Feature Story: Prototype Manufacturing

November 9, 2017 No Comments
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Quality, Accuracy Provide Competitive Edge

by Nancy Huddleston

toc_features50pxWith the rapid growth of do-it-yourself manufacturing in the prototype market, how do precision manufacturers keep their edge?

“In reality, it’s easier to design a prototype than to make it. So, our expertise is to help our customers understand the ease of making or manufacturing their part,” said Jesse Schelitzche, President of Imagineering Machine Inc. “A lot of our customers have their own 3D printers, and they can print and test out their part. But accuracy is very important and that’s where precision manufacturers come into play.”

Gilbert Baldwin, CEO and founder of Columbia  Precision Machine, couldn’t agree more.

Columbia Precision manufactures precision machined components, light assemblies, using CNC milling and turning centers, manual mills and lathes, and specialized manufacturing CAD/CAM software systems. “Our markets include defense, UAV, aerospace, military and sports ammunition, and general industrial,” Baldwin explained.

Columbia Precision has always been aware that longevity and opportunity revolve around top-quality manufacturing. “I don’t necessarily believe that we’re competing against the large prototype organizations like Proto Labs,” he said, “Columbia has carved out a niche in certain industries that are still growing and are developing new or enhanced products.”

Schelitzche said his father and uncle started Imagineering in 1984 after working as machinists at UMC and getting the entrepreneurial itch. “They were prototype machinists vs. production machinists,” he said, “They worked on many difficult prototypes that few, at the time, were willing to attempt.”
Both Columbia Precision and Imagineering entered the prototype market at an opportune time.

“It was the end of the recession and at that time in Minnesota, there were major defense contractors here that were trying to develop new products and technologies,” Baldwin explained. “We have been fortunate enough to have some very prominent customers who have been dependent upon us for excellent work.”
Likewise, Imagineering has machined products for a wide variety of businesses, including those in the semi-conductor, medical device, start-up, aerospace, and industrial markets. “We always say, it doesn’t matter if we know what the part does – it’s important to someone,” Schelitzche said. “There’s a story behind every part. The average person may never see these parts, but it’s usually serving a very important purpose.”

The prototype work done at Imagineering falls into two categories – parts that will become a product and custom-made parts. “What comes in our door is everything from a primitive hand sketch or drawing to the most technical, labor and finish-intensive projects you can think of,” Schelitzche said.

CHANGE IS CONSTANT

With over 30 years in the prototype business, change is constant part of their business models and an important part of the work culture at Columbia Precision and Imagineering.

“Although many projects start with a prototype, we change our approach from job to job as very few parts have similar features and requirements,” Schelitzche said.

And that’s what makes it fun, because the prototypes being made are often integral parts of something bigger – like tooling for an iPhone or test cells for a jet engine that Imagineering has made, or precision parts for Harley-Davidson Motorcycles or Northrop Grumman that Columbia makes.

Baldwin feels that what Columbia manufactures is important, and in some cases critical, like its defense prototype work. “We have a lot of change of pace work as well as a production side that is a good balance for employees and the company alike,” he said, “Our business model and customer base offers Columbia a wide variety and ever-changing manufacturing challenges.”

Although the process of taking an idea from prototype to part is still the basic premise that drives the prototype manufacturing businesses, the way the work is done has changed dramatically. Not surprisingly, the primary driver of that change is technology.

“The machining software has changed, the machine used to mill the part has changed, and 3D printers have come into play, but the biggest change at our shop is the technology used for the CAD/CAM software,” Schelitzche said, “The features and options are light years ahead of where they were even 10 years go. Unfortunately, upgrading your software is easier than buying new machine tools, so equipment tends to lag behind a bit.”

“I remember at our inception, before we purchased our first machining center, we machined everything with our manual equipment using paper drawings provided by our customers,” Baldwin said. “Today it’s rare to see anything but digital drawings. We occasionally work off of sketches, but in many cases, we receive limited dimension drawings that have minimal information for us to develop a price quotation. We also receive digital models that we import into CAD/CAM software, which our programming department uses to create data that our machining centers and machinists use to manufacture components.”

WHAT’S AHEAD?

With the new administration in Washington, D.C., and some buzz about trying to restore and re-grow the manufacturing base in the U.S. coming from both sides of the political aisle, Baldwin is hoping to see a re-emergence of prototype machining from the defense side of the economy. “This would be a welcome change – especially because federal budget sequestration, enacted earlier this decade, resulted in many of the mechanical engineers we previously worked with leaving for lack of work, and in turn offering Columbia less opportunity for prototype development,” he said.

Baldwin said after being in the prototype markets for a number of years he understands the cyclical nature of the industry, with the 1980s and 1990s being quite active, along with the majority of the early 2000s. “During the latter part of the decade we noticed a downturn in business opportunities attributable, I believe, to off-shore purchasing and 3D printing competition,” he said, “Now as we get back to the latter part of this decade, we are seeing some of that off-shore work returning and we’re watching to see if the drive for more American manufacturing takes hold.”

Schelitzche predicts that software and machining changes will continue to get better, opening up new opportunities for shops like his. “Cost expectations will get higher and quality and lead time will still be extremely important,” he said, “But if we continue to invest in equipment, we’ll stay relevant and competitive.”

One thing that will not change: the customer will still want their product as fast as possible.pm_endmarkblue-e1320337140493


NANCY HUDDLESTON is the editor and publications manager of Precision Manufacturing Journal. She can be reached at nancy@mpma.com or 952-564-3041.

Copyright © 2017 Minnesota Precision Manufacturing Association. For permission to use or reprint this article please contact Nancy Huddleston, publications manager for Precision Manufacturing Journal.

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