Cutting Tool Engineering
March 2014 / Volume 66 / Issue 3

'Last word' in machining

By Alan Richter, Editor

From alpha to omega, Omega Manufacturing provides the complete “alphabet” of parts manufacturing services, including CNC and manual machining, grinding, honing, sawing, wire and sinker EDMing, prototyping, part design and assembly. Nonetheless, wire EDMing remains the heart of the business that President Ron Hunte established 17 years ago.

“I’ve always enjoyed wire EDMing,” he said. “I call them ‘miracle machines,’ because when you’re trying to do the difficult parts that a lot of guys are looking at machining conventionally, they just can’t do what a wire EDM does.” According to Hunte, that includes efficiently cutting hardened components, producing tight corners and creating “crazy shapes” as long as the workpiece material is electrically conductive.

Straight Out of Upstate

Hunte started his career as an automotive engineer for General Motors after graduating in 1985 from General Motors Institute. “GMI was a very rigorous engineering school that stressed ‘hands-on’ engineering,” he said. Hunte added that the institute produced Mary T. Barra, GM’s current and first female CEO, who also graduated in 1985 and was a sister of Beta Theta Pi, the same fraternity that Hunte belonged to. “I knew her very well, but I’ve lost touch,” he said. “It’s nice to have an engineer in charge of GM again instead of all the financial people.”

With machining in his blood, Hunte worked from 1989 to 1996 with his three brothers at their machine shop, Omega Consolidated Corp., Hilton, N.Y., which is near Rochester and the town of Greece. One of the shop’s customers was EDM builder Agie/Elox, so Hunte became more familiar with the technology by making major components for the machines. While visiting the builder’s facility near Charlotte, N.C., in 1996, Hunte became impressed with the area’s manufacturing vibrancy and growth, especially in contrast to the downsizing occurring at some of the large companies in and around Rochester.

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Courtesy of All images: A. Richter

Ron Hunte, president of Omega Manufacturing, with the company’s newest wire EDM, a Mitsubishi BA24.

Hunte failed to convince his brothers to pull up their roots and relocate, but he wasn’t so firmly planted.

“I was kind of down for a while, and then I decided to leave,” he recalled. “So I parted with my brothers and started in Charlotte.”

Although the new shop has no official ties with Omega Consolidated, Hunte felt the indirect association would help launch his new operation. “I like the name,” he said. “Like the last word in the Greek alphabet—it’s the last word in machining.”

Targeting the Terible

To help get the word out about his company, Hunte sought challenging applications that would showcase the unique capabilities of wire EDMing. “When I first started, I prided myself on being able to do the difficult jobs, the jobs nobody else wanted.”

That approach generated business, but there were not enough “terrible” jobs to keep his employees continually busy, so the shop also sought out less-demanding parts. “Then it went much better,” Hunte said. “If I just go for the challenging stuff, I’m going to go out of business, so I have to get the other stuff to keep right on rolling.”

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Dave Tenhengel, a journeyman machinist at Omega, turns a one-of-a-kind part on a manual toolmaker’s lathe.

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Omega started as a wire EDM shop and continues to specialize in that EDM technology.

After Omega established itself as a high-quality wire EDM shop, people started requesting that it perform sinker EDM work, not understanding that all EDMing isn’t the same, Hunte noted. While he prefers wire EDMing to the oil-centric and “stinky sinker stuff,” Hunte nonetheless purchased a couple of sinker EDMs, as well as other types of manual and CNC machine tools, to meet demand.

Hunte said one of the shop’s bread-and-butter jobs for the sinker EDMs is purposefully creating simulated weld flaws on components for ultrasonic testing equipment. “You can’t really high-speed mill a tiny 0.020 "-wide, 0.200 "-deep flaw, simulating cracks in welded piping, for example, for nuclear power plants.”

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Omega uses its AgieCharmilles Drill 11 hole popper, with its optional power supply attachment, for high-precision small-hole EDMing.

On the wire side, in addition to making parts for customers, Omega makes special form tools for application in-house on its turning centers. For example, a special is needed to produce a V groove in a tube welding application. The company’s four wire EDMs are all Mitsubishis, with the newest being a Model BA24. Hunte explained that he selected Mitsubishi wire EDMs to handle production work because they are known for their ability to cut quickly and produce accurate parts. Part tolerances are as tight as ±0.0001 ", which require skim cutting, and part runs range from one-of-a-kind items, such as fixtures, to 10,000-piece orders.

He added that the larger runs are “not automotive-type production,” but Omega does serve one automotive area: NASCAR. Specifically, the shop works with Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, primarily machining chassis components, housings and brake caliper components, as well as wire EDMing parts like splines. “NASCAR teams don’t throw money around and they’re definitely cost-conscious, but often the race is coming up and they’ve got to have it,” Hunte said, noting it’s some of the shop’s most enjoyable work. “We’ve turned on a dime for them on several occasions.”

A third type of EDMing Omega performs is small-hole drilling with an AgieCharmilles Drill 11 hole popper. That machine has an optional power supply attachment to precisely produce holes from 0.006 " to 0.015 " in diameter. He said the hole popper can achieve the smallest holes in conductive material up to 0.200 " thick, whereas the larger ones are up to nearly 2 " deep. “But if you don’t have the right power supply, you won’t have luck doing that.”

Most Important Asset

From the company’s humble start with “basically nothing,” Omega has grown to a 15,000-sq.-ft. shop employing 15 people. One recent hire is Account Manager MaryKatherine Lowry. “She’s trying to get more work in here,” Hunte said, adding that Omega previously relied on word of mouth to generate new business. “It’s a slow way to grow. I’m the son of German immigrants and we don’t like to spend money on wasteful things like advertising.”

Because Omega continues to attract difficult jobs, the company looks for workers who want to be challenged and work for a small company, Hunte pointed out. “That’s a huge challenge. We would be bigger if I could only find two things: more work and more people to do it.”

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Alan Jackson, a CNC machinist at Omega, checks the ID of a machine component.

To assist with training, workers occasionally attend Central Piedmont Community College, which has a “strong manufacturing program,” Hunte said. He noted President Obama mentioned the school in his 2012 state-of-the-union address. In addition, an instructor from the college visited Omega during the evening hours to help Hunte and a programmer learn the latest Mastercam CAM software package.

“A hundred years ago when I first started getting into CAM programs, Mastercam was the one I picked and I just stuck with it. It is all-encompassing,” Hunte said, noting the software is suitable for turning, milling and EDMing. He added that Omega also uses ProCAM for simpler parts.

Because of his manufacturing engineering background, Hunte said he frequently assists customers with part design for manufacturability—regardless of whether they ask or not. “Customers know when they come to me that I’m going to give them some feedback if I can. I might ask, ‘Why are you making this out of two pieces when I can wire EDM it and it can be all one?’ Sometimes it’s not wanted and they say, ‘We know what we’re doing and this is what we want.’ I’m good with that and I understand my role, but I just can’t help myself when I see something glaring.”

Competitive Issues

Omega continues to add capabilities, such as laser engraving for serializing components and providing part traceability, and is eyeing 3D printing technology. He said: “3D printing is very neat. Some think it might make us all obsolete. That’s the fear my wife has, that we’re going to make everything on 3D printers. I say, ‘Not so fast.’ ”

When a job involves operations that Omega doesn’t perform, such as sheet-metal fabrication and welding, it will outsource, albeit reluctantly. “If I had my druthers, I would accept just the work we can do here,” Hunte said. The outsourcing includes a bit of machining, typically when the shop gets overloaded. “I always thought I don’t want to make my money on somebody else’s work—I want to make it on my own work.”

That work includes assisting “friendly competitors,” he said. “They compete head-to-head with us [on traditional machining jobs] but then come us for EDMing.” Examples include sinker EDMing a broken tap to remove it from a part and wire EDMing a hole a shop missed placing in a part before it was heat treated. The alternative involves annealing the part, drilling it, heat treating it again, regrinding it and otherwise finishing the part.

The vast majority of Omega Manufacturing’s customers are local or regional and Hunte is fine with that. “I believe in staying somewhat local,” he said. “If I could draw a circle of where we could get to in maybe 3 hours, that’s where I would like all of our customers to come from.” Nonetheless, out-of-state work is not unusual, sometimes as a result of a previously local contact moving and continuing to direct business to Omega.

The machine shop, however, plans to stay put in Charlotte as major energy-related companies, such as Siemens, AREVA and the Electric Power Research Institute, help to transform the Queen City while generating jobs.

“They always talk about banking in connection with Charlotte,” Hunte said, “but the number two employer in Charlotte is manufacturing.”

For more information about Omega Manufacturing, call (704) 597-0418 or visit www.omega-mfg.com. CTE

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