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The Right Tool For The Job
A Successful Production Job Shop Increases Profits By Using The Right Tools.
by C. H. Bush, editor; photos by John Semonish, staff photographer
Often the difference between a talented amateur and a true professional is a tool. Or so goes the old saw. The talented amateur makes do with the tools at hand. The professional invests heavily to make sure he has the right tool for the job.
At Torrance, CA’s highly successful Keller Engineering, Inc.—a production machining job shop founded in 1972 by Switzerland-born vp Albert Keller—having and using the right tool for the job is a way of life.
“In today’s very competitive marketplace sometimes even a few pennies per part can mean the difference between losing and winning a contract or making a profit,” Keller, now explains. “As a result, at Keller we spend a lot of time making sure we use the right kinds of machining equipment, the right kinds of cutting tools and the right kinds of workholding to minimize set up and handling.”
Right from its inception, Keller envisioned his company, not so much as a typical job shop struggling to survive doing onesies and twosies, but as a full-blown production facility.
“When I started Keller Engineering I already had a lot of years of experience designing tools and dies for companies,” Keller recalls. “So, when I set up my business, I bought a punch press. One reason, of course, was so I could test the dies I designed and made, but I also wanted to offer my customers production service along with tooling design and machining.”
Successful Production Company
Today Keller Engineering employs 31 people (about 26 in the shop), operates about $4.5 million worth of equipment and occupies its own modern, 20,000 sq ft manufacturing facility. Company sales have ignored the slow-down in the aerospace industry. This year (2002) they’re expected to nearly double double sales over last year.
“We’ve had some slow downs over the years,” Keller says, “but nothing that really hurt us, because I have been very conservative in my business approach. Our growth has been a slow, steady process. I never had a salesman, so our growth mostly has been by word of mouth or by purchasing agents moving from one company to another and taking us with them. Right now about 80-90% of our business is in production work. The rest is mostly designing and producing first articles. We do that kind of work as a service to customers, hoping to have an opportunity to get the production job, too. So far we’ve been very successful at winning new contracts.”
A major component in Keller’s success is due to the fact that the company places a very large emphasis on finding the most efficient way to get a job done. To illustrate the importance of such emphasis, Keller points to a production problem recently solved by finding a cutting tool that would eliminate a lot of hand work.
“Actually it was a technical problem,” he explains. “We had a 5/16ths internal thread to be cut inside a titanium rod that is inserted into a broken tibia (leg bone, Ed) to add strength until it heals. When we started we produced the part on a Star lathe, but the problem was we just couldn’t go as deep as the customer wanted. So, we found ourselves finishing the threads by doing manual sinking and tapping, which was slow and expensive. We had 4,000 parts to make, so we went to Westec 2002 in search of a better, faster way to do it.”
At Westec Keller visited the Emuge booth and talked to their technicians about the possibility of thread milling.
“I knew about thread milling,” Keller says, “but I didn’t think it could be done on such small diameters. The Emuge people guaranteed us their cutting tool could do the job, so we decided to give it a try.”
According to Keller, the Emuge people visited his plant and supplied him with the CNC g-code needed to do the job perfectly.
“Once we decided to buy their cutting tools, they gave us the software which specified feed, speed and coolant for the operation. They made it really easy for us, gave us really good service. They also told us that we could make at least 2,000 threads with one tool without problem and they were right. I don’t have the figures handy, but that switch saved us a lot of money and certainly boosted our profits on the job. We use a lot of different kinds of cutting tools here, including Emuge. We always try to find the right tool for the job.”
Emphasis On Fixturing
Keller’s policy of using the right tool for the job isn’t limited to cutting tools. It also extends to tooling used for fixturing parts for production.
“I’ve always worked in tooling,” Keller says, “When I was young I had a job working for a company in South Africa, making parts for mining equipment. Even then they would come to me and say, ‘We want to machine this. How do you hold it? What kind of fixturing should we use?’ I guess that started it for me, and ever since then I’ve been very interested in finding creative ways to machine parts the fastest and most efficient way. At Keller we spend a lot of time at the beginning of a job figuring a way to start the machine and walk away. Our goal is maximum running time with minimum manpower.”
Keller works very closely with his programmer on finding fast, efficient ways to machine parts.
“When you’re going to produce a lot of parts, cutting even a few seconds off production time goes straight to the bottom line,” he says. “So, I sit down and dream up a way of holding these parts so we can produce them in a maximum of two movements from one tombstone to the other. No matter how complex the parts, my goal is to finish them in two set ups and with minimum tool changes.”
Dual Pallet Operation
So far Keller Engineering has managed to be very competitive running machines with dual manual pallets.
“All of our OKK CNC mills are two-pallet machines,” Keller says, “and we have become very good at getting the most production from these two pallets as possible. We manufacture our own tombstones, which are designed to allow us to mount custom fixtures on them. We build our fixtures with standard mountings to fit our tombstones and then we plan our loading layouts to get the longest runs possible from a tombstone.
“We try to do as many operations on as many parts as possible before changing tools,” he says. “We want to walk away have a two-hour cycle on a part that hangs together till the last moment. Then we come in and cut the final part. Basically, we keep the finished parts attached to the stock until the end, then we can take them off whole. We use more material that way, but material is much less costly than time.”
Where To Next?
According to Keller, his next move is to increase the amount of automation involved in his production process.
“Our growth rate right now is phenomenal,” he says, “but I don’t intend to invest millions in robotics or anything like that. I have always moved conservatively, getting the right tools and processes to handle our customers’ demands. In this case, we’re going to step up our automation with the equipment we have.”
Keller says his customers are constantly after him to lower costs, which puts pressure on his team to find even more efficient ways to produce.
“One thing I have in mind is to design and build better fixtures,” he says. I’d like to increase my tombstone capacity to hold at least eight hours of runs. The idea is to have the last guy out turn off the lights and leave the machines running. That means I have to increase the number of parts I can get on a tombstone and I have to modify our machines to include some safety features.”
One safety feature Keller wants when he begins running lights out is for his machines to stop running, if the coolant runs out.
“Another thing we’ll do is go back to using touch probes to check our tooling for breakage,” he adds. “There really are a lot of things we can do with what we have that can increase our productivity. We intend to do as many of them as are feasible.”
Keller’s wife, two daughters and a son-in-law work at the company.
“We’ve always been a family business,” he says. “My daughters want me to keep the business going and growing, because in the future they plan to run it along with our production management. So, even though I could retire right now, if I wanted to, I won’t. Besides, I like coming to work, helping to find the right tools and processes for the job. It’s what I’ve done all my life.”