Sept. 2020 - Miller Metal Fabrication Keeps Trying New Things
By: Dan Davis
A Race to the Finish
All eyes were on New York City in March as the metropolitan area was the first major epicenter of the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S. In addition to personal protective equipment, city officials and medical professionals also sent out a call for ventilators. In those early days, many who were admitted into the hospital with the virus struggled mightily with breathing, and the lack of access to an inventory of ventilators worried everyone.
Spurred on by news coming from Italy and the call for manufacturing help, some New York City engineers from firms like NewLab and 10XBeta got to work and developed a design for a “bridge” ventilator, also called an automatic resuscitator. It’s a streamlined ventilator that is designed to help less critically ill patients breathe. It also happens to cost about a tenth of a standard ventilator, which starts at around $30,000. After receiving expedited approval from the Food and Drug Administration, product designers reached out to local manufacturing contacts and found Boyce Technologies, a local manufacturer of safety and security equipment for the city’s mass transit system. Boyce Technologies then found Miller Metal to help with the red-hot manufacturing effort.
Miller Metal was charged with making chassis components for the ventilator. Laser cutting the blanks would be no problem given the shop’s equipment. Finishing the parts coming off the laser cutting machines, however, was going to be a challenge. The fabricator had a single-head grinding machine, but that was primarily used to put a grain on metal surfaces. Grinding off the microburrs that are often left on fiber laser-cut parts and rounding edges of the stainless steel parts to meet medical standards was going to have to be done manually, which was going to take more time than Miller Metal had.
“We had three days to order 200 sheets of stainless steel and have the parts cut, deburred, and bent,” Miller III said. “Even with 20 people sanding it, you’re not going to get the job done in two days. You’re probably going to need a week.”
Fortunately, around the same time, the company was entertaining the thought of investing in an automated finishing system. The fab shop had been in contact with its equipment dealer, Mid Atlantic Machinery, about its FINISHLINE machine, but it wasn’t exactly ready to make the investment—at least until the ventilator job came along.
That led Miller Metal to ask for a test to see just how fast and effective the finishing equipment would be. In early May Mid Atlantic Machinery delivered the machine, which has a 43-in.-wide working window, and set it up between the newest laser cutting machines.
“As soon as the machine was installed, we were running parts in production,” said John Rutkiewicz, Mid Atlantic’s FINISHLINE specialist.
The 11- to 14-ga. stainless steel parts were about 14 in. wide by 18 to 20 in. long. An operator fed the first one through and proceeded to feed another 1,099 parts through the machine. In 105 minutes, all of the parts were deburred and had rounded edges. Miller III said that if the process had been done manually, it probably would have taken a 10-person crew a full shift to match the results of the automated finishing machine.
“I don’t know if we would have bought the machine without that demonstration, but we were glad to see it in action. It was kind of the pushing-off point for that machine,” Miller III said. The fabricator also used the machine to deburr and edge-round some 0.25-in. stainless steel base plates.
Rutkiewicz said the finishing machine has four heads that can handle not only deburring and edge rounding, but also oxide removal on edges for better paint adhesion, deslagging of plasma-cut parts, and graining of metal surfaces. Because Miller Metal was more interested in accentuating the deburring and edge rounding, the machine was staged with an abrasive belt (65 to 70 Shore hardness) for deburring, then a brush for edge rounding, then another brush, and finally a softer abrasive brush (35 Shore hardness) for a specified grain. The ventilator parts needed to be run on only one side, so they didn’t need to be flipped and fed through the machine again.
Kevin Kilgallen, Mid Atlantic Machinery president and the first sales representative to introduce the TRUMPF laser technology to Miller Metal back in the 2000s, said he knew the machine would make an instant impact at the metal fabricating company, but he also believes that the machine will have an additional impact down the road as the deburring process is now streamlined. In particular, he pointed to the machine’s automatic thickness adjustment, where a sensor determines the material thickness and moves the belts and brushes to deliver specified results. That and the machine’s CNCs, which can store up to 250 finishing recipes, promise to help even less experienced employees get up to speed on the machine in a few days.
Miller III said the finishing equipment enabled the company to meet its obligations to deliver the ventilator parts in its three-day time frame and it’s hoping to find similar time savings on other projects because the bottleneck of manual deburring has been removed. Additionally, he said he was intrigued by the polishing and graining capabilities, some he called “a science to its own.”