Form Factory combines innovation and art to produce prototypes

June 05, 2019 - 03:15pm

Article provided by Lynn Gorman Communications LLC

One of the laments of the machinist is that designers don’t always consider whether their designs can actually be made. Form Factory founder Brian Ross has embraced that thought and turned it on its head. Ross created his company to cater to clients in a wide variety of industries that all need one thing: high-precision prototypes.

“People who are developing new products come to us, and we help them prototype and invent their ideas. Largely we’re just working as a piece of the puzzle to help get a product out into the real world out of somebody’s brain,” Ross said. To do this, Ross tries to channel the thinking process of an industrial designer and then marry it to the thinking process of a machinist. In doing so, he has carved out a unique niche for his company.

Brian Ross with one of his prototype creations.

Becoming a fixture in the prototyping market wasn’t always part of Ross’s plan. When he accepted a position at a local job shop as an upcoming college junior, Ross thought it would only be a summer job that he could easily forget about come fall. Four years later, he was still at the same shop and had worked his way up to running its first CNC machine. He didn’t stop there, though.

“After about four years, I started realizing there’s more than just cutting pockets and holes out of a sheet. At that time, I had never flipped a piece of stock over and machined the other side or done multiple operations or setups from different orientations. I wanted to know more so I put myself through night school for the Mastercam CAD/CAM software from CNC Software Inc., Tolland, Connecticut. Certification courses,” Ross said.

Mastercam Verify function with toolpaths shown.

His official Mastercam Certification earned him job offers at multiple prototyping companies, and his knowledge continued to grow. “I worked at four different, really strong prototyping firms very similar to Form Factory, and I think I got enough from each of them to put together my own place after about 10 years,” said Ross. The decade he had spent learning terminology, processes, marketing, and funding made his transition to business owner that much easier.

Ross founded Form Factory in 2004 with the goal of helping local customers create innovative prototypes. He bought a brand new, built-to-order Haas machine tool and a seat of Mastercam, and he’s been working hard ever since. He said, “We pride ourselves on always being on time and always having happy customers, but sometimes that comes at the cost of making a part for the third time or working excessive overtime or even pulling an occasional all-nighter.”

The Form Factory shop.

Fifteen years later, his hard work has paid off. Ross has built a respectable reputation for Form Factory and has expanded his team to include a model maker, a maintenance helper, a bookkeeper and added a total of three CNC machines to the shop. Form Factory’s customers have come to expect the quality and ingenuity that Ross’ team always delivers. “A lot of shops really are geared toward pallet changers and automation and ripping through material as fast as possible. We really specialize in low volume and creativity,” Ross said.

The vast majority – 80 to 95 percent – of Form Factory’s jobs involve machining one to five copies of a prototype. Attention to detail is vital in these situations; tolerances are often within one thousandth of an inch. “Some projects, we’re doing iteration after iteration, trying to get a product to market,” Ross said. “Sometimes we’re only doing one little mechanical detail, but we’ll do it again and again to get some functionality to work just right. Then that’s incorporated into the design, and ultimately we can make a hard model that looks just like the real thing.”

This printer prototype model was machined from high-density urethane foam.

Often early in design exploration, a basic form factor model is machined out of high-density urethane foam or tooling board, which can be very fragile and difficult to work with. Every aspect of prototyping calls for extreme accuracy, and Ross has organized his own collection of resources to enable it.

Harvey Performance Co., Rowley, Massachusetts, and its Harvey Tool and Gorham, Maine-based Helical Solutions brands provide specialty carbide endmills and cutting tools that allow Ross to turn his products into art. “To me, machining is sculpture,” he explained. “I’ve always tried to make parts that look like they grew that way. I’ve learned to use Harvey’s special little cutters to deburr what you can on the machine instead of doing that by hand, so that it comes off completely finished.”

Harvey Tool's 0.015”-dia. long-reach ball endmill was applied to machine medical prototypes for a blood testing device.

Ross also prefers tapered endmills and long-reach tools that help him rough out what he calls “impossible reaches”— those tight pockets that are extremely difficult to get to with typical endmill lengths. He prefers larger diameter tools and those designed specifically for aluminum applications.

Harvey’s and Helical’s tool libraries are both available in Mastercam’s Tech Exchange site, providing Ross with all of his endmill choices with a few clicks of a mouse and saving him considerable time when selecting tools for a particular job.

Ross has worked with his Mastercam Reseller, MCAM Northwest, since day one. Tim Rowley, founder of MCAM Northwest, and his team provide technical support for Ross’s two seats of Mastercam Mill 3D, one seat of Mastercam Multiaxis, and one seat of Mastercam Design. Rowley also keeps the software up to date and offers extra support for rollouts. He shared that the software perfectly complements the high-precision prototyping Ross does. “He’s looking for surface finishes that are way beyond what most shops that do prototyping are. He’s always pushing the boundaries,” Rowley said. Luckily his software works just as hard.

Ross programmed Dynamic OptiRough toolpaths with rest milling and equal scallop for this Halloween decoration made of urethane foam.

The powerful CAD/CAM software sets Ross up for success before the first cut. Features like Verify and Backplot simulate the machining process, highlighting any potential collisions and checking the quality of toolpath motion. The Compare function within the software’s Simulator tool uses an intuitive, color-coded interface to allow users to easily compare verification results with the model. “The minute I try to make a set-up part or a practice run, I’ve already taken all of the profit out of a job. I have to succeed on my first go,” he explained. “Mastercam’s Compare capability is amazing, being able to see where you’re getting close to the surface finish or where you still have material left or if you made a mistake and set a rapid move too low and gouged across the top of a part.”

To take full advantage of Harvey’s unique cutting tools, Ross uses Dynamic Motion technology, or Dynamic Milling. Dynamic toolpaths follow a sophisticated proprietary algorithm that constantly monitors the material as it is being cut. As the machine is working, Dynamic toolpaths detect any changes in material and calculate the changes in feed, speed, step-over or cutting motion necessary to keep machining safely. The results are reduced cycle times, fewer air cuts, and longer lasting tools.

“Some of the software’s high-efficiency machining allows you to use the entire flute of that cutter rather than dulling the very tip of the cutter. In the old days you’d have 90% of the cutting flute sharp as day, but you’d have to throw that tool out and start again. Now you can get way better tool life and prep things much faster, and you still have reasonably sized chips,” Ross said. He shared that tool life has more than tripled since using Dynamic, and roughing time has been cut down 90 percent.

These mandrels are for the medical industry.

Dynamic toolpaths also include a rest milling option, which removes material left by previous operations. For example, if a scallop is left in a corner by a cutting tool with a diameter too large to remove it, the software will automatically plan to remove the scallop with a smaller diameter tool. “You could spend days and days trying to figure out where you need to cut this leftover material, so being able to use the rest milling feature and just cut specifically where you need to is really helpful,” said Ross. He appreciates the consistency that comes with Dynamic Motion technology and the confidence it gives him to run machines without supervision.

Sometimes issues do arise, but they’re not because of machining error. Ross explained, “Some of our successes that we have here at Form Factory – from a design standpoint – are the failures. When somebody’s idea fails, at least we answered that question early on and save our customers future headaches and costs further down the road. You prototype to figure out what works and what doesn’t.” Ross will keep working on a prototype with a customer for as long as it takes to find an effective solution.

Machined aluminum components of the Albert Starr Award, a lifetime achievement award given by Oregon Bioscience to honor Dr. Starr’s legacy. He is a Portland-based cardiovascular surgeon who co-invented the artificial heart valve.

Ross admits that he could expand the company now; he often has to turn away work. However, he prefers to keep Form Factory operating at the local level. The rapport he has built with his clients and his company’s ability to customize every part are too valuable to compromise. He may bring on another employee or two soon, but right now Form Factory is entirely focused on maintaining its standards of quality, creativity and precision.

Related Glossary Terms

  • computer numerical control ( CNC)

    computer numerical control ( CNC)

    Microprocessor-based controller dedicated to a machine tool that permits the creation or modification of parts. Programmed numerical control activates the machine’s servos and spindle drives and controls the various machining operations. See DNC, direct numerical control; NC, numerical control.

  • endmill


    Milling cutter held by its shank that cuts on its periphery and, if so configured, on its free end. Takes a variety of shapes (single- and double-end, roughing, ballnose and cup-end) and sizes (stub, medium, long and extra-long). Also comes with differing numbers of flutes.

  • feed


    Rate of change of position of the tool as a whole, relative to the workpiece while cutting.

  • fixture


    Device, often made in-house, that holds a specific workpiece. See jig; modular fixturing.

  • gang cutting ( milling)

    gang cutting ( milling)

    Machining with several cutters mounted on a single arbor, generally for simultaneous cutting.

  • milling


    Machining operation in which metal or other material is removed by applying power to a rotating cutter. In vertical milling, the cutting tool is mounted vertically on the spindle. In horizontal milling, the cutting tool is mounted horizontally, either directly on the spindle or on an arbor. Horizontal milling is further broken down into conventional milling, where the cutter rotates opposite the direction of feed, or “up” into the workpiece; and climb milling, where the cutter rotates in the direction of feed, or “down” into the workpiece. Milling operations include plane or surface milling, endmilling, facemilling, angle milling, form milling and profiling.

  • milling machine ( mill)

    milling machine ( mill)

    Runs endmills and arbor-mounted milling cutters. Features include a head with a spindle that drives the cutters; a column, knee and table that provide motion in the three Cartesian axes; and a base that supports the components and houses the cutting-fluid pump and reservoir. The work is mounted on the table and fed into the rotating cutter or endmill to accomplish the milling steps; vertical milling machines also feed endmills into the work by means of a spindle-mounted quill. Models range from small manual machines to big bed-type and duplex mills. All take one of three basic forms: vertical, horizontal or convertible horizontal/vertical. Vertical machines may be knee-type (the table is mounted on a knee that can be elevated) or bed-type (the table is securely supported and only moves horizontally). In general, horizontal machines are bigger and more powerful, while vertical machines are lighter but more versatile and easier to set up and operate.

  • step-over


    Distance between the passes of the toolpath; the path spacing. The distance the tool will move horizontally when making the next pass. Too great of a step-over will cause difficulty machining because there will be too much pressure on the tool as it is trying to cut with too much of its surface area.

  • toolpath( cutter path)

    toolpath( cutter path)

    2-D or 3-D path generated by program code or a CAM system and followed by tool when machining a part.


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