High-precision prototyping: a customer success story
KELK’s precision measuring instruments, including both force sensing and optical detectors, require very tight tolerances, use stainless steel and other materials that are hard to machine, and involve multiple assemblies and sub-assemblies. Mark Dresser, Manager, Science Engineering, explains why Macfab is KELK’s go-to resource for prototype components.
High-precision prototyping, by definition, involves a lot of calculations and experimentation before you arrive at the final design solution. But what happens when you discover an error in your “final” drawings? One thing that’s certain is that you won’t be able to move forward with your project as planned, which can be highly disruptive. This is exactly the situation faced recently by one of Macfab’s customers.
“Macfab, we’ve got a problem”
“We had to run four prototypes for a new piece of equipment,” says Mark Dresser. “As we were assembling it, we discovered that there had been an error in the size of a connector, so the mounting hole for that connector was wrong. Macfab was able to take the prototype parts back and rework them. This involved boring out the wrong-sized hole and inserting a plug with the correct-sized hole. Macfab turned it around in a matter of one week, so that we could get on with putting our prototypes together.
“Any time you’re building prototypes, things change. In spite of all the wonders of things like solid modelling and 3D design, the bottom line is that you have to put the real thing together and do some testing on it to make sure that you’ve got it right – that’s what prototypes are all about. You hope to do it perfectly the first time, but inevitably you don’t. And being able to get either a new part, or get a part fixed quickly, allows you to move forward without having to put everything on hold for a month while you get new parts in. So when you’re making prototypes, it can make a huge difference when you’ve got somebody onboard that can take these quick and dirty revisions and get them done for you.”
“The big issue is accuracy of the machining. Tolerances tend to be very tight – in some cases, to a tenth of a thousandth, with extremely fine-pitched threads, and all the way to very large, heavy parts made of stainless steel and other materials that are difficult to machine.” – Mark Dresser, Manager, Engineering Sciences, KELK”
KELK designs and manufactures state-of-the-art electronic measurement equipment used mainly in steel and aluminum rolling mills, paper mills, and mining applications around the world.
Macfab has produced a variety of instrument components for KELK, ranging in size from very small optical focusing components (smaller than your fingernail) to several inches in diameter. In this case, Macfab provided the housings (1 to 1½ inch-thick stainless steel plates, 6 ½ inches in diameter) that protect the equipment against extreme environmental conditions.
Macfab’s ability to respond quickly in situations like this one is a critical element of its customer relationships. In niche markets such as these, production volumes are typically quite low, as are their prototype orders. Therein, says Mark Dresser, is one of the key challenges: “When you’re only building 10 or 20 of something, you can’t afford to invest the huge amounts of money in tooling, so we’re dependent on people who can do it right without a lot of fixtures and so on. So being able to read the drawings and interpret it and get it right the first time around.”
“Getting the kind of tolerances we’re looking for, reasonably consistently, the first time, is what it’s all about. A lot of the parts we use are part of a larger assembly, or a sub-assembly, and if the tolerances aren’t right, it’s sometimes hard to determine that until you’ve built that part into another part that you’ve done a bunch of testing on. So getting the right part the first time is a huge deal for us, because we end up having to do retests and realignment if it isn’t right.”
High-precision prototyping continues to play a fundamental role in KELK’s success. In turn, Macfab’s ability to respond to KELK’s development needs – quickly and accurately – continues to strengthen our relationship with their R&D team.