Automatic Pallet System Helps Pick Up The Pace

Racecar drivers need high-performance components to win races, but manufacturing those components requires speed, too. An automated pallet changer helped this shop boost production not only for its auto customers, but also for customers in aerospace, medical and other industries.


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As an accomplished racecar driver, Dario Orlando understands that winning races depends largely on quality, high-performance auto components. And as the founder of a shop specializing in the manufacture of such parts, he also understands that the ability to turn around jobs quickly depends on the right equipment. On both sides of the equation—from the first cut to the point when the driver crosses under the checkered flag—speed is key.

On the manufacturing side, one way to speed things up is to automate production. That’s why Mr. Orlando’s shop, Steeda Engineering and Manufacturing, marked off the option for an automatic pallet system from Midaco (Elk Grove Village, Illinois) when it ordered a new VMC from Mazak (Florence, Kentucky). This acquisition increased output by more than 30 percent compared to the older machine it replaced, contributing to the shop’s ability to meet demand for its signature auto parts as well as components for the aerospace, defense, medical and other industries.  

Born to one of Ford Motor Company’s most influential designers, Mr. Orlando has always been an enthusiast of both engineering and high-performance automobiles. These twin passions led him to found Steeda in 1988. Since then, the company has become one of the largest producers of equipment for Ford vehicles, growing from two employees at a single shop to a 40-person team manning plants in Pompano Beach, Florida and Valdosta, Georgia.

Management realized early in the company’s history that even with the highest possible part quality, constant efforts to speed production and delivery would be essential to competitiveness. Aldo Flores, foreman at Steeda’s Valdosta facility, says increasing work from markets outside of racing made this goal of continuous improvement even more important. “The new customers and industries in which we were becoming more involved require better and faster technology,” he explains. “More parts had to be made more efficiently in less time.”

With this in mind, the shop was determined to avoid the problems it had experienced with existing equipment when seeking new machinery for the recently opened Valdosta facility. One particular area of need was a VMC that could provide better performance and reliability than what the shop could obtain from a model the company had used in its other location, a machine that Mr. Flores considers “entry-level.” After scouring the market for the right fit, the shop narrowed its choice to two different models. A visit to Mazak’s Florence, Kentucky manufacturing facility impressed management, Mr. Flores says, so the shop settled on that builder’s 510C VMC. “We felt that we were going to get the customer service that we would need to get up and running quickly, or if we ever had a breakdown in the future,” he explains.

The shop now uses the machine primarily for aluminum parts. High rigidity, thermal control, through-spindle coolant and spindle speeds ranging to 12,000 rpm make the VMC ideal for both roughing and finishing operations in these applications, Mr. Flores says. He adds that opting to include an automatic tool presetter was a good investment because it ensures that operators touch-off cutters accurately.

However, another option included with the VMC helped eliminate an even bigger difficulty with the previous machine mentioned above. That is, the problems operators experienced when attempting to remove pallets from the older machine’s built-in pallet changer. This was primarily an access problem, and it often slowed operations significantly, Mr. Flores says. The shop needed a better system, and as multiple-pallet systems on its horizontal machines had already enabled operators to use their time more efficiently, it sought similar capability for its new Mazak vertical. Midaco’s A4020SD 40-by-20-inch automatic pallet system provided not only the increased production speed the shop required, but also ease of use and improved operator access for loading and unloading.  

As opposed to the built-in pallet system on the other VMC, the Midaco model enables operators to quickly and easily swap pallets, Mr. Flores says. Mounted on the side of the machine tool, the system is designed to provide full access to the shuttle and to enable part loading from either side or above. Built-in safety interlocks ensure that pallet changes can proceed only if the “pallet ready” button is activated and the CNC M-code is fired. “We really like how simple the Midaco is to use,” he says. “We also like that it can be mounted on the left, right or even both sides of some CNC machines. There is no interference for the operator, and that really helps us change parts fast.”

When one pallet of parts is complete, an operator can remove the parts, reload the pallet with blanks, push the “pallet ready” button and walk away to tend to the next job. Meanwhile, the VMC continues operations on an alternate pallet, significantly speeding production. “This is a great advantage with our horizontal mill. Now, we get this benefit with our new Mazak VMC and Midaco system for a fraction of the price,” Mr. Flores says.

With storage capacity ranging to 8,000 pounds, the A4020SD features a servo drive assembly that extends into the machining center, tilts and engages with the pallet coupler to remove the pallet. The next pallet is delivered to the machine within seconds, and hardened and ground locating pins deliver ±0.0001 inch repeatability, the manufacturer says. A custom “dual air blast” system blows air through and across the contact pads for chip removal. The company adds that the system can retrofit to virtually any machining center and that operators can use the PLC to program pallet acceleration and deceleration according to the weight of the fixture.

Reduced cycle and setup time, improvements in machine output ranging to 33 percent, and reductions in related costs should more than make up for the investment, Mr. Flores concludes. “If things continue to go as they are now, our return on investment would be 18 months on this pallet changer. That will help justify the cost of the next Midaco.”


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