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HAAS chosen by Thorlabs
HAAS chosen by Thorlabs
HAAS chosen by Thorlabs

HAAS chosen by Thorlabs

Added to MTDCNC by HAAS Automation on 10 June 2013

Thorlabs Inc. has evolved to become a leading global player in the supply of photonics products to customers conducting light-based experiments – namely, the people who are creating the light-based technology of tomorrow. The company has written the book (a shelf-busting 5 kg catalogue, in fact) on how to run a successful mail-order, high-tech component business. Needless to say, while Thorlabs innovates, the company’s HAAS CNC machine tools are doing the metal cutting at its U.S. headquarters in Newton, New Jersey.

So much modern technology is light-based, from supermarket checkout scanners to life-saving medical imaging equipment. For engineers and scientists developing the next generation of such technology, Thorlabs offers a staggering 20,000 different photonics products, including optomechanical components, motion control equipment, optics, fiber, light-analysis equipment, and imaging devices. In other words, all the building blocks needed for laser and fiber-optic systems are available through its online store.

In all, Thorlabs has 15 design and production facilities, located in 8 countries around the world. In Newton, New Jersey, there are four buildings. The company’s imposing new headquarters in the centre of town houses, among other things, engineering staff, assembly, and administration. The former headquarters on Route 206 is now dedicated to the company’s machine shop, and contains six HAAS VF-3SS high-speed machining centres with automatic pallet changers, three EC-400 horizontal machining centres (two with six-station Pallet Pools) and a DT-1 drill/tap centre.

At present, Thorlabs manufactures a portion of its products in-house, but there are plans to increase this percentage considerably in the coming 3 to 5 years. Now that most of the non-manufacturing operations have been moved from the Route 206 building, there’s ample space for new equipment, and the organization has plans to double its machine shop capabilities. Patrick Mulvoy, of the company’s Mechanics Business Unit, oversees the machine shop, and explains his vision for a bigger, expanded manufacturing operation.

'As you can see,'he says, 'we’re not short of space, now that the rest of the business is relocated in the new building. I can see us having 100+ machines in here in the future, which is probably what we’ll need if we’re going to meet our business goals.'

That’s particularly good news for HAAS, since Thorlabs has committed to a predominantly one-make shop.

'Five years ago, we were using machine tools supplied by a number of different manufacturers,' Patrick explains. 'We decided to standardise, and HAAS stepped up to the plate; they’ve been a great partner for us ever since. The machines are relatively low-cost and are very productive. We have HAAS 4th-axis rotary tables on all the VF machines, as well as pallet loading systems.'

The use of pallet changers allows Thorlabs to perform its component loading and unloading offline, while the spindle is still cutting. Using tombstone fixtures on the EC-400 Pallet Pool horizontals, Thorlabs says it can complete even highly complex parts in a maximum of two setups, while the 4-axis verticals are also able to replicate some of the processes performed on the EC-400s. Through the use of pallet pools, Thorlabs has taken advantage of 'unmanned' or 'lights-out'machining in order to stay competitive in its respective industry.

Workpiece materials range from aluminum to stainless steel, and volumes vary widely. A typical part, such as a mirror mount, is produced in numbers of around 40,000 units a year. However, some components are made in annual volumes of up to 110,000 units, and more. The company has different HAAS machines set aside for one-off prototypes, families of parts, and high-volume components. Pointing at one particular EC-400 Pallet Pool, Patrick says: 'This one will only make two components for the rest of its life. We bought it for a specific high-volume purpose. We foresee a life expectancy of up to 15 years, which is a very impressive ROI.'

Having machines set up for certain tasks and volumes also aids personnel deployment. 'Operators can switch from one job to another without problems, or assistance from senior staff,' explains Patrick. 'One particular HAAS machining centre produces a family of 12 different parts. Here, several components are loaded onto a 36-inch workholding bar – we can flip the whole row and cut the backside off. In fact, this particular setup yields about 70 parts per load, which allows the operator to walk away and do something else for an hour.'

All of the HAAS machines at Thorlabs are fitted with HAAS Intuitive Probing Systems, which are particularly useful when machining some of its stainless steel parts, as the company can use its broken-tool-detection capabilities between spot drilling, drilling, and tapping. 'If a tool breaks, the others don’t follow,' says Patrick.

Company President Alex Cable founded Thorlabs in his basement back in 1989, and named it after his dog, a black Labrador. Today, the firm has 850 employees worldwide, half of whom work in New Jersey. Most of its sales come via the website, and when orders are placed, customers can count on the part being in stock and available for immediate shipment. The responsibility for making sure this happens falls on the shoulders of Rick Chiong, Mechanics Business Unit Leader, who claims to be a “recovering accountant,” and is based at the new Thorlabs headquarters. With an eye for figures and accuracy, he’s also an expert in lean enterprise and Six Sigma – know-how he applies rigorously to get the very most from the HAAS machine tools.

'HAAS machines have proved to be extremely worthwhile assets,' Rick says. “They hold tight tolerances, are user-friendly, and can accommodate a lot of tools, which helps minimise setups. They are also fast, which is important because everything we do has a bottom-line impact.
'We need the HAAS machines to be extremely agile,' he adds, 'which also matches the Thorlabs business model. We offer our customers a wish list of every conceivable part and product for light-based experiments. However, if someone doesn’t find what they need on our site, it is very easy for them to web-search for similar products elsewhere, so we have to have the product on the shelf all of the time, and be able to deliver without delay.' This is what Rick often refers to as the company’s 'customer centric' approach, and it is, he says, “a large part of why we are successful.
'I must say,' Rick concludes, 'the HAAS machines have really fulfilled the potential we saw when we bought the first one, back in 2007. I remember being very impressed when the machines and their various productivity-enhancing features were demonstrated. Also, they are made in the U.S., which is particularly good for us: a company with a large part of its manufacturing based here. It’s also very refreshing to see that HAAS invests in its own in-sourcing, which is what we plan to do even more of as we get bigger and carry more product lines.'

It’s difficult to imagine just how many more products the company could offer. But, given that the plan is to have a total of 100+ CNC machine tools, the online catalogue could be an order of magnitude bigger than it is currently. What the already tome-like printed catalogue would look like then is anyone’s guess!

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