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A Publication of WTVP

An East Coast manufacturer saw an opportunity to increase revenues significantly by gaining additional capacity in a key machining center. The company produces engineered plastic parts used in products for the electronic, medical, agriculture and energy sectors.

The challenge: As plastic was machined, 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 few 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 occurred. The costs of machine downtime, lost productivity and cooling expenses were significant; a solution was needed quickly.

The manufacturer turned to its local Manufacturing Extension Partnership Center, which had established an alliance with Research Triangle Institute International (RTI), a leading technology scouting service provider. A number of solutions were considered, including a tooling redesign and use of an “embrittlement” technology to harden excess plastic and enable it to chip off.

RTI linked the plastics manufacturer to another company that had developed a cryogenic cooling system that could deliver a jet of minus-320° liquid nitrogen directly to the part during turning operations. This significantly reduced the thermal softening effect that resulted from the high cutting temperatures, enabling the embrittled plastic parts to chip away like metal, 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 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 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 solution implemented by the company generated 33 percent more machining capacity, which it was able to fulfill with $2.5 million in new business. In addition to eliminating safety hazards, the company is saving about $20,000 in cooling expenses annually. Pretty good results for any company today.

As you look at the strategies your company will deploy to gain a competitive edge, consider whether a technology enhancement can make a difference. IMEC and RTI provide in-depth technology assessments and scouting to match those needs with the right sources. iBi

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