How to Make a Machine Dance

How to Make a Machine Dance

An Okuma horizontal machining center can do extraordinary things in the hands of the right operators

Fastems system

Together, the Fastems system (left) and the Okuma MA-500 HMC form a perfect “cell.”


About 12 months ago, Eastlake, Ohio-based Suburban Manufacturing took possession of a new Okuma MA-500 horizontal machining center (HMC), and after hooking it up to a Fastems 20-pallet management system, general manager Nick Carlozzi and his team began “laying down the tracks” to make the new MA-500 “dance.”

Making machines dance isn’t the magical effect of anything that Suburban does, nor that other machining job shops cannot do. According to Carlozzi, it’s just the effect of two important factors: 1.) The right machine, in this case the Okuma MA-500; and 2.) The right dance partners.

Machine dancing is what happens with a well designed, flexible, robust and rigid machine tool in the hands of innovative machinists and operators who can make the machine do extraordinary things.

“A machine is a machine is a machine,” Carlozzi says. “What one shop does with it may be one thing; what we do with it might make it 10 times more productive, 10 times more efficient, produce closer-tolerance parts, finer finishes, better tool life, reduced cycle time. If you have the right machine, then it’s just a matter of bringing innovation, new thinking, continuous improvement and rethinking/reinventing your customers’ — your partners’ — jobs.

Innovators and owners
Suburban Manufacturing is nearly 30 years old. The state-of-the-art, 30,000-ft2 shop has 40 employees, many of them tenured machinists, all of them innovative, creative and multi-talented employee-owners.

Suburban Manufacturing’s 30,000 sq ft job shop

An overhead view of Suburban Manufacturing’s 30,000 sq ft job shop in Eastlake, Ohio. “We have VMCs and HMCs, single spindle lathes with barfeeders and multi-spindle CNC chuckers, saws, hones, sand blasting, part marking and assembly,” explains Nick Carlozzi. The MA-500 HMC and Fastems cell is in the rear-center of this photo.


For in an employee-owned business, it’s to each employee’s advantage to do everything within their control to make the business better, more efficient, leaner, more agile and, of course, profitable. And at Suburban, the employees are given fertile ground to think, innovate, redesign processes, fixturing, tooling, setups and much more.

“When we take on a job,” says Carlozzi, “we may get four different opinions and approaches of the best way to do the job. We listen to any and all suggestions, we weigh them, discuss them, model them on the computer with tooling and fixturing, and then we decide the direction we’re going to take. Getting all these inputs before we decide is where we see real innovation — ownership innovation.

These are the kinds of approaches to real machining issues that are considered for each job, Carlozzi says, accounts for Suburban Manufacturing’s 99-percent performance record for achieving “first part/good part.”

Management extensions
Having an employee-owned shop doesn’t mean that the employees are free to run after their individual and singularly unique machining solutions. Indeed, although there is the mandate for individual innovative thinking, there are very real levels between top management and the shop floor. For example, a plaque on wall of the main conference room announces: A Team Captain is an extension of management and serves as a liaison between upper management and the shop floor. He’s a leader and a go-to person for the other employees, handling the day-to-day tasks, and being ever-vigilant to improve each job and process and all aspects of Suburban Manufacturing.

“Basically, instead of having a single shop Foreman who struggles to oversee all shop operations, we have a team of four captains — all highly skilled, very experienced and knowledgeable of all facets and processes that are at play in the shop.”

The captains are selected by and report to top management. That said, they are actively involved in all morning meetings regarding everything that’s going on at the time. The captains will set up new jobs, program, troubleshoot, help train new employees, help with inspection, select and order tooling — basically being involved with all levels of employees and the daily activity of the shop.

The machine fit
Carlozzi likes to say that Suburban is a “true job shop.” “We have VMCs and HMCs, single-spindle lathes, with bar feeders and multi-spindle CNC chuckers, saws, hones, sand blasting, part marking and assembly — a huge array of operations,” he says. “We run all grades of aluminum, stainless, brass, Hastelloy, Inconel, and titanium. We run bar, plate, castings, forgings, and extrusions. We tackle a mixture of prismatic and cylindrical parts. We do everything from prototyping to production and everything in between.”

Suburban Manufacturing

One Suburban Manufacturing team member unloads parts on a tombstone in the Fastems, while another operates the Okuma MA-500 HMC.


So, when Suburban went shopping for a new HMC, the models they considered had to be able to handle all of the above, plus deliver aerospace tolerances and finishes, be lightning fast, keenly precise and immovably rigid.

The search began in 2008, specifically at the 2008 IMTS show in Chicago. There, the Suburban buying team looked a wide variety of new equipment. By the end of that trip, they had focused on a new Okuma, specifically an MA-400 or MA-500 HMC.

“We originally thought the 400 would do, but then we began looking at larger parts and decided we needed the 31-inch envelope of the 500 to accommodate a move toward larger part applications,” Carlozzi says.

Other reasons for selecting Okuma over other brands were Okuma’s solid reputation and the fact that the company has been around forever (since the end of the 19th century.) Okuma’s distributor, Gosiger, in Cleveland, is well known for its service and support, too. And, Suburban Manufacturing had previous experience with Okuma.

“The fact is,” Carlozzi says, “we have an Okuma MC 50 HMC with a 50-tool ATC, CAT 50 taper tooling, 50 hp motor and multiple pallets. This machine must be 25 years old, and it’s still running today, holding great tolerances and overall performing just fine.”

A few pallets here, a Fastems there
When the MA-500 arrived it was shortly followed by a Fastems 20-pallet storage/management system. Once the two were tied together, four 20x20-in. pallets from the older MC-50 were moved over to the MA-500, and just by moving from the old to the new, cycle time was cut by 20 min — and this without making any other changes. The difference was speed. The MA-500 has a rapid traverse of 2,362 ipm with a 0.7 G acc/dec — far faster than our other HMCs.

“What we’re doing is taking tall 8-sided tombstone fixtures and loading them up with parts. This way we can get as many parts as possible on the table at one time,” Carlozzi says.

Okuma MA-500 HMC

Inside the work envelope of the Okuma MA-500 HMC — precisely carving out parts fixtured on an 8-sided tombstone fixture.


With the Fastems, the goal is to have jobs set up in advance, so when a customer calls ordering a specific job, the fixturing and the tooling will already be in the machine, ready to run one or 50 parts at a moments notice.

“We’re currently moving a job that ran on one of our VMCs. The job was fixtured with four vises,” Carlozzi says, “and we’re putting it on the new Okuma. We’re going to be able to run 12 parts at a time — and run lights out. That’s the real beauty, especially if you consider we run a single shift, five and one-half days. This capability allows Suburban to utilize more hours per day without adding labor costs.”

This is just working smart, Carlozzi says. In fact, he maintains that Suburban was lean before “lean” ever became Lean. “Why do a single part at a time? We can set up two to three different jobs on a fixture and just keep that setup if we know the job is coming back, or we can put 20 of one part on the table and just let it run.”

Carlozzi says that Suburban is leaning on HMCs more and more because, in large part, with the pallet changer one can almost eliminate idle spindle time. The spindle is turning even during pallet changes. “We put a fixture in, and we do all the loading and unloading outside the machine, while the machine is running,” he says. “Further we’re trying to combine operations at every turn. With the VMCs and lathes, we may have to do three to four setups. With the Okuma MA-500 we do a single setup, saving all that setup time.”

Not only is time saved in single setups, but also one eliminates costly setup “variables.” Every time an operator touches a part in fixturing and refixturing the setup, one introduces the possibility (likelihood) of process variability, which may result in out-of-spec parts requiring time-consuming rework and/or scrap. The fewer variables in the process, the greater the odds of first part/good part.

Tools and other factors
“Using the multiple pallets on the MA-500 allows us to set up more jobs at any given time,” says Carlozzi. “One thing we noticed early on was we were getting an increase of 20 percent in tool life with the new Okuma — and that’s without changing anything. This is due to the extreme rigidity of the machine.

Carlozzi notes that the MA-500 weighed 15,000 lbs more than any of the competition. “In Machine Tools 101,” he says, “when you get to the part about machine stability and rigidity, you’re really talking about weight and weight distribution. This machine weighs in at about 51,000 lbs. Couple that with the fact that it’s a 50-taper machine with a 100-tool ATC that provides a blazing 4.4-sec chip-to-chip change time, and we’re talking about real flexibility.”

The MA-500 also is equipped with a Renishaw tool-management system that allows Suburban to monitor the condition of tools in the cut in terms of length, diameter, wear and breakage, further enhancing tool life.

One more thing that impresses Carlozzi is the overall design of the MA-500. Little touches, he says, like a high-speed axis feed of 2,362 ipm providing nearly instant access to parts, and improves productivity. A wide range of spindles offers full horsepower from low to high RPMs. And, for extremely high accuracy, Okuma’s double sleeve spindle cooling system balances the spindle head temperature to prevent deformation and the resulting imperfection.

“We also installed a ChipBlaster high-pressure coolant delivery system. It’s 1,500 psi through-the-spindle, which again adds to better tool life through immediate chip removal in the cut zone.”

Prototyping and then some
Carlozzi says Suburban has a customer that used a prototype shop that apparently did some good work — “They’d do the prototype and ‘most of the time’ it would work,” he offers — but they never took the next step.

“We’re currently working with this aerospace customer developing a prototype. The customer used to get all the components for production from a variety of sources. However, the prototype we’re doing is going to eliminate the need for those other parts. This way, we hand off the prototype and they can still do a full build-up to acquire all the approvals and signoffs they need for production,” Carlozzi says. “However, while we were doing the prototype we developed the production process, did all the fixturing and tooling — actually proved out some of the production parts. This is taking the next step.”

Carlozzi says that many prototype shops don’t take the “next step” because the up-front investments and commitments are significant, and the payback may be long-term. He says Suburban has done prototype jobs for helicopters, jet fighters, the Boeing 787 Dream Liner, and the actual production may be a year or more later. “But when it comes,” he adds, “we’re ready to fire the job right up, to run their production.”

Productivity and parts out the door
“On an average week,” Carlozzi says, “we might ship 3,000 to 6,000 parts. The job we’re running on the MA-500 is different. We may ship 600 of those a week. But we’re also doing assembly before shipment.

“The machine is very productive, and we’re getting outstanding up-time,” Carlozzi continues. “It’s conquered everything we’ve put on its table. Our impression of Okuma at the time of purchase was very good, and that hasn’t changed a bit. The MA-500 is the perfect machine for what we want to do now and what we’re planning for in the future. And it’s absolutely impressive. Customers come through here and stop dead in their tracks when they see the MA-500 and the Fastems. They’re just wowed.”

The ultimate goal, Carlozzi says, was to replace some of Suburban’s older equipment, machines just not holding repeatable tolerances. They’d especially like to retire some of their VMCs. “Each of those machines requires a dedicated operator, and we can just move the work over to the MA-500, freeing up people to work in other parts of the shop and opening up some valuable real estate. This is a gradual process, but the Okuma is helping speed the process up.”

Carlozzi extends an open invitation to customers and prospects to come by, take a tour, bring prints of their toughest jobs. “There’s nothing we’re afraid to tackle, nothing,” he says. “Plus, we’ll show you how the machines in the hands of the Suburban team can really dance. We love to make the machines dance.”

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