNCs offer control resolutions of one nanometer, optional 1,000-block look-ahead and 0.4 ms blockprocessing speeds.

“We’ve stayed with the RoboDrills because they are problem-free,” said Boller. “They have strong toolchanger systems, and they are twice as fast as the machines we were using. We run them every day, and their reliability has been excellent.”

A typical part at Natoma weighs less than an ounce, so the shop considers a 0.500-in.-diameter endmill huge. Most of the time it uses 0.250-in.-diameter, or smaller, endmills.

With two points of contact, the RoboDrill machines’ Big Plus spindles provide much greater rigidity than most people would believe, said Boller, and he is often amazed that his shop can machine such tiny parts.

On the issue of foreign competition, Boller said he loses no sleep worrying about it because his customers typically require relatively short production runs of only 100 to 300 parts, and it is impractical for them to send the work overseas.

“We recently quoted a job for a company that had just returned 400 rejected parts to a contract manufacturer in Singapore and had to keep its lines going,” explained Boller. “The lower price wasn’t worth the headaches.”

When it comes to maintaining a stable and experienced workforce, Natoma’s rural location works to the shop’s advantage. Boller said that the shop has never had an employee quit to take a machining job in another town. The reason being Natoma is the only shop in the western half of Kansas that does its particular type of machining.

Of the shop’s 55 employees, 35 are machinists. All but three of them learned the trade while working for the company. Boller said it is slow going, but they learned the company’s way.

Being in the “middle of nowhere” also helps keep overhead costs low at Natoma. Kansas real estate prices, which are about one-tenth of those in Denver, have allowed the shop to economically expand from a two-man shop in a 3,000-sq-ft facility to its current 40,000-sq-ft building.

According to Boller, location is not a hindrance to delivering jobs on time. He explained that since the shop is only 60 miles from the geographic center of the continental United States, shipping accounts for less than 1 percent, on average, of the customer’s total cost.

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