Exacta Aerospace Expands Capacity and Capabilities to Secure Its Future
“When you are a supplier to the global aerospace market, you get it right the first time—and every time after. This isn’t just a clever tag line we promote, but a commitment we make to each and every customer,” said Ben Voegeli, Exacta Aerospace’s general manager.
Exacta Aerospace, Inc. of Wichita, Kan., is a family-run business that was founded in 1978 by current President Randy Voegeli with the assistance of his wife and company CEO, Bonnie Voegeli. Since its inception, the company has grown to become a leader in the manufacture of part components, sheet-metal details, kits and assemblies for the world’s largest aviation manufacturers. The operations of Exacta are shared with Randy and Bonnie’s two sons, Ben and Casey.
“Experience produces excellence,” said Casey, Exacta’s director of business operations. “For more than 30 years, this company and its highly skilled employees have been delivering the highest quality parts and components for commercial aircraft, military aircraft and business jets. To maintain this competitive position, we’ve invested heavily in machining technologies that can continuously improve accuracy, cycle time and labor.”
According to Ben, the company’s current capabilities far exceed those of just under a decade ago. What once was a shop floor full of 3-axis vertical machining centers is now filled with automated cells of 4- and 5-axis machining centers. He attributes this dynamic change to the company’s 2003 investment with a Makino a51 horizontal machining center—its first high-speed horizontal purchase.
“When you make investments in machinery, you don’t go cheap. You need something that’s built to last regardless of punishing tasks,” said Ben. “Immediately after installation, we noticed that the volume of work that one a51 could handle was equivalent to three of our verticals, which also translated into the need for only one operator instead of three. Since then, we’ve continued to make incremental investments that would improve our efficiency through automation, 5-axis capabilities and ultimately the capacity to produce full assemblies. Since investing in Makino equipment, our revenue has grown more than 14 times.”
Adding Capacity to Maximize Profitability
Exacta’s investment decisions have been part of a larger strategic plan, Ben explained, which includes building its capacity to produce large, complex assemblies efficiently and maximize the company’s profitability. “Acquiring machines appropriate for all part sizes and geometries is a key factor when working with aerospace assemblies,” he said.
With a large majority of the company’s work composed of aluminum, Exacta has focused much of its investments on automated aluminum machining capabilities. Following the success of the initial a51, the company acquired two additional a51s, along with an A77E horizontal machining center. The A77E offered similar capabilities as its a51s, but with a larger work envelope for applications such as hinges and truss ribs.
“Aluminum is our bread and butter and has always offered a steady flow of new orders that have enabled us to justify our investments,” said Casey. “Based on market conditions at the time, we were confident that we could win additional orders with more capacity, which led us to continue our investments. Over the next several years, our investments had culminated into two automated cells—one cell featuring four a51s and another with two A77Es and a single a71.”
In 2007, Exacta discovered new business opportunities for aluminum part sizes larger than those of the a71 and A77E, such as bulkheads, floor panels and large truss ribs. Again, Exacta went back out onto the market to find a suitable solution.
“While we certainly had a sizable number of Makino machines on hand, we still wanted to check out other machine manufacturers to create competition,” said Ben. “However, we simply couldn’t find another product that could compete. Most manufacturers didn’t offer the spindle speeds or feedrates in the horizontal configuration that we had grown to prefer. Additionally, our operators were already familiar with Makino technology, making the transition quicker and easier while standardizing the machine platform across all part families.”
Exacta’s final decision was a MAG3EX 5-axis horizontal machining center. While it currently remains stand-alone, the company is also making preparations to integrate the machine into a cell with two additional MAG3EX’s in the near future. According to Ben, the MAG3EX clearly demonstrates Makino’s understanding of the aerospace market, due to its rigid design, 33,000-rpm spindle and cutting feedrates of 1,000 inches per minute.
“With each Makino investment, we could tell that these products are designed with flexibility that makes them ideal, not just for aerospace, but for a wide variety of markets,” said Casey. “A perfect example has been our recent investment in two Makino D500 5-axis vertical machining centers, which have been integrated into the a51 cell. When you’re able to reduce cycle times by 30 to 40 percent by eliminating several operations from each job like we have with the D500s, that’s a benefit manufacturers from all markets can appreciate.”
Taking on Titanium
In late 2010, Exacta continued its expansion strategy into the rapidly growing market of titanium machining.
“A lot of manufacturers are scared of titanium, and for good reason. It’s tough on tools, machines and ultimately the operators who have to work with them,” explained Ben. “However, these difficulties don’t change the fact that titanium machining capabilities are in high demand. We decided to take up the challenge by investing in a cell featuring a Makino a81M and an a82M horizontal machining center.”
Makino’s M-package machines are built specifically for hardened materials, such as titanium alloys. Their integral drive spindles offer significantly higher torque (1,009 Nm) at lower rpms than most standard horizontal machining centers. To match that torque, the spindle employs 50 hp from 2,000 to 5,000 rpm. This duty rating and continuous output of the Makino spindle lends itself well to difficult cutting operations.
According to Ben, 98 percent of the work performed on the a81M and the a82M is titanium alloy or hardened steel. Integrated in an MMC2 [Makino Machining Complex] and equipped with tool life and tool length measurement systems, these machines provide Exacta with worry-free, unattended machining capabilities similar to those of its previous investments.
“At this point, we can comfortably say that Exacta is a highly compe-titive company when it comes to machining titanium and other hardened materials,” Ben said.
Increasing Throughput and Reducing Manual Labor
Kelly Eilerts, Exacta’s 4- and 5-axis manager, asserted that some of the most dynamic changes to the company’s shop floor can be attributed to the integration of fully automated pallet handling systems. “Since integrating our machines into Makino’s MMC2 cells, we’ve more than quadrupled our capacity,” he said. “We’re burning through parts, running lights out 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and maintaining an average spindle utilization of 90 percent.”
According to Eilerts, the a51 cell is currently the most productive piece of equipment on the shop floor, producing thousands of parts per year. In a typical week, the cell can be loaded with more than 20 jobs and have them machined complete and ready for on-time delivery.
“By combining the efficiency of automation with Makino’s high-performance machining capabilities, we’re running parts at higher efficiencies than ever,” he said. “In one application transferred to the a51 cell from our previous equipment, cycle times have been reduced by 30 percent.”
Because Exacta works with high volumes of parts and more than 1,500 different part varieties, Eilerts emphasizes the importance of accurate inventory tracking and efficient part distribution.
“Through the MMC2’s MAS-A5 controller, we’re able to pull up part programs on the fly and adjust scheduling based on customer demands,” he said. “The system is highly user-friendly and intelligent, prompting us to run parts in a specific order to gain the highest efficiency. Its one-button access to highly accurate time studies saves us a great deal of time compared to the manual labor-intensive paperwork previously required. Altogether, this system allows us to manage six machines with only one operator.”
Focusing on the Future
Exacta attributes much of its success to Makino’s support and its willingness to change processes and adapt to more efficient machining standards.
“Makino has provided us with much more than just the machines,” said Ben. “Makino’s sales force has the knowledge and materials to support customers far past the date of sale. Our local representative, Mark Rehwinkel, is always available when we have questions and concerns, and, even if he can’t answer a question directly, he calls someone who can answer right on the spot.”
Business partners like Makino enable Exacta to focus more on the future, explains Casey. Instead of dealing with day-to-day worries of inconsistent performance and costly downtimes, the company can work toward optimizing its processes and further expanding upon capacity and capabilities.
Exacta Aerospace, Inc.