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Abipa Canada Formulates Competitive Future
Company Streamlines Operation With Automated 5-Axis Machining Cell
Becoming a world-class supplier for today’s leading aerospace original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) requires a steadfast determination to remain focused on the future. Abipa Canada Inc. of Laval, Quebec, is always looking forward as it continually strives to improve its processes.
Abipa recently streamlined its operation with a new automated 5-axis machining cell it purchased to adapt to industry pricing realities and customer expectations for a low-cost content strategy. It is now able to produce parts at a ratio of at least 3-to-1 compared to previous processes, without adding labor.
“We are continuously looking to improve our processes and to be better than we were yesterday, and this means seizing opportunities to become more competitive,” said Rui Cabral, general manager at Abipa. “What matters most to us is developing new innovations that add value to our customers, shareholders and the aerospace industry as a whole.”
While this successful integration has helped Abipa stand today as a leading Tier 2 supplier of small to mid-sized aircraft engine and structural components for the likes of Bombardier Aerospace and Pratt & Whitney Canada, the path to its success was paved with several difficult learning experiences.
Following the recession of 2009, although Abipa was recognized for its quality and agility performance, it found itself frequently ranking as one of the pricier suppliers in its bidding efforts. It was this eye-opening experience that led Abipa to reevaluate its manufacturing processes with a forward-looking mentality.
“When we took a close look at the situation, we realized that low machine run-time ratio due to multiple setup operations was the single biggest differentiating factor in our cost equation,” said Cabral. “Similar to the local suppliers, our shop floor was composed of stand-alone machining centers with an operator stationed at each machine.”
While the answer to improving Abipa’s competitiveness was clear, its leadership team did not take the investment decision lightly. Driven by a thorough strategic plan process, they defined a clear mission and vision, and identified the core activities for development. The company determined that in order to become truly cost competitive, the right automated 5-axis machining solution would have to produce parts at a ratio of at least 2-to-1 compared to previous processes, without adding labor. Additionally, the technology needed to be modular in order to aggressively expand and pursue further cost reductions in the future.
Abipa made its move into automation with the purchase of a Makino robotic fixture plate distribution system, known as MMC-R, equipped with 20 fixture plates and an a61nx-5E 5-axis horizontal machining center. The success of this automated 5-axis machining cell quickly created enthusiasm and interest among the staff at Abipa, who aptly named the cell’s robot “Shorai,” which translates to “the future” in Japanese.
“Looking back now, it’s odd to think that we were concerned about finding a solution that would meet our 2-to-1 production ratio requirement,” stated Éric Deconninck, director of production. “It hasn’t even been a full year since the cell’s installation, and we are already exceeding those expectations without fully optimizing all of our processes to take advantage of the a61nx-5E’s full capabilities. Based on the current performance of this automated 5-axis machining cell, we are now looking to gain the same level of productivity as three of our previous machines, without the need for additional manpower.”
Despite its current size and market position, Abipa has spent much of its history as a small single-ownership company. Founded in 1982, the company got its start as a sheet-metal fabricator. In the 1990s, it performed assembly, welding and low-volume part production for the aerospace market. This expansion continued over the next decade, and by 2004, Abipa was growing by 20 percent year over year as orders from Pratt & Whitney Canada and Bombardier Aerospace grew. At this point, the company began investing in milling and turning machines to help boost production capacity, and in 2006 the shop expanded to double its original floor space.
PROVING OUT THE PROCESS
“Justifying the cost of automation was critical,” said Cabral. “We needed to demonstrate that an automated 5-axis machining cell would help us save jobs by becoming more competitive, not eliminate them. It was important for us to share how we could maintain current employment and allow workers to become better trained and more tech savvy— potentially advancing their careers from operators to programmers or inspectors.”
The first priority for Abipa was to search for an automation and machine tool supplier, which was carried forward with a focus on finding the right technology and the best value proposition in order to ensure that the best solution was identified. The company weighed several machine characteristics, including cutting speed, rigidity and tool capacity, to meet its 2-to-1 production ratio benchmark. Several members of Abipa’s leadership team had prior experience working with Makino’s larger MAG-series machines for structural aerospace components. Through this experience, they knew that the company and its regional dealership, Single Source Technologies–Canada (SST–Canada), offered deep knowledge and experience in aerospace applications.
“From application engineering support to the build quality of the machines themselves, it’s clear that Makino and SST–Canada have a deep understanding of this market,” said Nicolas Girard, director of methods and technologies, Abipa. “When we first saw the a61nx-5E, it reminded us of a smaller version of the MAG-series machines, offering exceptional levels of material removal and productivity. Additionally, the MMC-R system offered the flexibility we needed in a small enough footprint that could work within our available floor space.”
Cabral and his colleagues evaluated the productivity of their current technologies. Through their analysis, they found that approximately one-third of all available production hours were currently being consumed by setup and maintenance processes. At 5,760 production hours per year, this meant that Abipa was achieving just 3,745 hours of available machining time.
“Based on test results coming in from Mason, Ohio, we calculated that the setup and maintenance hours for a stand-alone a61nx-5E were roughly equivalent to that of our current technologies; however, the machine’s cutting performance was capable of increasing productivity by 80 percent—the equivalent of 5,949 production hours on our current equipment,” said Deconninck. “These production figures grew exponentially when factoring in the impact of the MMC-R system. By eliminating setup hours and increasing spindle utilization to 95 percent, the productivity gains of the a61nx-5E were extended, reaching what would be the equivalent of 9,850 machining hours on our existing systems.”
Abipa also took note of several new capabilities afforded by the automated 5-axis machining cell, including lights-out production scheduling and a larger machine work envelope that would enable the company to expand the work envelope and consequently offer larger part sizes to the market.
“There were many tangible and intangible considerations that went into building our case for 5-axis machine automation,” said Cabral. “The justification covered every detail, evaluating actual cutting performance, return on investment, customer service, applications support and anticipated business growth. The Makino cell fulfilled each and every aspect without question, and our senior management team agreed to move forward with the plan immediately.”
PUTTING THE PLAN INTO ACTION
Working closely with Makino and SST–Canada application engineers, Abipa’s manufacturing team began to develop an implementation plan including not only the installation of the equipment but also design and fabrication of the modular fixturing, tool holders, cutters, probing routines, presetter integration and the development of CNC programs for three parts that would represent the various parts targeted for the machine that would also serve as acceptance tests. The MMC-R cell with a61nx-5E was assembled at Makino’s Mason, Ohio, headquarters to prove out performance expectations on the three parts designated by both parties.
The automated 5-axis machining cell was installed in September 2013, and within weeks the company was loading orders into the cell and producing parts in a fraction of its previous processing times.
“The performance of the a61nx-5E has not only met but exceeded expectations on several occasions,” said Deconninck. “Depending on the part design and material, we’ve seen productivity increases ranging anywhere from 85 percent to 525 percent. Production ratios are up to 3-to-1, and the more material that needs to be removed, the more productive we are. For example, the cycle time for one of our smaller parts dropped from 58 minutes to 26 minutes; meanwhile, the cycle time for one of our larger, more complex parts was reduced from 300 minutes to just 48 minutes.”
According to Cabral, current performance enhancements are scratching only the surface of the a61nx-5E’s full potential. Today, Abipa is working to perform tap testing on each part program in order to optimize cutting processes based on the a61nx-5E’s capabilities. Equipped with Makino’s unique 107-horsepower, 24,000-rpm spindle, the company expects to see significant performance gains from the a61nx-5E that go beyond initial expectations. “Of the parts currently undergoing tap testing, we’ve been able to double and even triple feedrates to achieve higher material-removal rates. In one application, average material-removal rates increased four times. The biggest contribution to this growth was during the roughing process, where rates increased up to 20 times,” said Girard.
Other process optimization activities in development at Abipa include setup alterations to support reductions in out-of-cut time. The company is evaluating how it can better use the larger work zone in a way that is unique for small to midsize components.
“One of the unique capabilities that we have is our ability to apply prior experiences and methodologies from experience with the MAG-series machines to the production of smaller parts,” said Girard. “With our previous equipment, it was difficult for us to produce hole features with tight tolerances for circular interpolation. These features required us to use a honing machine or boring head, which led to additional setups, teardowns and transfers between equipment. With the a61nx-5E, we are now able to machine-bore features complete using 180-degree indexing. Diameters are held within plus or minus 0.0006 inches with matching alignment within plus or minus 0.0002 inches.”
STANDARDIZING AND SIMPLIFYING SETUP PROCEDURES
While Abipa currently has 85 parts programmed into the MMC-R cell, it expects to grow that number to 500 different parts in the future. In 2014 alone, the company is anticipating 100 new aluminum part orders—most of which are to be added to the cell’s production queue.
“By choosing to go with the optional 218-tool capacity magazine for the a61nx-5E, we’ve gained a higher degree of production flexibility,” said Girard. “This expanded capacity not only allows for a wider selection of on-board tooling but also affords space for redundancy to keep the cell running unattended longer. We’re also actively developing a standardized approach to tooling and fixturing for quicker, easier setup routines.”
Girard and other team members are currently engineering new processes to simplify operators’ procedures when running the cell, making the technology easily accessible for operators at any skill level. This approach is particularly helpful in growing operators’ versatility.
The company has established several fail-safe processes using a sophisticated probing routine within the machine to read what fixture, part number and fixtured part quantity have been loaded for processing.
“When humans are involved at any point in a production process, errors or incidents can and will happen regardless of operator skill level,” explained Deconninck. “The addition of these fail-safe probing routines ensures that no matter how the machine can read and react appropriately to the job at hand. Even if a billet is accidentally fixture incorrectly, the machine will stop and move on to the next pallet. It’s a highly intuitive process that is just one of the many ways that we are continuing to innovate and improve.”
BUILDING ADDITIONAL VALUE
Despite the overwhelmingly successful integration of its new automated 5-axis machining cell, Abipa continues to look toward the future. With the MMC-R’s modular expansion capabilities, the company intends to add more machines and pallets to the system as it transfers parts to the cell and adds new orders. For phase 2 of Abipa’s automation plans, the company is expecting to add a second a61nx-5E to the cell that is designed to handle harder materials such as steel and titanium. A third and fourth machine are also in the plans to complete the cell as part of a phase 3 expansion.
“For every two a61nx-5E machines placed in the cell, we expect to gain productivity equivalent to at least five of our previous machines,” said Cabral. “By the time that phase 3 is completed, the cell will have provided us the productivity of more than 10 machines. Our customers have already begun to recognize the changes and advancements that we are making, and they see us as a viable, cost-effective solution and very competitive alternative to outsourcing their production to other countries.”
With a growing volume and variety of part orders, Abipa looks forward to taking full advantage of the production scheduling and reporting capabilities of the MMC-R’s MAS-A5 control software. Cabral and other managers intend to use the software’s functionality to improve production workflow and optimize the shop’s inventory for further price reductions.
The company also plans to eventually replace much of its previous technologies to further cut down on part costs and create additional floor space for more automation.
“Every day we are looking for opportunities to become more cost competitive and provide value that our customers can’t get elsewhere,” said Cabral. “We’re working to maintain and grow our reputation as a world-class Tier 2 supplier for aerospace OEMs, Tier 1 integrators and equipment manufacturers through continuous innovation. So while we are excited to share all of our recent accomplishments in 5-axis machining and automation, our ambitions will never be satisfied by the accomplishments of today.”
Abipa Canada Inc.
Laval, Quebec, Canada