Above: Milford rubber forms thousands of parts for Sikorsky’s rotary platforms.
New press uncorks bottleneck and redeems lost production time for fabricator specializing in flying machines
October 2015 - Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, Milford Fabricating Co. Inc. emerged from the devastation of a four-alarm fire that consumed its factory in March 2009. The company rebuilt from the ground up in just 28 days. The Milford, Connecticut-based fabricator’s comeback isn’t all that surprising, however, when one considers its forward-thinking managers and the enterprising spirit of its founder.
E. Pohl Sr. got his start welding airframe components at Sikorsky Aircraft and working with aeronautics engineer Igor Sikorsky, who crafted the first four-engine plane and invented the first working helicopter. In 1947 Pohl Sr. started Milford Fabricating in his garage. He continued to make parts for Sikorsky while taking on other customers.
Today, under the leadership of President and CEO Ed Pohl Jr., the 62,000-sq.-ft. facility produces custom parts and assemblies for a robust customer base. Its laser processing, punching, forming, machining, welding, heat treating and assembly capabilities are supported by ISO 9001 and AS9100 quality certifications and a NADCAP certification.
The 68-year-old company continues to fabricate parts for Sikorsky. “Approximately 70 percent of our business is aerospace, primarily production parts with some developmental components,” says Joe Connolly, operations manager for Milford. “Low-volume, high-part counts mean we have to be extremely flexible. We probably run approximately 1,400 different work orders through the shop on any given day. We make a few thousand different parts just for Sikorsky.”
Increasing pressures up and down the supply chain—both to shave additional time from production and to root out hidden inefficiencies—put Milford in the market for a new hydraulic press. Historically the fabricator rubber formed its sheet metal. Liquefied rubber poured into a box acted as the pressing medium. “We couldn’t justify elaborate male and female tooling due to our diverse part profiles and single piece flow to short runs,” says Connolly.
But the aging press was creating a bottleneck. “We had to force press and hand-qualify parts and that takes a long time,” Connolly notes.
Research narrowed the field to Beckwood Press Co. and another equipment supplier. “I pitched the two machines to the guys on the floor,” Connolly says. “They were leaning toward the other machine until Josh Dixon [lead salesman for Beckwood] took a look at our processes and suggested a fully encapsulated rubber pad box.”
Beckwood’s rubber pad acts as a universal female tool requiring just a single unmatched tool placed unsecured on the lower platen, explains Dixon. The design delivers maximum pressure transfer to the component for accuracy and consistency part to part. Multiple parts can be run in a single cycle if the tools and blanks fit in the working area of the press.
“The other company was proposing the same method we were already using,” Connolly says. “If we had gone with them we would still have been using a box filled with liquefied rubber; except it would have been a new machine. Josh’s design assistance was the tipping point for our purchase decision.”
Like Milford, Beckwood has a long history of experience with the aerospace industry. The press manufacturer designs and builds forming technologies that include rubber pad forming, hot forming and sheet hydroforming presses as well as stretch forming machines and composite forming solutions. Beckwood’s in-house engineering team analyzed Milford’s part requirements and designed around the fabricator’s tallest part form.
“We knew there was a lot of manual reworking and finishing of parts with their previous press,” says Dixon.
“In addition to giving them a reliable, cost-effective machine that could support their growing production demands and eliminate the hand work, safety was another major requirement for them. With the previous press, operators had to reach across the press bed to load and unload larger parts. We designed a 38-in. deep bed with a bed shuttle that allows the operator to perform those tasks yet remain clear of the ram.”
Size, pressure, open height, pad box depth, ram speed and rubber pad durometer were also factored into the custom build. “These rubber pad presses are a great way to support low-volume, high-mix production and rapid prototyping markets,” says Dixon.
A Beckwood 400-ton rubber pad forming press was installed at Milford in July 2015. “The machine is impressive to look at,” says Connolly of its four-post construction. “Beckwood trained our operators and had us up and running within a day or two of installation.”
The press is the third stop in Milford’s manufacturing process for parts that dictate very tight tolerances. “We cut parts, press them and then begin to shape them,” he says. “The new press gives us a clean, crisp part that is 85 to 95 percent near net shape. Formed parts are then heat treated. We check for accuracy and then move the parts to the appropriate downstream processes such as welding, machining or painting. The press helps us maintain accuracy and its rubber pad design is extending the life of our pressing medium.” A mechanical pad extraction system provides a faster, more reliable method for changing out the rubber pads.
To help support Milford’s short response times, the press can accommodate up to nine different parts in a single forming cycle depending on part size. “We run anywhere from 30 to 40 different part numbers on the press in a given day,” says Connolly. “And we estimate we are saving 20 percent or better in production time for each part.”
The press is equipped with a programmable pressure and dwell control. “The operator interface gives Milford maximum forming flexibility and allows the operator to make changes on the fly,” Dixon says. Beckwood’s proprietary PressLink module uses the Ethernet to connect Milford with the St. Louis facility. “We can further optimize their uptime by providing real time technical support,” Dixon says. “We can also use the module to train new operators.”
Milford’s experience and know-how have established it as the go-to fabricator for a large number of customers looking for the best solution for their application. “If we can fit it in the building we can make it,” says Connolly. “We’re able to fabricate prototypes in very fast response times using a lot of different processes. The Beckwood press has been an affordable workhorse for us. If I was ever in the market for another machine I wouldn’t even consider anyone else. I’d go straight to Beckwood.” FFJ