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Machine Shop Sets an Example

The Willyard Co. makes its living from
one-time prototype jobs.

By Hannah Miller

A Haas milling machine trims the acrylic bottle designed for a packaging company's shape studies.

Another man in Lee Willyard's job might find himself constantly disappointed.

If the 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.

But that doesn't worry Willyard. "That would be the goal," he says.

The 23-year 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 equipment.

Willyard and 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 mission."

Willyard and 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.

"The guy 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 well.

Even though 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 machines.

The 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 and elsewhere.

Adding Variety

They have 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.

The 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.

Lee, 56, 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," he says.

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.

Plastic nail 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.

"We've 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.

One manufacturer of ice-cream machinery tipped him off to another advantage of plastic: reduced theft.

"They had 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 says.

Machining the parts

The Willyard 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.

Willyard 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.

There is 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.

No matter 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 precise cuts.

Precise cuts 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 tweaking it."

The 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 into it.

E-mail 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.

Close tolerances

Willyard mills parts to very close tolerances, especially when they're to be used as functioning parts of equipment.

A Micro-Vu 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 Quiring.

"We've taken 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 0.0005.

They held 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.

He 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.

Keeping to 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 printing machine.

Once the 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 customer.

"We check 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.

Cosmetics 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.

For 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.

Another 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.

When asked at the drugstore what color polish he wanted, Carlson recalls, Lee said, "I don't care. Just give me 10 bottles."

He sometimes takes calipers along on trips to the drugstore, to size up bottles. "Not many people go in there and measure," he laughs.

Lee's 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.

"He'll help 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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Plastics Machining & Fabricating
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