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The tooling plates are primarily 2D work, which is faster and easier to machine. The thermoform molds themselves, however, are predominantly 3D, which requires the most engineering work and machining time.
According to Joe, jobs come to J&R in one of three ways. “Lots of times the customer will just send us the product: ‘Here’s my product; make me a package,’” he explains. “We’ll sit down with them, do some sketches, and design the package from scratch. That is the safest way to do it, and it puts 100 percent of the responsibility on us.”
From the product, Joe and Randy will design the package, build the CAD model, create the machining surfaces and generate the toolpaths for machining.
Then they’ll machine a prototype mold out of plastic, and actually pull a sample blister on their in-house thermoforming machine.
“Instead of having just a mold cavity,” says Randy, “the customer can have a plastic blister, and try their parts in there to make sure everything fits the way it’s supposed to.
Today’s sophisticated software gives a good representation, but it’s not the same as feeling the real thing, and seeing how your product’s going to work inside of it.”
“That’s one of the ways we work,” continues Joe. “Another way is that they will send us a hard copy, a blueprint. But most people don’t have the thermoforming experience.
They draw a nice, pretty picture on paper, but they don’t know the do’s and don’ts of thermoforming. Right away, just by looking at that blueprint, we can say, there could be problem areas here, or, this is fine, go ahead and make it.”
Drawing on their experience, the Amarellos work with the customer to refine the design and create the best blister for the product, and the best mold for the type of plastic being used.
“It’s really hard to get anything true off a blueprint, though,” says Randy. “It’s okay for two-dimensional trays, where they can give you elevations, but in the three-dimensional world, you really need to go to the next level, with electronic files.”
“And that’s the third way,” says Joe. “The customer will actually do a CAD drawing - either a solid model or a wire frame - send that to us and say: ‘Here, this is what I want; make us the part like that.’ We’ll take the solid model or wire frame, create our curves and surfaces - all the drawing we need for the CAM system - and create, design and build that mold. Once we do that, then we’ll make the prototype on the machine, pull samples and send them to the customer.
“But the best way is to have the physical product,” he emphasizes, “because a lot of times the product doesn’t match what they drew. Having the physical product is the most important thing. That way, we can make the blister - design and build the mold, manufacture it, pull the samples, put it together - and send it to the customer. The customer loves to get their product in the package.”
Regardless of how the jobs come in, however, the approach the Amarellos use for the machining is the same. Rather than machine the entire 3D surface of the mold in one fell swoop, like many shops do, “We break up our surfaces to utilize the best machining direction,” says Randy. “We won’t just create one surface and say: Machine it all. We try to make the machine . . . ”
“. . . travel the least number of axes possible,” finishes Joe. “Machining in one axis gets the best finish, in two axes is the second best, and when it’s moving in all three, sometimes you may get more facet-y finishes than nice, smooth arcs. What sets us apart is the way we create and build our molds,” he says, “the actual machining process of the mold.”
While this may seem like extra work, given that today’s software can easily generate a 3D program to surface the entire part - and today’s machine tools can easily cut them - Joe and Randy feel it’s the best way to do the job.
Their reasoning is twofold: They want the best surface finish they can get, and they want to reduce the wear and tear on the machine.
“A lot of guys who solid model, they just let the machine go crazy,” says Randy. “They make pretty pictures and let the software do all the calculations, but many times the machine’s running hog-wild, and they’re beating up their machine.”
“Our software (EZ-CAM) allows us to break the surfaces up,” says Joe, “and with our experience in machining, we can pick and choose how we want to machine each surface. We literally break up each section of the part and program it the best way for each section of the mold.
“We’ll rough it out at 100 inches a minute to get rid of all the stock. Then we’ll use a tapered endmill - a lot of our molds are tapered - to contour mill, not 3D, the shape as much as we can, letting the side of the endmill do the work. Then we use a 3D ball endmill, but only where we have to,” Joe says.
“And we’ll try to keep that in a linear direction,” says Randy. “Any time we can go in a single axis, we do, instead of coming in at an angle and going up and down. It creates amazingly smooth finishes. We also use very small stepovers to reduce the need to polish. A lot of companies may use ten or fifteen, twenty thousandths stepover, where we’ll very commonly use three, four, five thousandths.
We very rarely go over five thousandths, because of the finishes we’re looking to get . . .” “. . . right out of the machine,” finishes Joe.
“The smaller the stepover, the better the finish, the less polishing, the nicer the part.”
“It’s like carving an ice sculpture,” says Randy. “You just do a little, tiny bit at a time, and the machine runs for miles and miles and miles.
We’ll let the machine run fifty, sixty, eighty hours, but we’re very picky about machining direction, and the toolpath that the machine uses over those sixty hours. If we’re going to run for sixty hours, we want the finish to come out as good as it possibly can, with the least wear and tear on the machine.
“We run lights-out here, 24 hours a day, when a job requires it - which is most of the time,” he continues. “Four out of five days a week, we’re running at night - and over the weekends. We’ll set up a job on a Thursday or early Friday, and we’ll run all the way to Monday.”
For this reason J&R needs equipment they can rely on. “Longevity is a key factor,” says Joe. “We need machines that we can depend on, that are going to run lights-out, 24/7. That’s critical for us.”
“Running lights out has enabled us to keep our staff low, ” says Randy, “because we’re allowing the machine to do the work without having a physical body there. And people are expensive. If you’ve got three or four of those big jobs going at the same time, you’re duplicating your time.”
Of course, running 24 hours a day and duplicating your time only goes so far when business is booming. By 2003, it was apparent that J&R needed a larger facility, so Joe and Randy went in search of real estate. They purchased a piece of land nearby - about a mile down the road - in May of 2003, and by August, construction was under way. Ten months later, in June of 2004, the new home of J&R Plastics opened its doors.
Purpose-built to suit their exact needs, the building “is nearly four times the size of our old plant,” says Randy. At 9,500 square feet, it has a dedicated machine shop, an engineering room, private offices, a conference room and even a cafeteria.
All five Haas machines are now comfortably ensconced in surroundings more befitting a medical facility than a machine shop: spotlessly clean, neatly plumbed electrical and air, white and gray floor and walls. There’s even a spot set aside - complete with air and electrical drops - for their next machine: a Haas VF-9.
And to think it all started with a bunch of stuffed animals. The Amarellos couldn’t be more pleased. ~~
J&R Plastics, Inc.
J&R’s other two machines, the VF-5 and VF-6, are reserved for larger work, such as tooling plates and multi-cavity molds. “We kind of set it up for our industry,” says Joe, “to utilize the capabilities of the machines, especially the bigger machines."
CNC Machining Magazine
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