Toolmaker Doubles Production, Equipment Base and Capabilities
For half a decade, carbide end mill maker Helical Solutions has been operating in growth mode, propelled by increasing orders from clients that include a large number of aerospace suppliers. Production has increased so much that the company has doubled its equipment base – acquiring four to six pieces of grinding equipment every year – and has added a new facility that triples its square footage. This Gorham, Maine, manufacturer attributes its high-powered success to three things: diverse products, responsiveness to customer needs and the right technology for efficient, precise production.
Founded in 2001 with a small, select line of stock cutting tools and acquired by Harvey Tool Company in August 2015, Helical Solutions now forms one of three brands among the assets of Harvey Performance Company, along with end mill and cutting-tool maker Harvey Tool and turning and milling toolmaker Micro 100. One of the first impacts of the Harvey Tool philosophy on Helical Solutions' operations came when it began issuing annual catalogs that reflected an aggressive new-product development cycle. Today, Helical Solutions rolls out 400 to 600 new advanced products annually based on what the company learns from distributors, sales representatives and customers themselves about their challenges and needs.
The company's end mills fall into two categories: catalog products and specials. Helical Solutions manufactures large volumes of the former – some in lots of 2,500 pieces – and creates the latter to meet individual customer requests for specialized versions of catalog products or entirely customized tools. Helical Solutions can produce these two categories of products on one shop floor specifically because of the flexible, high-quality equipment it uses and the sheer number of machines it deploys.
Helical Solutions' production operation runs on networked WALTER tool grinding and measuring equipment from UNITED GRINDING North America, including WALTER HELITRONIC MINI POWER, WALTER HELITRONIC POWER and WALTER HELITRONIC VISION grinding machines, as well as WALTER HELICHECK PRO measuring equipment. On its MINI POWER machines, Helical Solutions handle shanks as small as 0.125" up to 0.500” in diameter while their POWER machines work on 0.375" to 0.750" tools, and VISION machines tackle 0.500" and up. In addition, the company uses a WALTER HELITRONIC VISION 700 L, built for long carbide drills, to grind end mills with diameters up to 3" and lengths up to 18".
The part size range capability of the WALTER machines offers a key benefit for Helical Solutions, which continues to add VISION and MINI POWER models to a base of POWER machines. Additionally, WALTER offers the company a high level of flexibility. "We need equipment that's versatile enough to run a large production load or a small special load," said engineering manager Jake Barnes.
Like WALTER hardware, WALTER HELITRONIC TOOL STUDIO software also scores well with Helical Solutions. Martin describes the software suite as "very user friendly and easy to train newer operators to use." Barnes calls out the software's versatility, stating that, "You can design and grind virtually anything with it." The company's machine network runs on the software as well.
A base of equipment from single supplier UNITED GRINDING offers numerous advantages that Helical Solutions exploits to increase its productivity. The company networks specific grinding wheels to individual machines and controls the programs that operators access, which streamlines operations for efficiency and cycle-time reduction. Along with that efficiency, the consistent use of WALTER machines means that operators always see a familiar human-machine interface that, in turn, speeds training and helps employees transition from one machine to the next with ease.
To make operations even simpler, Helical Solutions' engineering department designs master wheel packs, each with multiple diamond grinding wheels, that serve the same function as a pre-setting system. Wheel packs shorten job changeover time and eliminate the possibility of typographic errors in data entry because the wheels load directly onto the machines. "Some machines load wheels from a carousel of packs," said plant manager Adam Martin, noting that "on some of our other platforms, you physically load the wheel pack into the machine."
Wheel packs make a dramatic contribution to the precision Helical Solutions achieves in its quest for tight tolerances – a primary focus for the company. "The wheel packs provide consistency from program to program," Martin stated. "When we load a specific wheel type, we keep our spacing, diameters and angles very consistent. We measure our grinding wheels on one of our WALTER HELICHECK PRO machines as well as our production output, and that information loads into the network to be sent to the machine." Every WALTER machine that produces catalog products uses two to three wheel packs to grind specific features.
UNITED GRINDING and WALTER earn high marks from both managers. "We're always trying to buy equipment that's going to meet our needs today and in the future," said Barnes. Martin added, "One platform of equipment increases our manufacturing abilities and decreases redundant programs for different pieces of equipment. Having one platform, one controller, one software package for employees, really cuts the amount of time before new employees can run production equipment. With increasing workload and more equipment, it's easier to onboard great employees and train them to our processes."
Automation adds timeliness to the Helical Solutions manufacturing process, a point of emphasis for a company that frequently turns around customer orders for catalog tools in a single day. Helical Solutions' older equipment – some of it still used to grind chamfers or perform cutoffs – either lacked workpiece loaders or relied on old-school mechanical technology. The WALTER machines Helical Solutions acquires today include robot loaders that dramatically speed part-to-part loading times and relieve the staff of routine duties.
"That means less involvement from either maintenance or senior operators to dial in loaders," Martin pointed out. "The advancements in WALTER software, coupled with robotic loaders and wheel-changing capabilities, really make UNITED GRINDING our first choice." These same features enable Helical Solutions to run lights-out unattended shifts on a consistent basis.
The metrology protocol within the grinding machine probes each blank for length and checks three locations on the diameter for concentricity before grinding begins. A blank that fails any of these tests would demonstrate higher than acceptable runout as a tool. Networked WALTER HELICHECK PRO measuring machines then take care of measurement after grinding. Helical Solutions recycles all rejects, along with scrap carbide retrieved from its coolant system.
Helical Solutions creates every aspect of its products in house except for its tool blanks, which it purchases from premium suppliers. All other project aspects, including new product design, engineering, R&D, spec sheets, grinding, wheel dressing, coating and packaging takes place under one roof. The company even regrinds its products, allowing customers to send in any tool, catalog or custom, to be returned in like-new condition. In conjunction with the manufacturer of its coating equipment, Helical Solutions developed its own trio of PVD coatings to handle materials from super abrasives and super alloys to steels and non-ferrous metals.
Among those coatings, Zplus is engineered for aluminum and other non-ferrous metals, but also does well with abrasive materials and reduces built-up-edge in soft, gummy alloys. Aplus suits high-speed machining and dry conditions with wide-ranging ferrous metals titanium and exotic alloys. Tplus works in rigid, vibration-free setups with ferrous metals and hard, challenging materials, including titanium, Inconel and stainless steel. Helical Solutions also provides specialized options, such as diamond coatings, for on-request products.
What sets Helical Solutions apart from competitors? Martin points to "our diligent attention to the customer, facilitating orders and getting technical questions answered, not to mention designing and building specialized tools. It's also our diverse product line and our attention to repeatable quality." The company's high-tech approach to streamlined production processes helps it stand out among its competition, and its WALTER tool grinding technology plays a key role in its success.