Laser Technology
Thursday | 08 September, 2011 | 11:33 am

No room for error

By Gretchen Salois

Precision parts for nuclear reactors and missiles aren’t entrusted to just anyone

August 2011- Good designs and first-rate craftsmanship are the reasons planes take flight without failing in mid-air and automobiles don’t collapse while traveling at high speeds. The cooperative relationship between the engineers who design the parts and the metalworkers who make those designs a reality is a delicate balance. Companies rely on dependable tools, and some of the world’s most-sensitive projects are completed using lasers from NTC America–Laser Group, Novi, Mich.

The aerospace industry is one area where rigorous attention to detail is necessary to manufacture a safe and reliable mode of transportation or weaponry successfully. At Ultimate Hydroforming Inc., Sterling Heights, Mich., metalworkers collaborate with engineers at some of the world’s pre-eminent companies, constructing highly sensitive projects in a timely fashion. Ultimate owns two TLM 610 machines, which the company purchased three years ago, and a TLM 614, which the company purchased one year ago.

“[Our customers] tell us what they need and our engineers develop and do all the research and testing,” says Michael Allen, senior buyer of new products at one of the aerospace companies that works with Ultimate. “We have design guys here, and we’re given a scope of projects to work through, including what type of piece is needed and how it has to perform.”

Allen emphasizes, “There are not a whole lot of people that do aerospace-quality hydroforming.” According to Allen, the company has an approved supplier list that “goes back many years.” From that list, the company “keeps the suppliers that perform the best as far as quality and delivery,” Allen says. Ultimate is among those listed.

NTC Laser has worked with Ultimate for the past five years. Ultimate recently purchased additional machines “because their workload has increased,” says Steve Glovak, sales manager at NTC. “The aerospace industry, which is a major part of Ultimate’s business, seems to be making a comeback.”

Ultimate chose NTC’s machines because “all of our machines are the same type. We can transfer jobs and data between the machines very quickly and without any downtime,” says Tony Minor, a project engineer at Ultimate. “[The machines] are all five-axis machines and can cut all the different part configurations that we have to deal with for aerospace and commercial production or automotive prototypes.” Ultimate prefers laser cutters to plasma cutters because “we have never liked the rough cut from plasma cutting,” Minor adds.

Shane Klyn, operations manager at Ultimate, says the company focuses primarily on sheet metal details but “we’re not limited to any certain product, application or forming method,” he says. “We focus on diversity with our customers and with respect to the products we sell.” Whether forming small components or large welded assemblies, Ultimate has a wide range of capabilities. “We’re not restricted by any means. We tackle any project and any timeframe,” Klyn adds.

Time is money
Producing quality parts is the first part of the process, but delivering completed projects in a timely manner is key. “Ultimate responds in a timely manner, which helps our program meet set goals,” says Busayo Akapo, supplier manager for missile systems at Raytheon Co., Tucson, Ariz., with company headquarters in Waltham, Mass. “In the past year or two, we’ve had parts completed with other suppliers and we had to transfer a couple of parts to Ultimate to get the quality we needed in a timely fashion.” Raytheon has depended on Ultimate when “some suppliers didn’t have the kind of quality needed,” Akapo adds.

NTC is able to cater to detail-intensive projects because “we listen to our customers,” Glovak says, adding when customers tell NTC they’d like to see an improvement or process change, “our company listens. A customer will say, ‘This joystick is good, but it’d be nice if we could put it on the pendant and walk around with it,’” Glovak says. “So we made that improvement—whether it’s making bulky electronics smaller or other product changes, this is what comes from listening to customers.”

Great expectations
When companies are thinking about taking on a massive project, they often test the concept on a smaller scale. “We’re in the process of building a mini nuclear reactor,” Klyn says. “We’re basically building this one to prove out a certain process that’s going to be utilized. Once it’s proven on a smaller scale, the company will move on to the actual reactor.”

Ultimate also is working on production for the F-35 joint strike fighter jet for the military. “We’ve gone from prototypes a few years, to now starting to ramp up production.” In addition to military-related work, Klyn says the company is working on parts for Airbus and Boeing, designing new, more efficient commercial airplanes. As orders increase, NTC’s lasers must meet demand.

“Look at the aircrafts currently being flown,” says Allen. “Whether you’re sitting in economy or not, you can only fly an airplane for so long. Right now it’s at that point where all airlines need to replace their aircraft.” According to Allen, not only do airplanes need to be replaced because of wear-and-tear but also because technology has advanced such that today’s models are more fuel-efficient.

Bright skies ahead
“We’re always taking on different challenges,” says Akapo. “We trust Ultimate because they have the means to complete complicated designs and deliver completed parts on time.”

Timeliness can make the difference when companies are choosing their suppliers. “We have customers throughout the world,” says Klyn. “Most of our customers are outside Michigan.” As the automotive industry continues to recover, Klyn expects additional projects for that industry. “We recently did the battery trays for the electric car, Chevy Volt; we expect more projects in the future,” he says.

NTC Laser customers make a long-term investment when purchasing a laser. “You won’t see a lot of our machines in the used market,” Glovak says. “It’s not uncommon to see our laser equipment still producing quality parts after 15 [or more] years in operation. Our machines are built for the long haul and customers find as they produce quality work, they get more business and end up coming back to us for additional machines, as is the case with Ultimate.  

“Manufacturing has been slow in the past two years and it’s starting to make a comeback,” Glovak continues. “It’s a slow process; automotive is coming back, green energy is driving fabricators, aerospace … those industries improving is what is going to help our business, too. We have to look around and expand our marketing efforts into other industries.” MM

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