Andretti Autosport has just won its fourth IZOD IndyCar Series Championship and has two Indy 500 races, two Firestone Indy Lights Titles and one USF2000 championship under its belt. Success at the track depends on lots of factors, many of which are far from the spotlight, in a precision machine shop cloaked inside the company’s Indianapolis headquarters. And never is the behind-the-scenes shop work more critical than when the project is, in effect, building a performance IndyCar racer from the chassis up. With a tradition of excellence and achievement to uphold, Andretti Autosport turned to BIG Kaiser Precision Tooling.
Go Big or Go Home
Each part is absolutely critical to a machine designed to travel more than 220 miles per hour. Every ounce on the car is essential, and failure of any of those parts could mean disaster. Precision determines the difference between winning and losing. Still, the quality of a surface finish on any single chassis part, hidden deep within the car’s outwardly sleek body, isn’t necessarily going to determine race outcomes. Observers and competitors might never even know it’s there, much less be able judge the part’s reflectivity and cleanness.
But the Andretti Autosport design engineers are keenly aware of that part, and it’s in their DNA to demand perfection from it. The cultural necessity for every single part, external or otherwise, to meet exacting standards is anything but cosmetic – instead, it’s the manifestation of a mindset that never cuts corners and never settles. It’s a mindset that, applied to the entire process, undoubtedly shaves significant tenths of a second off of each lap.
BIG Kaiser shares this mindset, making the company an ideal fit for an Andretti Autosport team that looks for elements of its own DNA – including performance, quality, speed, precision, tradition, and leadership – when choosing partners.
Staying competitive in IndyCar racing requires continuous fine-tuning to meet the needs of diverse tracks, and even more diverse drivers. Event rules often restrict modifications, but still allow technicians substantial flexibility in critical areas such as suspension and aerodynamics, as well as cockpit ergonomics. Here, “flexibility” translates to the ability to design and manufacture all-new components, often quickly, between events. The company also fabricates its own tooling and crucial pit-stop maintenance parts, all with the goal of enhancing track performance.
And 2012 has featured a serious departure from the norm for IndyCar, as a rule change allows three separate engine manufacturers – Chevrolet, Honda and Lotus – to be represented on the track. In previous years, only one engine, most recently Honda, had been the sole engine provider.
“It’s really made the competition tougher, and ramped-up the head-to-head battles where we’re seeing manufacturers competing with each other, which is something I think is really going to help the sport,” says Jade Gurss, director of communication at Andretti Autosport.
To that extent, Andretti Autosport has to stay on its toes as things change. But every now and again, this measured evolution is punctuated by a complete revolution, shaking the design to the core to reflect new technologies and new fresh elements, while ensuring the forward-looking team is never bogged down by the status quo. Andretti Autosport is undergoing one of those revolutions at the moment with its all-new 2012 IndyCar lineup.
It’s a whole new car design – the entire body, engine and chassis. Nearly all of the pieces had to change, down to the smallest little widget, and even when the differences were only in the thousandths. Andretti Autosport lead machinist Kevin Harvey, for instance, pointed to the cabinet where he had nearly 100 different custom fixtures, all of them rendered useless.
“It was a bittersweet day when all the boys were packing up everything they’d worked on all last year,” says Scott Graves, design and development engineer, Andretti Autosport. “All of the blood, sweat and tears put into the parts and workholding, and they couldn’t use anything for the 2012 design – almost nothing carried over.”
Being asked to start from scratch magnified the importance of speed and precision – there wasn’t time to waste on mistakes or slow, plodding production. Andretti had recently turned to DMG / Mori Seiki USA, headquartered in Hoffman Estates, Ill., for its milling and turning needs. The manufacturer provides high-speed machining and turning centers that will hold tolerances to .0001”.
In order to get the most out of the machining centers, DMG / Mori Seiki USA recommended BIG Kaiser, also of Hoffman Estates, as a high-precision, high-speed option in tooling and accessories. In fact, BIG Kaiser is a member of DMG / Mori Seiki’s Qualified Products Program, developed to identify tooling and accessory companies that meet exacting performance standards. As a qualified tooling partner, BIG Kaiser products are subject to the Qualified Products Program’s two-year new-machine warranty and single-source customer support.
“DMG / Mori Seiki is considered the best, so it said something that they recommended BIG Kaiser for our applications,” Graves adds.
Fortuitous timing allowed design engineers to get a hold of BIG Kaiser’s products well in advance of the 2012 redesign project. During this period, operators acquainted themselves with the tools, mastered them, and realized that the high-end performance and easy setup meant zero scrap parts and faster machining.
“Speed-to-part manufacturing has increased substantially through our partnership with BIG Kaiser,” Harvey says. “Part surfaces are even better than we need, but our engineers just love it – it really fits the culture.”
This speed had Andretti Autosport engineers comfortable with the tight deadline of having a finished product ready for the race in St. Petersburg, Fla. on March 25 – the first IndyCar race of the season.
“If we didn’t have BIG Kaiser and DMG / Mori Seiki I do not believe we would have had such a great season,” says Allen McDonald, director of engineering, Andretti Autosport. “We were able to win the championship with the new chassis, engine and with our on-going partnership with BIG Kaiser we are able to make new parts and changes quickly which gets our car back on the race track.”
Tool of Choice
Steeped in the Andretti Autosport DNA, Harvey is enthusiastic about his work – he even gets visibly jazzed at the sight of a high-precision, high-speed machining process humming along. His go-to tool is BIG Kaiser’s Mega 13E collet chuck, holding a ½” solid carbide end mill for precision and smaller-sized runs, primarily on 4130 steel, aluminum and stainless steel.
The Mega E series chucks are exclusively designed for high-speed finish end milling, and use advanced technology to enable high rigidity, high precision, and high speed. The collet’s shallow taper and extended clamping length enhances the clamping and self-centering forces for stable performance.
“The precision and repeatability of the Mega E makes setup quicker and shortens time to fine tune cutter offsets on precision contour work,” Harvey says. “We needed to improve speeds for our growing requirements for contour work and carbon fiber layup molds.”
Also, Andretti’s previous holders lacked the rigidity and balance to operate at higher speeds. High speeds mean more efficiency and the greater rigidity helped operators to improve surface finish to a near mirror finish. The long collet length matching the extended shanks of most end mills meant better gripping force and more surface area to help improve rigidity.
“The Mega E chucks are my tool holder of choice. I can easily replace tools with confidence that my offsets on diameter will not have to be corrected due to runout,” Harvey says. “And it has a thicker wall around the collet than any tool we’ve ever used around the shop. That means reducing deflection and further increasing accuracy.”
He uses a Speroni presetter, also from BIG Kaiser, primarily to measure offsets, diameters, and lengths, and verify he is holding runout well within than the guaranteed maximum of 3 microns. The .00012” runout at 4xØ, or .00004” at the nose, is far superior to the ER style Harvey previously ran.
“The Speroni has proven to be the tool measuring system that almost guarantees perfect offsets on both machines,” Harvey adds. “My setup time is almost nothing.”
Used in conjunction with a BIG PLUS spindle on the Mori Seiki NV7000, which offers dual contact on both taper and flange, deflection is all but eliminated. Altogether, the system easily holds .0005” tolerances – the kind of precision that makes Andretti Autosport design engineers grin from ear to ear.
“Missing a deadline due to a scrapped part is not an option,” Harvey adds. “It can mean a long night for us if we can’t hold a tolerance and miss a dimension.”
Precision and speed are the ultimate make-or-break targets to which every manufacturer aspires, and nowhere is the convergence of the two more apparent than in Andretti Autosport. Having to reimagine an entire IndyCar in a narrow time window, design engineers turned to a tooling partner with a common dedication to performance. And while there was certainly a deadline for completion of the 2012 redesign, it was not a finish line. Each new track and driver has inspired adjustments in the constant pursuit of perfection. Andretti Autosport and BIG Kaiser are up to the task – it’s in their DNA.
Copyright permission granted by Andretti Autosport Holding Company, Inc., ©2012, All rights reserved.
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