Cutting Tool Engineering
August 2011 / Volume 63 / Issue 8

Tapping Top Productivity

By Bill Kennedy, Contributing Editor

Arm_00022 300dpi.tif
FANUC RoboDrill Med Cell.tif
Courtesy of Both photos: Methods Machine Tools

The Med Cell configuration of the Fanuc RoboDrill uses a 6-axis robot and features a custom drop-trunnion rotary table. See description below.

Machine tool builders discuss the development and evolution of drill/tap machines.

About 30 years ago, development began on a special breed of CNC machine tools called tapping centers, or drill/tap machines. With 30-taper spindles and generally less than 10 hp, the machines were simple, compact and lean. Engineered primarily for light- to medium-duty work in the Z-axis plane, the machines were used primarily for high-volume drilling and tapping. Their lightweight components facilitated fast rapid traverse and high feed rates.

Yamazen Inc., Schaumburg, Ill., distributes the pioneering Brother line of drill/tap machines. Jim Hansen, Yamazen senior vice president, said Brother first developed TC (tapping center) products in the 1980s for internal use in the manufacture of sewing machines, typewriters and other products. Later versions of the machines were sold to the general manufacturing marketplace.

“There are certain things you can do with the 30-taper platform that you can’t do with a 40- or 50-taper spindle,” Hansen said. “Because the spindle has a smaller mass, it can accelerate quicker. Machines of this style were originally called tapping centers, but as their function has expanded, people often just changed the vernacular to 30-taper machines.” As the machines evolved, their capabilities grew to include increasingly heavier drilling and tapping, moderate milling, additional axes and automation.

Because of volume requirements, automotive and consumer electronics were traditionally the largest markets for drill/tap machines. “But that’s changed,” Hansen said. “We sell them to virtually every industry. The market has shifted from mostly high-volume applications to general-purpose machining as well. The difference between drill/tap machines and VMCs has blurred significantly.”

One machine that incorporates characteristics of vertical machining centers and drill/tap machines is the Fanuc RoboDrill machining center, imported exclusively into the U.S. by Methods Machine Tools Inc., Sudbury, Mass. Steve Bond, national sales manager for RoboDrill, RoboCut and EDM products, traced the RoboDrill’s origin to the Fanuc (then Fujitsu) Drill Mate, developed in the early 1980s. “That machine was strictly for drilling and tapping,” Bond said. “It was basically a manual machine to which Fanuc added a CNC.” The Drill Mate had turret-style tool management. “It would just rotate a tool into position, then drill the holes,” Bond said. “The machines were so reliable that customers would challenge them to do different things.”

Courtesy of Both images: Brother

To speed workhandling by reducing the noncutting time when exchanging pallets, the TC-R2B tapping center from Brother has a servodriven Quick Table that rotates 180°, like a Lazy Susan (top) that permits workpiece changes in 2.3 to 3.4 seconds.

For the RoboDrill that followed the Drill Mate, Fanuc developed faster controllers that enabled rapid X- and Y-axis (milling) movement. Further control improvement permitted 3-D contouring. Spindle updates, including the addition of dual-contact (BIG Plus) spindles, enabled the machines to handle heavier machining and the greater side loads of milling. Fourth-axis tables permitted part rotation, increasing the number of operations that could be performed in one chucking. Various options and configurations are available, including a Job Shop Cell that performs 4-axis machining and, with workhandling via a 6-axis Fanuc 200iC robot, facilitates unattended operation in job shops. A Med Cell configuration, also utilizing a 6-axis robot, features a custom drop-trunnion rotary table to permit 5-axis machining.

Bond noted that more than 75 percent of the several hundred RoboDrills Methods Machine Tools sells yearly are shipped with performance-enhancing options and upgrades, such as fourth-axis capability or robotic automation. As a result, he said, the machines are essentially compact, fast machining centers.

New Approach

In contrast to machines that evolved from legacy drill/tap machines, the DT-1, a drill/tap machine with full milling capabilities, represents a clean-sheet-of-paper approach. Introduced in 2009 by Haas Automation Inc., Oxnard, Calif., the machine has a direct-drive, 15-hp, 12,000-rpm spindle. Scott Rathburn, marketing product manager, said the main development driver for the DT-1 was user interest in a machine with a compact footprint and high-speed capability.

A key design element is chip evacuation from the rear of the machine. This feature is aimed at shops using drill/tap machines in high-volume production, sometimes putting as many as 100 side by side in rows. That arrangement is typically seen in Asia, Rathburn said, in the manufacture of consumer electronics and automotive parts. To enable tight side-by-side machine placement, chips must be disposed behind the machines, not the sides. For the same reason, the DT-1’s door does not protrude from the side of the machine when open, so the machines can be placed close together.

Developers seeking to upgrade drill/tap machines face a dichotomy between versatility and performance. “We can make a machine incredibly fast if we limit it to doing one thing in the most productive way possible,” said Yamazen’s Hansen. “If we start to broaden the machine’s capabilities, typically we have to make some compromise in performance to increase versatility.”

Courtesy of Haas Automation

The Haas Automation DT-1 drill/tap milling machine features a 30-taper, 12,000-rpm spindle.

Toolchanging alternatives illustrate Hansen’s point. The first tapping centers featured drum-style toolchangers, which, according to Hansen, are the fastest way to present a tool to the workpiece. The limitation of the drum-style changer is the number of tools the drum can hold. “The maximum on our drum-style machines is 21 tools,” he said.

As the cutting capability and the types of work drill/tap machines could handle increased, so did the need for tool selection. Making more tools available, however, can slow tool changes. For example, the 40-tool magazine of Brother’s TC-32BN enables machining of various workpiece features. Tools are switched with a twin-arm changer, which is somewhat slower than a drum-style changer. The machine’s chip-to-chip tool-change time is 2.0 seconds compared to the 1.6 second chip-to-chip tool-change time for the Brother TC-S2DN drum-style-changer machine.

On the other hand, Brother’s TC-20B machine demonstrates the advantages of specialized designs. Focused on speed, the 15-taper machine has low-mass components that exhibit minimal inertia, and its high-speed, compact toolchanger permits chip-to-chip times as low as 1.1 seconds when using small tools.

Regarding ongoing development, Hansen said, “Tapping centers are morphing into what I call near-net-shape machining centers. Through the use of larger tools and with more horsepower, they are becoming more efficient in removing higher volumes of material.”

Machine efficiency has improved via upgrades to a variety of machine components. The changes include advances in spindle technology such as dual-contact spindles to maximize rigidity, and through-spindle coolant.

Perhaps the greatest single productivity improvement is increased horsepower. “Back in the early days of TCs, standard power specifications for a typical tapping center would be 5 to 7.5 hp,” Hansen said, adding that today’s products have 13.5 hp.

The increases continue. In August 2011, Brother is introducing new, higher-powered models of existing machines. Called TC-S2DN High Torque machines, the new models boost the cutting capacity of Brother’s TC-S2DN machine offering. Peak machine horsepower grows from to 35 hp, and torque to 68 ft.-lbs.

Hansen said the maximum recommended drill diameter in carbon steel with the standard TC-S2DN machine is 25mm, while with the new TC-S2DN High Torque machine that maximum diameter increases to 30mm. Similarly, with the standard machine, M16-size taps are the maximum size recommended for carbon steel; the high-torque models can handle M27 taps. Despite the improved capabilities, the machine footprint is similar to prior models, Hansen said, and the new high-torque versions retain the prior models’ fast rapid traverse, feed rates and tool change times.

New Applications

As drill/tap machines gain in capability, end users are finding new ways to apply them. Said Haas’ Rathburn, “We are always surprised by what our customers do with DT-1 machines.”

New consumer electronics applications, for example, include high-speed milling of parts from aluminum billet. Users take advantage of the machines’ ability to produce fine surface finishes by cutting at high speeds and light DOCs. Rathburn noted that some shops exploit the machines’ speed and precision in making small components for the telecom industry, while others are drilling, tapping and spotfacing near-net-shape castings for automotive parts.

Although the machines are popular for high-volume applications, Rathburn said, “There are job shops that use them as well.” (See sidebar below.) The machines are versatile, but they may not be the primary machine in a job shop, where the mix of product size and material may vary. However, the DT-1 and machines like it can be very effective in handling secondary operations. “You could easily use a VMC to do rough hogging, then move the part into the DT-1 for drill and tap and finish work,” Rathburn said.

The DT-1 machines employ a scaled-down version of the same rigid spindle design used in Haas’ 40- and 50-taper VMCs. The DT-1 machines do not have quite the milling capacity of those larger machines. “But they are full 3-axis machines that can be upgraded to 4th- and 5th-axis capability,” Rathburn said.

Saving Time

In the quest to reduce cycle times, reduction of noncutting time is as important as speeding up cutting operations. Said Yamazen’s Hansen, “Assuming we can push a tool to its maximum cutting capability, the only machining variable becomes noncutting time, including tool-change and workchange times.”

To reduce the time picking up and exchanging pallets, Brother developed a servodriven Quick Table that rotates 180°, like a Lazy Susan. The system can execute a workpiece change in 2.3 to 3.4 seconds, according to Brother. Because the system is servodriven, it can change the work simultaneously with toolchanger or axis movement.

Exchanging workpieces raises issues of repeatability, especially in high-precision applications such as 5-axis medical parts machining. According to Methods’ Bond, successful 5-axis machining depends largely on accurate and repeatable location of the parts being machined.

To maximize repeatability, the RoboDrill Med Cell incorporates a zero-point pallet system employing 70mm-square pallets like those used in an EDM. The workholding pallets have a centrally located drawbar or stud drawn into a machine-mounted chuck. The system provides consistent positioning and repeatability within a few microns. Workpieces are mounted to the pallet and the robot fits the pallet into a chuck on the machine. After the part is machined, the robot removes the pallet and replaces it with another. The zero-point pallet locking system assures consistent location of each succeeding part. (See sidebar below.)

BK1b.tif New drill/tap machines can produce major time savings compared to earlier models. “Machines today are engineered to be extremely efficient and provide little or no waste,” Hansen said. “That means building them with castings and spindles appropriate to the type of work being done, and using motors sized to the work to eliminate excess electricity usage.” Minimum machine footprint conserves floor space, and smallermachines simply cost less than larger ones. With much of industry focusing on lean manufacturing, Hansen said, “the very design of the tools is on a lean platform.” CTE

About the Author: Bill Kennedy, based in Latrobe, Pa., is a contributing editor for CTE. He has an extensive background as a technical writer. Contact him at (724) 537-6182 or by e-mail at
Micro Facture Photo  (2).tif
Courtesy of MicroFacture

MicroFacture employs a high-speed RoboDrill machining center fitted with a drop-trunnion 5-axis rotary table, combined with a System 3R Workmaster system made up of a robot, zero-point workholding pallets and modular storage magazines, to maximize efficiency and competitiveness in machining of small parts.

Using brain cells

MicroFacture LLC, Mountville, Pa., is a full-service contract manufacturer providing precision machining, fabrication and assembly in prototype to production volumes. The shop has a total of 11 Fanuc RoboDrill machining centers, including three robot-fed cells with three machines each, and two single-machine Job Shop Cells.

Baron Abel, president and CEO of MicroFacture, said in many cases drill/tap machines offer clear speed advantages over traditional VMCs. “You can take a program for another type of VMC, put it into a RoboDrill, and gain 20 to 30 percent of throughput time just because of the faster tool-change times and the speed of the spindle and rapids.”

MicroFacture builds on the speed advantage with advanced workhandling and workholding technologies. Each of the nine machines in the three-machine cells is fitted with a Koma 5-axis rotary table, even though the majority of the parts made at the shop do not require full 5-axis machining.

Abel views the 5-axis capability “as a way I can limit the amount of labor intervention that is involved in a part. If it is truly 5-axis work, great. But if it is just a connector housing or a trigger mechanism for a gun, I can get five sides of the part done, then bring it off and finish it through a Job Shop Cell.”

While the RoboDrill’s capacity of 21 tools might pose a challenge for some shops when machining complex parts, MicroFacture’s workholding technology and strategies make tool availability on an individual machine a moot point.

To facilitate unattended machining of small parts, MicroFacture has adopted automation originally engineered for unattended machining of EDM electrodes. The shop’s Workmaster system, from System 3R, combines a robot, precision 70mm-square zero-point workholding pallets and modular magazines that can store multiple pallets before and after machining.

Workpiece material is fixtured on pallets that are moved to and from the RoboDrills for machining. If a complex part requires tools from more than one RoboDrill, the pallet is moved to another machine. The zero-point pallet system assures consistent relationships between part features processed on different machine tools.

The arrangement lets the shop perform extended unattended machining. “With a horizontal machine, you have to have somebody here at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning moving the parts from one fixture to another. Even if you have a flexible machining system, normally you don’t have enough fixtures to keep running the same part overnight,” Abel said. The magazine of pallets enables the shop to “run 200 pieces of the same part with nobody here.”

In the past, Abel said, MicroFacture was competitive on a global scale when producing prototypes, but U.S. labor rates reduced that competitiveness when performing production work. Adding high-speed machines, 5-axis technology and robotics has enabled the shop and its customers to be more competitive and profitable.

However, Abel pointed out a crucial factor: “You can’t have all these high-tech pieces of equipment if you don’t have the brain cells to run them. I have good people.”

—B. Kennedy


Haas Automation Inc.
(800) 331-6746

International and Domestic Production (IDP)
(805) 240-2900

Methods Machine Tools Inc.
(978) 443-5388

MicroFacture LLC
(717) 285-9700

Yamazen Inc.
(847) 882-8800

Courtesy of Haas

An operator at the control panel of one of IDP’s two Haas DT-1 drill/tap milling machines.

Speed thrills

“The big things today are speed and cycle times,” said LaDonna Hambrick, Haas Automation Inc. milling product technical specialist. “Seconds count; everyone wants to go as fast as they possibly can.” As a result, Haas “sees a lot of interest in high-speed, small-footprint machine tools,” she said, and has developed products like the DT-1 drill/tap and milling machine that “can change a tool in less than a second and can accelerate from 200 to 12,000 rpm in half a second.”

Hambrick said a typical user of DT-1 machines is International and Domestic Production (IDP), an Oxnard, Calif., precision job shop serving primarily aerospace, medical, government and solar power customers.

Part production volumes range from as few as five to 10 pieces to as many as 5,000 to 10,000, with typical runs of about 1,000 pieces. Workpiece materials range from aluminum and steel to aerospace-grade alloys and advanced plastics.

Brandon Buschold, engineering manager, said the shop has two DT-1s. Competitive pressures prompted acquisition of the machines. “The machining industry isn’t what it used to be,” he said. “We used to be able to make a good profit running standard high-speed machines.”

Now, the global drive to reduce cycle times and manufacturing costs compels shops like IDP to seek new technologies like the DT-1. “Because the rapids are so fast, we are able to cut down our cycle times by 30 to 45 percent, in some cases even more,” Buschold said. He cited a steel milling application where 1 "-dia. endmills are running at 220 to 250 ipm and 0.033 " DOC.

To further boost the shop’s productivity, IDP also uses the Haas HRT160SS rotary table, designed for the DT-1. The machine’s 160mm-dia. table can rotate at a maximum speed of 570° per second, more than four times the speed of the company’s standard HRT160, according to Haas.

Buschold is using the table to run a 1,000-piece order of 416 stainless steel gun barrels and slides for the U.S. Army. “I chuck up on the barrel, concentric with a 0.002 " TIR to the hole for the rifling. We rotate the barrel and machine four or five different surfaces on it, going really fast with a high-feed endmill. The combination saves us time and money.”

The shop’s goal is to acquire another four or five DT-1 machines, Buschold said, “but I won’t replace my Haas VF VMCs because I have large parts that I need to do as well. A lot of our parts are from 3½ "×3½ "×½ " to as small as 0.200 "×0.100 " square. For those smaller parts, I can pop three double Kurt vises on the DT-1 table and get six operations done at once, no problem.”

On a fixture mounted on the rotary table, the shop “nests as many parts as we can and lets the machines run for 20, 30 or 40 minutes, so my operators can run three to four machines at a time,” Buschold said.

The speed and versatility of the drill/tap machines help IDP find and keep customers. “More and more customers are looking for shops like ours that are not just using conventional milling, putting the part on a standard machine and running a regular endmill at the same old, slow 20 to 30 ipm,” Buschold said. “That costs customers money, and they have to be competitive too. We are always looking for ways to go faster, to save time and money. We pass the savings on to our customers, and they are happy and keep coming back.”

—B. Kennedy

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