An east-coast manufacturer saw an opportunity to increase revenues significantly by gaining additional capacity in a key machining center. The company produces high-strength engineered plastic parts which are used in products for the electronic, medical, agriculture, and energy sectors.
The challenge: As plastic was machined, the excess material did not chip off like metal, but instead formed a continuous ribbon that often snarled the part, got tangled in the chuck and tooling, and risked significant damage to both the machine and the part. CNC lathes were shut down every two-to-three minutes to clear the plastic ribbons from the work area and a high volume of cleaning fluid was used to ensure that the operator had enough time to stop the machine before damage would occur. The costs of machine downtime, lost productivity and cooling expenses were significant, and the company needed help finding a solution quickly.
The manufacturer turned to its local Manufacturing Extension Partnership Center which had established an alliance with RTI International (Research Triangle Institute International), a leading technology scouting service provider. A number of solutions were considered, including a tooling re-design and use of an “embrittlement” technology to harden excess plastic and enable it to chip off.
RTI linked the plastics manufacturer to another Pennsylvania company that had developed a cryogenic cooling system that could deliver a jet of minus 320-oF liquid nitrogen directly to the part during turning operations. This significantly reduced the thermal softening effect that the parts would often experience as a result of the inherent high cutting temperatures, enabling the embrittled plastic parts to chip away like metal and away from critical operating functions.
This case study is not unlike challenges faced by manufacturers in our region every day. Certainly manufacturers in Central Illinois have made great strides in upgrading their machining capabilities. And while the shop floors of today’s modern manufacturing operations are likely to be filled with scores of computer aided machines, utilization of modern technology to solve material challenges or operating problems is less common. As innovation cycles have shrunk, the ability of a manufacturer to retain a competitive edge often means identifying and acquiring innovative technologies from outside their own four walls. For the traditional producer of component parts for construction equipment, aerospace, or automotive, the next high impact technology may be in a university, research lab, or business in the U.S. or elsewhere.
Ultimately, the cryogenic technology solution implemented by the Pennsylvania plastics company generated 33% more machining capacity, which it was able to fulfill with $2.5 million in new business. In addition to the elimination of safety hazards, the company is also saving about $20,000 in cooling expenses annually. Pretty good results for any company today.
As you look at the strategies your company will be deploying to gain a competitive edge, carefully consider whether a technology enhancement can make a difference. IMEC and RTI provide in-depth technology assessments and technology scouting to match those needs with the right sources.