Manufacturing at super speed

In 1996, Omni-Lite fitted Olympic track athlete Michael Johnson with ceramic-spiked running shoes. Today, the company finds exotic, lightweight, composite metals are useful for many things--like manufacturing at super speed.

BY JAN ROSE

Omni-Lite Industries is in the enviable position of having no sales personnel, yet being up to their cold forging presses in work. Headquartered in Calgary but manufacturing in Cerritos, Calif., the company has become a wunderkind for super-efficiently churning out 350,000 micro-parts per day (or ten parts per second) with only four production staff.

The secret? Assign one computer to each of the ten forging systems, modified to monitor up to eight sensors; design and build a quick-transfer method in a four-die, four-punch system capable of picking up an object from a 1/2-in. to 1/16-in. length; and work with exotic lightweight composite metals such as metal-matrix composite. The MMC finished parts, with superior wear and abrasion resistance, are nearly impossible to cut or drill.

David Grant, president and CEO, says sensors feed information into each computer, which is programmed to recognize high and low force values at each station, and to accept tolerances within a range designated by the operator. Input from each sensor is reviewed simultaneously by the central computer, the second automation level, using Paradox assembler code written for a Z80 base. Different codes can monitor various functions such as tooling, wire, or lubrication problems. One operator can run three or four machines.

Pneumatically controlled timing for the quick-transfer system is from an air cylinder driven from a cam. The cylinder fits flush against the die. When the cylinder retracts, the part is pulled out and shifted to the next, Grant explains. "It's a little adaptation we've thrown in to make the equipment much more flexible. I would say it increases the machine's flexibility by two."

High-pressure punches operating at 150,000 psi forge material into finished parts, usually designed with a head boss for transfer pickup and shank. There's virtually no cleanup or deburring required on the precision parts. Tolerances for parts made for Chrysler's automatic transmissions, for instance, are 0.0007-in., since assembly line robots can't distinguish between defective and non-defective parts.

Multi-tasking the central computer with spreadsheet functions allows for calculations of daily production and up-down time. "The machine can tell us what percent of its entire history it's down for, say, tooling issues, and of course that way we can compare one operator to the next operator. It allows for greater efficiency," Grant says.

Grant says the average output per worker in 1998 was $650,000, about six times the average in Canada and the United States.

The company relocated manufacturing to California in 1994, closer to businesses familiar with lightweight composites and near research centres. Product development requires approximately $100,000 per year studying composites to replace metal-based components.

The company first gained public exposure in 1996 at the Olympic Games in Atlanta when Michael Johnson won the 200- and 400-metre races using track shoes with ceramic instead of iron spikes. One-third the weight of steel, each "Christmas Tree" spike was redesigned to compress the track, releasing energy back to the runner. The spikes are now used in 90% of all track shoes, including Reebok and Adidas.

Grant, an Alberta-bred engineer, brought experience in the aerospace industry and composite metals with him when he formed the company in 1992.

While counting General Motors, NATO, and the U.S. Army among its customers, the company still makes specialized parts for sports, such as wheel rims for bicycles using composite materials.

Multi-Tek, Industries, another company formed by Grant, is in the process of acquiring Tactex Controls of British Columbia. The company developed a multi-point touch-sensitive pad used for direct data input into a computer. The first dozen beta units were sent out in August and September of 1999.

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