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New Equipment Helps Abbott Plastics Stay Competitive
Improving quality while increasing output is a never-ending challenge. The dilemma is that high-quality commodities often take too much time to produce. One way to meet the challenge is by investing in precision, high-yield equipment, but how does a company justify new capital expenditures in a depressed economy?

For Abbott Plastics, the answer was simple – by replacing inefficient CNC machining centers with modern, new equipment, the machines would pay for themselves.

Abbott Plastics, an ISO9001/2000 certified company, was founded in Rockford, Illinois in 1980, as a distributor of industrial plastics. As manufacturing grew in the area, Abbott expanded its services to include the production of plastic parts. "We have a diverse customer base, ranging from manufacturers in the food industry to aerospace," explains co-owner Robert Nelson. "Our customers need machined plastic parts, because molding them is either too expensive or not accurate enough."

Abbott initially used manual mills and lathes to machine plastic parts. Then, in the early 1990s, the company purchased its first CNC equipment. The CNC machines improved quality, but didn’t have much capacity, and over the years, as demand increased and competition grew, the lack of capacity made it difficult for Abbott to meet delivery schedules. "We were looking to upgrade our existing equipment to become more competitive," says Britt Anderson, who oversees the machine shop. "From my previous experience as a shop owner, I found that Haas gave me the best value for the dollar. There were a lot of machines at the same price and capacity, but when I asked people about their machines, they weren’t happy with the service they were receiving. From my experience with Haas, I knew that service and reliability would never be an issue."

Abbott purchased a Haas VF-4 vertical machining center in 2001, and then added a VF-3 and another VF-4 a year later. "We replaced four older machines with three Haas machines, and we still increased our capacity," says Nelson. "The Haas machines increased our product flow and improved our quality by weeding out inefficiencies."

Even with the increased capacity, however, Abbott still was unable to bid on certain jobs. Plastic comes in all different shapes and sizes, and Abbott had been doing a brisk business cutting parts out of flat sheets. But the one router they had was limited by its size and difficulty of use. "We needed another router to keep up with the demand," says Nelson. "We had one that was four by eight feet, but we thought we could do more if we had a bigger machine."

Abbott didn't have to look far to find the right machine. They saw the Haas GR-510 Gantry Router at IMTS in Chicago and liked what they saw. "It was the machine we needed, and we took delivery of one soon after the show. Then we had to work fast to get the machine up and running, because we'd already promised people products," says Anderson.

"The gantry’s five-foot-by-ten-foot table is perfect for us, because the plastic sheets come in ten-foot-long pieces," says Nelson. "We were trying to machine ten-foot sheets on our other router, and it took a lot of extra time and effort. With the GR-510, we've eliminated the waste of time and materials."

Training on the new machine was fast as well, notes Anderson, because the GR-510 has the same user-friendly control as the other Haas machining centers in the shop. "Our other router has a PC-based control," he says, "and I only have one guy who can run it; it's an animal of its own. But the GR-510 has the same control as our other Haas machines, so now I have five dif-ferent guys who can run it."

The machine’s rigid tapping feature was another benefit to Abbott Plastics. "We now run parts on the Gantry that previously we could only run on one of the mills," Anderson says. "We can do parts on the GR-510 that we never would have thought of running on our other router.

Nelson agrees, adding, “When you have a machine with capacity like this, you start thinking of all the different things you can do to save time. It has given us the capacity we need, and allowed us to look at work that we couldn’t have been competitive on a year ago.” Abbott has used the GR-510 to cut plastic sheets up to 4 inches thick, and is already looking for more ways to use it.

By investing in new equipment, Abbott Plastics not only increased their productivity, but also reduced labor costs, allowing them to keep prices competitive despite increased material costs. With their old machines, says Nelson, “we had 20 people on two shifts. Now, we no longer require a second shift. We have fewer machinists in the shop, and yet, we’re still getting more output. We’ve done studies where we look at how much time it used to take us to run a job, and we compare it with how long it takes now on the Haas machines,” Nelson continues. “We’ve had a sixty percent increase in productivity over the other equipment.”

Quality has improved as well, says Anderson. With the old machines, “We discovered that the guys were taking short-cuts to meet production deadlines, because they couldn’t get the machines to do what they needed. Now, the Haas machines are able to do what we need, and with better accuracy. We used to have to do a final inspection on parts, but the new machines are so accurate that we’ve eliminated the final, and now we just use in-process inspections.

Give people the right equipment and they often become better, more productive employees. That has definitely been the case at Abbott Plastics. “Our ability to machine parts has improved. The guys in the shop have gone up two tiers in their knowledge and their ability to machine parts,” says Anderson.

As a result, Abbott is better able to meet production schedules and respond quickly to emergencies. “Our deliveries are much better,” says Nelson. “We usually take about three weeks, but if someone requests something special, we can turn it around in a day.”

With the capacity problems solved on the milling side of things, Anderson looked next to replacing one of the shop’s turning centers. “We needed the capacity to run larger diameter parts without the need to chuck blanks,” he explains. “We were wasting a lot of time and material with our old lathe, because we had to cut blanks and load them individually.” A Haas SL-30 lathe with Big Bore option and tailstock solved the problem. The Big Bore option increases the normal bar capacity from 3 inches to 4 inches, while the tailstock provides support for longer pieces of plastic. “Now, we can run jobs from a continuous length of rod up to five feet long,” Anderson says.

Now that Abbott Plastics has invested in the right machine tools and is reaping the benefits of increased capacity, superior accuracy and better machinists, the company continues looking for additional ways to maintain a competitive edge. “I just finished taking a manufacturing course on Six Sigma, and the goal is to improve processes. So I’m trying to spread that thinking around the shop,” says Anderson.


Story and photos by Scott Weersing, Haas Automation, Inc.

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