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Tool & Die

The daily grind

By Lynn Stanley

Above: The outboard measuring table on the Amada THV430 measures rough parts for faster milling setup.

Job shop finds more time to grind with new milling machine technology

July/August 2015 - Educator and author Booker T. Washington believed “success in life is founded upon attention to the small, everyday things rather than to the large things…” Greg Larkin thinks so too. The Kent, Washington-based entrepreneur started Petersen Precision’s Northwest division in 1988 before purchasing the company outright and renaming it Larkin Precision LLC in 2002. 

Buffeted by the downturn that followed 9/11, Larkin—with an eye to the future—saw an opportunity to turn would-be competitors into customers by providing a service each of them needed: Blanchard and double disc grinding. Larkin Precision has since doubled in size while still catering to smaller companies that comprise nearly 80 percent of the business. The job shop also provides knife blade bevel grinding and produces machine-ready blanks at its 20,000-sq.-ft. facility.

“The Northwest is a manufacturing hot spot that is densely populated with machine shops,” Larkin notes. “We soon realized what was missing were companies with the know-how and experience to provide rotary surface grinding. Anything that has a flat surface has to be ground. So we quickly got out of the machining business to specialize in Blanchard and other types of grinding processes.”

Countless machine shops in the Pacific Northwestern U.S. have used Larkin Precision at one time or another, he adds. The reason is simple. Grinding represents a crucial piece of manufacturing and toolmaking.

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Growing businesses

“We’re very diverse,” acknowledges Larkin. “We’re involved in nearly all aspects of manufacturing from commercial to aerospace and consumer products like cutlery. High-end custom knives can range from $500 to $1,500. It’s not uncommon to go into someone’s kitchen and find a knife with a blade that has gone through our shop.”

Aluminum, stainless, brass, copper and aircraft alloys present no challenge for the family-owned company, which is able to surface grind pretty much any metal to a high tolerance. “We have an extremely skilled crew with very low turnover,” says Larkin. But the heart of the company seems be the daily opportunities it has to partner with its customers. 

“We assist companies in building their products,” he says. “We’re helping other small entrepreneurs grow their businesses. It’s hard for a small knife manufacturer, for example, to justify investing in the type of equipment required for grinding knives. That’s where we come in.”

“It’s exciting to be a part of it,” says Greg’s son and office manager Brad Larkin. “Seeing another company’s progress and success makes the work we do very satisfying.”

Larkin Precision continually adapts to customer needs. Desirable for its uniform surface finishing and ability to achieve flatness and dimensional tolerances of 0.001 in. or less, Blanchard grinding is primarily used on ferrous metals to quickly remove stock from one side of a part that is too large to disc grind, such as plate stock or die blocks.

“We were getting more and more requests from customers who would bring in both small and large plates and ask us to grind all six sides of the piece instead of just two,” says Larkin. “Grinding all six sides is very tedious and squaring up blanks or blocks is neither simple nor quick.”

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At IMTS 2014 Amada’s THV430 duplex milling machine caught Larkin’s attention. “The machine looked like a good fit for us,” he says. “We felt it would complement what we were already doing. The milling machine offered something unique. Its ability to hold and restrain movement of a workpiece during rotation was something I had not seen before.” The Amada THV430 arrived at the shop in March 2015.

“We have had no problems and experienced very good results,” Larkin says. “We’re the ideal customer for Amada and this technology—the THV430—was designed to finish and square up plate and block stock.” 

“We’re one of the few to have a machine like the THV430 on the market,” says Sandy Young, regional manager for Amada Machine Tools America Inc., Schaumburg, Illinois. “Setup and processing time is much simpler because the machine automatically measures and calculates the amount of material that has to be removed.” 

For Larkin Precision time is a valuable commodity. “As a job shop we’re selling grinding,” Larkin explains. “But we’re really selling time. We run two shifts because we’re complementing machine shops that have to maintain very short lead times. We have to stay a step ahead of them. Most machine shops would require four to six weeks to complete work we’re able to do in a few days to a week at the most. Sometimes we’re asked for same-day pickup.”

Better bottom line

The THV430 can mill plate from 2 in. square up to 16 in. by 16 in. Its external measuring system first measures a block or blank’s rough outer dimensions. The operator then inputs finished dimensions for accurate multi-sided cutting. The machine determines how many passes the piece will require to achieve a machine-ready blank. 

“We purchased the option because we process a large variety of different size blanks that generally are not prepared by us,” Larkin says. “The THV430 is able to automatically adjust for that and make the appropriate cuts without removing too much material.”

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Much of the plate Larkin processes is used by machine shops to build their own tooling. “If someone orders a new CNC the first thing they need is a tooling subplate,” says Larkin. “They source the material and we Blanchard grind the plate to a flatness of 0.001 in. or better.“

It will also grind “whatever comes through the door—brake disc rotors for aftermarket Harleys, NASCAR [parts] or very high tolerance components for aircraft engines,” says Larkin. “We’ve freed up a significant amount of time on our Blanchards by moving work to the Amada where it can be done more efficiently. It has boosted our productivity on the machines and allows us to keep our lead times where they need to be. Even if we have an order for one to two parts, if we can throw those on the THV430 it still allows us to generate more production time on the Blanchards.”

Prior to installing the THV430 Larkin Precision only performed six-sided milling and squaring upon request. “Now it’s a service we can offer customers up front,” Larkin says. Machine-ready blanks make up about 5 percent of the job shop’s business with general grinding commanding the lion’s share of its production time. 

“Five percent is significant, though, when you consider the large number of small companies that make up our business. When we walk the floor if we see a job—even if it’s one we’ve done for 20 years on other equipment—if it’s a better fit for the THV430 we’ll move that work. It allows us to optimize our time and the use of our other machines. The Amada milling machine is another tool in our toolbox. Overall it will improve our bottom line.”

With two sons and a loyal team of employees to back him up, Larkin says, “the grind shop is here for the long haul.” FFJ

Sources

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