Life on the Razor’s Edge: How B&R Custom Machining Continues to Defy the Odds
Chapter 2: Re-Beginning, Better
Soon after the fire, B&R purchased its first 5-axis machine and immediately got to work rebuilding the business. That’s when a chance encounter with an aerospace contractor changed everything. In 2007, a gentleman walked into the shop and asked to use one of the small mills to make a telescope he was working on. Brad agreed, showed him the mill, and explained how it worked. The gentleman was with COM DEV International (now a division of Honeywell), a leading Canadian satellite technology, space sciences, and telecommunications company.
“A few days later, he brings his manager to the shop, and just like that, we were in the aerospace business, milling high-tolerance fixtures and jigs,” Ryan recalls.
Soon after, another opportunity arose with MDA Ltd. (MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates), a company developing components for the ExoMars rover. They were looking for someone to produce a series of high-tolerance titanium pieces for the rover’s wheel assembly. Titanium is notoriously difficult to machine, as it has a 50% lower modulus of elasticity and approximately 80% lower thermal conductivity than steel.1
A week later, B&R presented a set of samples to the MDA Ltd. team, which met the tight tolerance specifications and held to tenths. “Between our process and our Okuma Captain L370MW, we had no problem holding those tolerances,” Brad added.
Lifted by the success with COM DEV and MDA Ltd., B&R soon picked up more aerospace projects, including work with Héroux-Devtek to make grappling assemblies for the International Space Station, and Nikon Metrology, which performs high-precision optical inspection of parts. B&R had turned another corner, and both Brad and Ryan credit the company’s relationship with Okuma and EMEC Machine Tools, B&R’s Okuma distributor, for aiding in the turnaround.
“Do you remember the movie, Saving Private Ryan?” Ryan asked. “There’s a guy in that movie, Corporal Upham. His job was to deliver ammunition to his buddies in the machine gun nest so they could keep going. That’s Okuma and EMEC. They’re really good at supplying us with the ammo we need to be successful,” he said.
Part of that reliability is in the machines B&R uses. For over a decade, they’ve mainly used Okumas. Three reasons are the service and support from EMEC and Okuma, dimensional stability, and thermal dynamics for which the brand is well known.
“Most other machines build in a basic algorithm that doesn’t account for temperature changes that occur as the table, frame, and spindle heat up during the day,” Brad explained. Okuma machine tools monitor the ambient temperature, cooling temperature, temperature above the spindle and rate of cooling, and automatically compensate for any changes. “That kind of intuitive, built-in intelligence is absolutely priceless for us,” Brad added.
He also points to Okuma’s unique single-source philosophy in which virtually every component of every machine is designed and built by Okuma. That philosophy is reflected in the machine’s performance. “For example, some other machine tools have noticeable pauses as the spindle lifts, the table rotates and the spindle lowers. You’re thinking, ‘Go already.’ With Okuma, everything is fluid and seamless without any hiccups. Very predictable.”
"B&R desires to pursue excellence in the context of valuing employees. B&R has an internal document that explains the relationship between performance and valuing employees that gives the employee several ‘tools’ to resolve conflict, express their concerns and relate to others to ensure a culture that is focused on moving forward."
– B&R Custom Machining, website