Making 'Rooms' for Machining

Nov. 11, 2009
Shop thrives on tough materials, complex parts and tight tolerances.
Special temperature-controlled rooms allow Aphelion Precision Technologies to achieve extremely tight part tolerances.

Everyone at Aphelion Precision Technologies “loves” titanium. That’s because the 65-employee contract machining shop has gained something of a reputation for taking on the jobs that others wouldn’t even consider attempting, most of which involve highly complex titanium parts.

About 80 percent of the shop’s work serves the aerospace and defense markets, while 15 percent supports optics such as laser targeting and satellite systems. The balance of work is in medical.

Besides titanium, Aphelion machines aluminum, stainless, tungsten and nickel-based alloy parts. Most involve multi-axis machining and tolerances held in the millionths of an inch range. These include components for the F-18 fighter jet, the Tomahawk missile and Apache helicopter.

According to Gene Kline, vice president of operations at Aphelion, what makes it possible to hold extremely close tolerances in such tough material as titanium are the shop’s several temperature-controlled, totally enclosed rooms. While the whole shop is air conditioned, these special rooms have sensors mounted on their walls, and temperatures never vary more than +/- 0.5 degrees F.

“Being able to machine in temperature- controlled rooms eliminates the problem of part-size fluctuation. And when trying to hold tolerances in the millionths, you can’t have room temperatures varying by full degrees at a time,” said Kline.

Part volumes at Aphelion vary from prototype jobs of one to five pieces to those requiring a couple thousand pieces. But, it’s not a huge production shop, and typical production volumes are between 100 and 500 pieces.

• Aphelion Precision Technologies Wheeling, Ill.

• Number of employees — 65

• 2009 sales — N/A

• Markets served: Aerospace, defense, and medical

Every job gets assigned to a project manager and process engineer. The two of them determine the best way to process the particular job through the shop.

The manufacturing area is set up in cells of three or four machines and organized by process, such as milling, EDM or turning. Parts move from one cell to the next, with appropriate programs stored on the shop’s network.

Production managers make sure parts flow smoothly around the shop, as does the production planner who coordinates scheduling. A manufacturing production manager ensures that parts continue to move according to a schedule, and he works closely with the process engineers.

A part’s most dominant required process or its critical features often determine which process engineer gets the project. Each cell has a process engineer who then is in charge not only for set up, but also for programming the job.

According to Kline, the shop used to have one main programmer but found it tough to rely so heavily on one person. If the programmer was gone for a week, for instance, jobs would bottleneck, or the programmer would end up working 80 hours a week to catch up upon his return. To eliminate this problem, the shop trains its set up guys to also program jobs.

“The most significant advantage of doing this is that we not only increase output, but we are able to take on more difficult jobs. In the past, we would take on a couple of difficult jobs, and from the get-go, we would know that, from a programming standpoint, and even a setup standpoint, we would be overloaded to take on other jobs,” explained Kline.

Training to program gave set-up personnel an opportunity to advance from a professional standpoint and in pay scale. Each one is accountable for his cell, and in the case of parts with longer cycle times, floating operators will help him out, so he can move to another cell. The shop has about 10 floating operators who work mostly second and third shifts.

“Once we gave everybody the opportunity to grow and expand themselves, the inner politics of ‘I’m not sharing information with the next guy’ went away. We have nothing but team players now, and that has been a major achievement spanning the past five to six years,” said Kline. “No one is worried that if they share what they know, someone will take their job.”

In addition to training set-up guys to program, too, Kline indicated that implementing project managers sets the shop apart from its competitors.

Aphelion Precision Technologies specializes in complex components and those made from tough materials such as titanium.

He explained that parts are quite involved, extremely expensive, and don’t lend themselves well to being farmed out. On top of that, the shop can only use approved shops and ones that work to Aphelion’s high standards.

However, the choices in the immediate area are limited. And when the shop does farm out work, project managers deal with those outside vendors.

“With all our overall experienced and trained employees, we have an uncanny ability to troubleshoot potential problem areas in a project prior to even starting it. This allows us to minimize errors before they happen. We also rely heavily on our quality lab for this,” said Kline. He added that the shop’s highly skilled quality lab also will work with customers at the development stages of a job to ensure the best outcomes.

Its operating principals and practices are paying off for Aphelion. Besides being the recipient of the Small Business Administration’s Subcontractor of the Year award for Region 5 and Lockheed Martin’s 2009 Supplier of the Year award, the shop continues to grow and expects to end 2009 well into the black. It has also invested in new machines and new capabilities.

For example, recently it purchased four new pieces of equipment, a Makino 5-axis machining center and a Makino 3-axis machine, a Hardinge Precision lathe with live tooling, and a Mori Seiki lathe with live tooling. And, it added another temperaturecontrolled room. In total, the shop invested over $1 million.

In addition to the new machines, Aphelion added aluminum vacuum brazing and aluminum heat treating to its list of capabilities.

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