Thanks to Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machinery, machine shops across the USA supply many of the parts used in equipment and low to medium volume consumer or specialty goods. The variety of possible part designs which we can produce efficiently is astounding. It is reassuring to know that anyone’s innovation can be turned into product … right here in the USA.
Passion and persistence are forces which can drive people to succeed. Wagner Machine Company was started nearly 30 years ago by Werner and Elaine Wagner. Werner was taking a course at the local Junior College and started working at a machine shop located in the teacher’s garage. Werner and Elaine started their own machine shop on April 1, 1982 in a small 1000 foot facility in Urbana, Illinois. They moved twice to larger facilities, now operating out of northwest Champaign, Illinois and, even had to add to their current building.
Their son, Kurt and Kurt’s wife, Cher have joined them in operating their business. They now employ approximately 30 people.
Werner, Kurt and their employees know their equipment and help a part designer decide what can be done efficiently at different volumes ranging from prototypes to 10,000 units. Over the years, Werner has purchased new equipment based on feel, given the requests he has received. While some new equipment additions are duplicates of current machines in order to satisfy a growing demand for production, other, new equipment is chosen to allow new processes.
Kurt gave me a tour of the company.
The shop is organized into three sections: production milling, lathe department (turning) and job shop. The job shop does both milling and turning for lower production volumes. Most everything is done on CNC machines but they do a fair amount of manual turning. There is not a large need for manual milling but the manual milling they do is on a CNC mill with manual controls. In manual mode it still gives readouts of position and has automated feed.
|Manual enabled CNC mill. Note three wheels for manual control.|
Kurt has do decide on the equipment gets to be used for different volumes. He says that sometimes it depends on how busy the equipment is. Most jobs between 20 to 50 parts go to the job shop. Most production work over 50 units goes to the production milling or lathe department. Most production volume is under 10,000 units.
Most machines allow tolerances of +-5 thousandths of an inch but some machines allow extremely precise production tolerances, less than ½ a thousandths of an inch. This allows a machine shop to satisfy a larger variety of customer’s needs.
|Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) milling machine.|
|Nice example of some fairly complex 3-axis millwork.|
|CNC lathe for turning operations.|
|Inside a CNC lathe which has obviously been working. Note all those coolant hoses.|
|Operating a CNC lathe sure is different from the 70’s when this author worked the midnight shift machining parts. We just had an on/off switch, lots of coffee to keep our arm moving constantly and a first aid kit to stop the blood flow when 8 hours of repetitive action resulted in some mistakes which hurt.|
|Metal shavings are recycled.|
Programming CNC machines can take a day for a complex part. Most of their machines can be programmed by quite a few people in the company but some of their complex machines can only be programmed by a couple of people.
Wagner Machine has two Abrasive Waterjets, the largest with a 4’ by 8’ bed. These machines operate at 50,000 PSI and can cut just about anything: metal, ceramic, plastic and glass. Cutting of extremely hard tungsten carbide parts or tools can [should] be done on the Waterjet.. It is accurate to +- 5 thousandths inch.
|4’ by 8’ abrasive Waterjet.|
|The 50,000 PSI abrasive Waterjet has an easy time cutting 2 ½ inch aluminum plate … this is what is left over after cutting out the part.|
|Kurt said that this 4” thick steel piece, cut by the abrasive Waterjet, is his ‘Show and Tell’ piece.|
Another advanced piece of machinery is their 5 axis CNC mill. The 5 axis are the up/down, left/right and in/out axis of a normal mill plus its head rotates on two different axis, allowing complex shapes. It takes a day to program a complex part. As you program, you can see a visual simulation of how the mill will make the part. The demo I saw of the simulation was fantastic.
|5 axis machine doesn’t look much different than other CNC machines but …|
|… it has quite a brain connected to it.|
|Takes a whole day to program an average 5 axis milling process.|
|A simulation can be run of the whole 5 axis programmed milling process.|
Still another advanced machine at Wagner Machine Company is their Electrical Discharge Machine (EDM). It uses a thin wire electrode to cut just about anything which conducts electricity. It is great for cutting irregular shapes. Its computer control allows it to save time over milling on many operations.
|Electrical Discharge Machine (EDM)|
Operating and Expanding a Business
Elaine Wagner explained their careful expansion. They stayed within their financial means, expanding gradually. She notes that banks were willing to loan money to many businesses which got into trouble during 2008, 2009 recession. Wagner Machine’s business volume was way down during that recession but they were not financially overextended.
They have help to manage the quoting of mill and lathe production and personal management … which is nice for Werner … he still gets to enjoy machining and working on the equipment.
|Werner Wagner doing what he likes best … working on a machine.|
|Operating a business should be all fun … in this case, working on machines … but some organization and accounting is necessary … shucks! Luckily, Werner’s wife Elaine and Kurt’s wife, Cher, do that hard part.|
OK AMERICANS … Don’t be locked into thinking that we can’t produce here in the USA. If you have passion and persistence, you too can operate a business which MAKES THINGS IN THE USA!
|Wagner Machine Company Trophy Case|
|(picture for tool bit lovers)|
|Good ole’ Bridgeport milling machine from the days before CNC. Don’t be sad … it still sees some action.|