Process Insights

Flexible Manufacturing System Boosts Productivity of Automated Titanium Machining

As a shop that specializes in the production of high-precision aerospace components, Chicopee Manufacturing of Kitchener, Ontario, has built a worldwide reputation working with titanium and other difficult-to-machine metals. To do so, it has developed a flexible manufacturing system for low-volume automated titanium machining of precision part assemblies.

“Almost everything we do is based on our use of a flexible manufacturing system (FMS),” said Chicopee Manufacturing President Rick Moes. “With the wide variety of parts and assemblies we produce every day and the small batches that the work demands, our equipment has to be flexible in order to be productive.”

Most recently, Chicopee has added to that flexibility with the installation of a state-of-the-art Makino machining cell built around an MMC-R (Makino Machining Complex with Robot) robot automated material handling system. Designed to produce components for some of the most advanced aircraft in the world, this FMS is helping Chicopee maintain its strong position in today’s marketplace and positioning it for continued success in the future.

Chicopee Manufacturing

Founded more than 50 years ago as a general-purpose machine shop in Kitchener, near Toronto, Chicopee Manufacturing soon found itself in the aerospace business, producing components for prototypes of Canada’s Arrow fighter jet. The Arrow never moved into full production, but Chicopee had found its niche, and over the years it developed advanced expertise in automated titanium machining and in producing complex parts and assemblies for aerospace customers around the world.

In 1998, Chicopee was purchased by Magellan Aerospace Corporation of Mississauga, Ontario, one of the most integrated and comprehensive aerospace industry suppliers in the world. Magellan’s capabilities broadened Chicopee’s opportunities even further, and today, as a key division in Magellan’s global net-work, Chicopee produces advanced components for such aerospace giants as Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Airbus, as well as customers in other industries such as power generation.

Operating out of its 100,000-square-foot facility in Kitchener, Chicopee employs 108 individuals.

Expertise Plus Automation Equal Productivity

“Aerospace engineering is constantly evolving,” said Chicopee Technical Director Dave Quehl in describing the challenges his company faces. “To keep ourselves competitive in the marketplace, we have to evolve with it, and that includes developing new expertise in machining advanced materials like titanium—and new expertise in making all our processes more efficient. In many cases, we’re finding that efficiency through automation, and we’ve been very successful in working with Makino to develop the FMS we need.”

One example is an automated material handling system, built around six Makino A55 horizontal machining centers, originally installed at Chicopee in 1998. “We needed a true flexible manufacturing system that could perform precision machining on a wide variety of parts every day and keep parts moving through the system efficiently,” Quehl explained. “We got everything we needed with the A55 cell.”

The FMS was initially designed to produce components for complex wing assemblies for Boeing, but it has since been adapted to a variety of applications, including power-generation components.

“The high cost of the raw materials we work with means we can’t have a lot of inventory sitting around the shop,” Quehl said. “For the wing assemblies, our just-in-time system meant we received a shipment every day with all the raw materials we needed to produce the parts for one aircraft—34 different parts. Every day the flexible manufacturing system produced those parts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for more than five years. The Makino cell controller handled more than 200 individual shop orders per week—assigning roughing and finishing processes among the machines, ensuring that each was being used in the most efficient manner possible.

“Over the years, we’ve achieved similar productivity with the cell on a wide variety of jobs. The Makino cell has proven to be a very versatile, very productive system. And that success played a large role in our decision to invest in the new robot automated material handling system.”

The Makino a81M Advantage

Chicopee’s newest Makino cell is comprised of two a81M horizontal machining centers with fifth axis rotary tables and a Makino MMC-R robot automated material handling system. The cell is controlled by a Makino MAS-A5 cell controller.

The cell has been designed to meet the needs of long-term contracts to produce titanium structural frame components for advanced military and commercial aircraft, including Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner. Chicopee has worked with the manufacturers throughout the development of the aircraft and is now preparing to take the components from the development phase into production.

At the heart of the robot automated material handling system are its a81M 5-axis machining centers, which provide the machining flexibility, power and precision the titanium parts demand. The a81M’s rotary workhead permits the spindle to reach virtually every surface on a part without requiring refixturing. With its 8,000-rpm spindle speed, and more than 1,000 Nm of torque (the highest torque, Quehl noted, of all the machines at Chicopee), the a81M has the power and speed necessary to work with the toughest metals. Spindle integration with the drive motor’s rotor reduces vibration during high-speed operation and increases acceleration and deceleration. Spindle acceleration to top speed in just 2.4 seconds reduces non-cut time substantially. High-pressure (1,000 psi), high-volume (20 gal/min) through-the-tool cooling and a center-trough design quickly removes large quantities of chips and provides enhanced reliability in continuous machining. Two a81M machining centers are currently installed in the cell, and Chicopee plans to add three more as orders for production aircraft ramp up.

Automated Titanium Machining

The a81M machining centers are supported by Makino’s new MMC-R robot automated material handling system. The system includes the 6-axis robot, mounted on a 7th-axis floor track; two work-setting stations; innovative fixture plates that enable the cell to make full use of the robot and reduce part fixture costs; seven fixture plate racks, each capable of storing 16 fixture plates for a total of 112 plates; and Makino’s MAS-A5 cell controller.

The cell operator secures parts to the fixture plates and programs the parts and fixture-plate numbers into the cell controller, which then initiates and monitors all robot transfers among the work-setting stations, storage racks and machining centers, as well as controlling the machining operations themselves.

This new FMS is ideally suited to 5-axis applications such as Chicopee’s that involve high product mix and low-volume production runs. It enables Chicopee to operate efficiently by increasing spindle utilization and reducing setup times through accurate and reliable machine loading, unloading and part storage.

The innovative fixture plate design uses Delphin interfaces to provide secure transfer between the robot gripper and the machine tombstone for accurate and repeatable part production. By using the fixture plates in place of complete machine pallets, Chicopee benefits from reduced part fixture costs.

“These are complex parts that require full 5-axis machining,” Quehl noted. “The smaller fixture plates enable us to center-mount them for full tool access. At the same time, they save on the cost of the fixtures themselves and on the amount of space required to store the plates in the cell.”

The Makino MAS-A5 cell controller coordinates all production scheduling of the fixture-plate transfers, monitors the schedules and issues appropriate transfer tasks to the robot. The machining centers are fitted with a Balluff read write tool system interfaced to a Zoller presetter as well as part probing to ensure each operation produces a part within the tight tolerances the components require. All data passes through the cell controller, automating and ensuring the accuracy of the entire process.

“The controller was one of the new cell’s biggest selling points,” Quehl said. “We’ve had years of good experience with it in the A55 cell. We’ve been able to apply that knowledge and experience to the implementation of this cell, and the MAS-A5 controller is capable of keeping pace with any technical innovations or changes in our needs that might present themselves in the future.”

Positioned for the Future

Chicopee continues to refine the new cell’s capabilities and efficiency as it prepares for the fast-approaching ramp-up to many years of full production.

“We’re working every day to optimize our processes and advance our expertise in automated titanium machining,” Quehl said. “As production quantities continue to increase, we’ll be ready to add more machining centers and more storage racks, and we’ll be able to do it with the confidence that the flexible manufacturing system will be more than up to the task. We’re always looking, too, for more ways to take advantage of the cell’s capabilities with new contracts, new customers and new opportunities. Automation is absolutely both the present and the future for high-precision machining of demanding materials like titanium and demanding markets like the aerospace industry.”

With resources like Makino and its MMC-R automated material handling system, Chicopee is well positioned to take full advantage of all the opportunity the future holds.

Chicopee Manufacturing
Kitchener, Ontario
(519) 893-7575