Feature Stories Archives
Shop Sets an Example
Willyard Co. makes its living from
one-time prototype jobs.
Haas milling machine trims the acrylic bottle
designed for a packaging company's shape
in Lee Willyard's job might find himself constantly
president of The Willyard Co. machines and assembles an item
his customer decides won't sell, he won't be making any more
of them. But if, on the other hand, the item turns out to be
a rousing success, he's still out of a job. The customer,
needing thousands of copies, takes the job away from him and
gives it to an injection molder.
doesn't worry Willyard. "That would be the goal," he says.
old Charlotte, NC-based company specializes in machining and
assembling plastic and metal prototypes, many of them for
consumer packaging or components of electronic or mechanical
his six employees don't consider themselves engineers; in
fact, they call on engineering help if needed. As Willyard
puts it, "our niche is engineering support."
"You have to
do more than just making parts," he says. That means a high
degree of personal involvement, which he says he enjoys.
"You look for problems (to solve). That's our
his wife and partner Carlson Willyard recall convincing a
textiles machinery customer to replace a brass cap used in
winding yarn with an acetal cap that was cheaper, lighter
and less easily damaged.
said, 'Make us a few. We'll see how it works.' It worked
like a charm," Lee remembers. Then, he says, the job "went
on past us" to an injection molder.
"We try to
offer suggestions that make it better for the customer,"
says Carlson, who handles the money end of the business and
occasionally works in the 5,000-square-foot shop as
they may talk themselves out of a particular job, Carlson
says customers remember when a suggestion has saved them
money and they'll return. The textiles machinery maker again
turned to the Willyards for help when it wanted to retrofit
Willyards will do whatever they can to enhance a customer's
situation, Lee says. "If we went after the volume, we
couldn't do this," he adds.
Much of what
the Willyards make will be handled, inspected, tried out and
discussed in focus groups and boardrooms in the Carolinas
made equipment prototypes for electronic printer maker
Datasouth and film producer Fuji, among others. Most often,
the Willyards are hired by manufacturers, but sometimes it's
by the injection molders who'll be handling mass production,
like Technimark of Asheboro, N.C.
Willyards said they avoid specializing in work for a
particular industry, like textiles or automotive. Neither do
they limit their materials. Among the plastics they use are
acrylic, acetal, ryton, ABS, HDPE, glass-filled
polycarbonate, and nylon. "We look for customers who need
our (varied) approach," Lee says.
bought his first welding equipment at age 13, and taught
himself the craft by reading books. "I rode my bike to the
library," he remembers. He started making metal items for
customers in the family garage in Charlotte, an activity his
mother approved of. "At least I wasn't out stealing cars,"
As an adult,
he worked for a company making engines for Indianapolis and
NASCAR race cars, then started his own machining and
fabricating shop in 1976. "We got into plastics mainly
because our customers needed plastic parts made," he says.
polish bottles, spouts and handles for detergent boxes,
containers for food and drink, packaging for health-care
items, even parts for airline ticket printers have had their
start at Willyard's.
gotten people to change to plastic in a lot of cases," Lee
says, because plastic is lighter, cheaper and fits the
customer's needs better.
"A lot of
times you're replacing a part that was designed before
plastic was prevalent," he says. Very rarely has the plastic
not proven superior to what it replaces, he adds. "Although
a couple of times, we had a plastic bushing and heat got to
it," but that was an exception, he says.
manufacturer of ice-cream machinery tipped him off to
another advantage of plastic: reduced theft.
tons of bushings," Lee recalled. He suggested making them of
lubricated nylon, which was an immediate hit. "Yeah, they
work better," Lee was told, "but they last in the parts room
a whole lot longer." The customer's employees apparently had
been pocketing the brass bushings for resale, Lee
Co. does much of its machining on two HAAS VF-0 four-axis
CNC milling machines. Lee says that, for their type of work,
CNC mills are better suited than CNC routers for switching
back and forth between metal and plastic, although they use
router bits with them.
uses the HAAS mills to cut everything from thin sheets of
plastic like HDPE to thick blocks of acrylic. Not everybody
uses the thin HDPE to make functional items, Lee says, but
he has used it for a medicine-bottle carrying case.
also an older Supermax mill retrofitted with CNC controls by
Anilam. Other equipment includes a HAAS CNC lathe and a YAM
lathe with Anilam CNC controls, as well as YAM and Victor
manual lathes and Alliant and Well manual milling machines.
what material is being machined, Lee says, "One of the most
crucial aspects is the fixturing." He uses two-sided sticky
tape and vacuum fixturing to hold materials in place for
are integral in products such as elaborately designed
acrylic bottle forms for "shape studies." According to Lee,
packaging manufacturers like to mull over any proposed
bottle design, so Willyard drilled out the elaborate swirls
and curves needed, then came up with variations. "Shape,
that's a big issue," he says. "It goes on and on. They kept
machining process begins when a customer sends Willyard a
CAD file, sketch, or in the case of reengineering jobs, the
actual part to be copied and changed. "It comes to us at all
levels," he says.
"We bring it
in and plot it," he says. The company makes dimensional
drawings for the computer program which will instruct the
CNC mills in making the part. Employees are cross-trained to
both run the equipment and design the instructions that feed
allows customers to see the drawings as they're been made
and to make suggestions, a bigger curve here, a deeper angle
there. Willyard employees can also edit computer programs
after machining has started.
mills parts to very close tolerances, especially when
they're to be used as functioning parts of equipment.
Spectra optical comparator used with Inspec software enables
employees to precisely measure physical parts that come in
and store the information on computer. Measurement by hand
would be impossible because tools wouldn't fit inside the
part. "When somebody sends you a physical assembly and says,
'Can you make it?' we can say yes," says employee Jason
on things we weren't smart enough to know we couldn't do,"
he laughs. That almost happened with a part for a
supercomputer's power supply, where a series of 0.029 holes
had to be drilled in ryton, a plastic with a 40 percent
glass-bead filling. The holes had a tolerance of
pins attaching the part to the computer,. The fit had to be
snug because the part drew out heat, he said.
"I talked to
the people who made the drills &emdash; I'm on the phone
once a day to somebody's tech line," Lee confesses. The tech
adviser told him he didn't have a spindle with a high enough
rpm to do it. "Here we are with the material on the floor
and the order in hand," he said.
experimented with techniques until he found a way to drill
the holes to the required tolerances, but he remembers the
job as "extremely difficult."
To help him
see what he was doing, he made a sample part from less
expensive, see-through acrylic. The delighted customer
ordered copies of the acrylic piece for salespeople to use
at trade shows.
close tolerances can be important to a customer trying to
prove that a part will function when injection-molded, Lee
says. Using glass-filled polycarbonate and keeping to 0.005
tolerances, he machined two halves of an airline-ticket
mirror-image pieces were created, he hand-sanded around the
holes, glued in connecting plastic rods and inserted metal
threads. "OK, these work molded," he was able to tell the
everything as we go along to catch mistakes early," Carlson
says. When making film cores (storage reels) for Fuji,
gauging stations were set up along the route to see that
there were no nicks in the Type 1 PVC that might damage the
delicate film to be wound around it.
containers may not call for super-close tolerances, but they
can call for tolerance of a different kind. Employees got
all kinds of questions when they went home covered in
lipstick once, Carlson recalls.
focus-group tests, manufacturers want products that look,
feel and work like the real thing. To get the turning
mechanisms used in lipsticks, Lee bought several at a
drugstore and stuck them in the freezer. With the lipstick
frozen, employees could get it out of the tube and uncover
the mechanism, but not without some colorful slips.
time, they needed nail-polish brushes, to glue to tiny nylon
tubes and insert in the acrylic bottles they had machined
and spray painted with Paasche equipment.
at the drugstore what color polish he wanted, Carlson
recalls, Lee said, "I don't care. Just give me 10
takes calipers along on trips to the drugstore, to size up
bottles. "Not many people go in there and measure," he
ingenuity extends to shop methods, Carlson says. She came in
one day and found he'd hung up string-type laundry bags to
drip-dry PVC scrap saturated with coolant. "He's always
coming up with some scheme to do something," she says.
people come up with different approaches," she says. "He has
a lot of people that call and say, 'What would you do here?'
Decades of trying what he calls 'risky-type stuff' helps him
come up with the answer."
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