Being an innovator at the forefront of cutting-tool manufacturing creates both opportunities and challenges. For experienced Alcon Tool specialists Brian Marsh and Andy Shawk, producing parts with increasingly complicated shapes represents a significant opportunity in their industry. The challenge? Finding a way to push past the limitations of the existing CNC machines they were operating.
“Our machinery provided four axes of motion: up and down, front and back, side to side, and the ability to rotate parts,” says Brian, a long-time Alcon process engineer and machine programmer. “To a certain degree, having four axes is advanced among tool makers, enabling us to devise many parts others couldn’t. But in our determination to do more inventive things, we kept butting up against the limits of our existing equipment, as well as the type of retrofits we could do.”
The Doosan 5-Axis Machining Center, installed by Ohio-based Ellison Technologies, has been the game changer. Fully online as of May 2021, Alcon’s robotic 5-axis mill allows operators to not only use all axes simultaneously, but also to seamlessly make a part from start to finish on one machine in a single setup. This greatly expands the company’s ability to develop groundbreaking part designs.
“That’s the future of manufacturing, and Alcon is on that forward-thinking path,” says Brian.
Customers Benefit From Alcon’s Internal Flexibility
The 5-axis mill brings even more than innovation to the table. It has transformed Alcon’s operations and established new levels of internal versatility, allowing it to be even more responsive to customer needs and market forces. For Alcon’s customers, the company’s increased capacity, reduced production bottlenecks, and tighter part consistency and tolerances mean:
- Exacting quality
- More speed
- Higher volumes
- Faster delivery
- Lower costs
“Changeovers between parts now take minutes, not hours,” says Andy, Alcon’s mill department lead. “We can switch from one product to another and then back to the first product, and the mill runs ‘without interruption.’ Normally something that complicated requires multiple setups and machines, and in the past, we tried to avoid that. Today, we have so much more flexibility.”
The 5-axis mill’s 3D modeling software helps Alcon program a super-precision tool path, eliminating burrs and other common imperfections. In addition, the mill can handle a broad range of raw materials.
Brian says, “Another limitation of older CNC machines is the type of raw material you can work with. The 5-axis really opens things up for Alcon, especially in a time when supply-chain shortages are a major issue. Since we can reach all faces of the work material, variances in the dimensions of the raw stock are more easily overcome.”
Balancing Tech Capabilities With Getting Products Out the Door
Brian and Andy both say the hardest part of integrating the 5-axis mill was maintaining existing production while learning the ins and outs of a highly complex machine. “You take on something new like this, and, ‘oh by the way,’ you still have to keep orders moving,” Andy says. “You still have to manage operations, all while trying to understand how the mill functions and teaching others how to use it.”
Brian says Alcon’s ability to program the mill in-house is invaluable, but the steep learning curve meant finding the right balance between pushing the technological capabilities of the machine and getting finished product to the shipping department.
“The R&D world and the production world exist in different timeframes,” says Brian. “As the programmer, I wanted to see just how creative I could be. Andy’s focus is getting stuff done. We’ve worked together long enough and developed our on-the-job relationship to the point that we can now try stuff at a high level and also get our customers what they want, when they want it. We work as a team.”
The Future of Industrial Tooling Is Now at Alcon
Alcon’s 5-axis mill represents a major paradigm shift in manufacturing. The majority of time is spent on programming, making sure there is adequate material to machine the part, optimizing the toolpath, and then hitting go. This results in a shift where more manufacturing time is spent on programming away from the machine instead of tying up a valuable production resource while operators determine the process.
Brian says, “That’s new thinking for Alcon and for manufacturing more broadly. We are still trying to wrap our heads around being able to do that.”
Alcon estimates it will be a long learning process to realize the potential of the machine. Despite the challenges, this kind of manufacturing is also very rewarding.
“Automation is the future of manufacturing,” says Andy. “You can’t pay guys to just stand in front of a machine and load parts the way you did 30 to 40 years ago. Nobody wants to do that, and it’s no longer worth anyone’s time to do that. I am excited to see manufacturing move in this new direction.”
Brian agrees the 5-axis mill is the future of manufacturing, noting that, in a short period of time, Alcon went from talking about that future to making it happen right now. “The benefit of what we’re doing is real,” he adds. “And, yeah, it’s awesome.”
As a maker of industrial blades and a leader among special cutting tools manufacturers, Alcon works with a range of industries, including commercial food processing, paper / packaging / converting, construction, and tire & rubber. Contact Alcon for a quote or to learn more about our growing capabilities with the 5-axis cnc machine.