CNC turret punch speeds production of EMS vehicles

By Sue Roberts

Ambitious goals drive change in fab shop operations

Frazer Ltd. begins its emergency medical services (EMS) vehicles with a stripped down Ford chassis. By the time they are done, doors, rails, cabinets, windows, latches and handles, plus every other component required to build an EMS vehicle have created a unit ready to be stocked with supplies, staffed with medical personnel and put on the streets.

Most of the Frazer EMS vehicles operate within the continental United States, with Frazer having provided all EMS vehicles for Houston's Fire Department. Frazer also supplied 29 units to coalition forces in Iraq to assist U.S. servicemen.

A small company compared to many of its competitors, Frazer is definitely in a growth mode, relying on new technology to increase output.

Automation ups productivity
Investing in new, automated machine tools for the fabricating facility and bringing component production in-house has provided increased capabilities and capacity for production volume without adding personnel.

David Rushing, vice president, production, says that the company is dedicated to doing whatever it takes to become innovative and to grow with the industry. Within the last two years, that focus has led to huge production changes. "We upped production and brought [fabricated component production] all in-house," he says. "It's been a crazy year."

That craziness was prompted by the need to have "the pieces and parts done correctly" coupled with a desire to control timing. Rushing adds, "As our production increased, the need to have our parts done on time and correctly was paramount to staying in the money."

Before the move to automate, 90 percent of the metal components were farmed out. Those that were handled in-house were produced manually.

The decision to pull production in-house went hand-in-hand with the need to shift to automated equipment to produce a large number of components used in the manufacture of each vehicle.

The first CNC machine tool to grace Frazer's fabricating shop floor was a Strippit Siena 1225 turret punch. Production runs, speed, flexibility and ease of use were high on the requirement list.

Siena offers speed with up to 360 holes per min. on 1-in. centers with a servo-driven hydraulic ram delivering 20 tons of punching force. Fully programmable stoke profiles and a SmartStroke feature that automatically calculates optimum ram hover height help make operation easy for punching and forming applications.

Rushing points out that the components produced on the turret are mostly from 0.10-in. aluminum with a few from steel. Size varies from a small part that can be held in your hand to 39-in.-by-83-in. panels. Workpieces up to 49.2 in. by 98.4 in., from thicknesses up to 0.250 in. can be punched on the Siena. Frazer chose a 10-ft. brush support table to protect the material finish.

Most of the EMS vehicles use standard components. Tooling for three hole sizes are loaded into the 27-station, long-style turret with three 31/2-in. auto-index stations and five 2-in., 10 11/4-in. and 12 1/2-in. stations. Fast tool changes, as low as 0.7 sec., add to the production speed.

Production, custom jobs coexist
"When we bought the CNC machine, the mindset was production. But we've also produced many custom pieces and parts, since we've got the turret, and it's not a big deal," Rushing explains. "I do a few modifications on a drawing and tweak it a little bit and we're off and running. Custom units don't interfere with our normal production."

EMS-vehicle customization might come in the form of special cabinets or countertops. One recent request was for a custom drug box which opened from both inside and outside of the vehicle via a magnetic strip similar to that on a credit card. Rushing says, "He wanted us to make that for his unit. We did. If an EMS director wants a special part, I just draw it up and program it. A year from now, if he wants it again, I'll have the program."

Although several operators have been trained on the Siena, Rushing took quickly to the automation and, for now, does all of the CAD drawings and programming. Graphic tool images on the Siena user interface assist with ease of programming.

But a bottleneck at the bending process occurred after adding the Siena turret punch press. Within about six months, the first CNC machine led to the second CNC machine tool. Frazer added a Strippit PPEB press brake. Again, quality and productivity were key factors in selection. The 150-metric-ton brake with a 120-in. working length helped solve the problem.

Maximizing production flow
Careful consideration was given to ancillary equipment and shop layout to best utilize the new machine tools. A material handling system that feeds the turret is located directly inside an overhead door. When material is delivered, the door is opened and the sheets are loaded directly onto the appropriate pallets for feeding the Siena.

From the turret, punched parts go to a deburring process. Parts that require bending are redirected to the press brake, other parts go either to assembly, storage or a powder coating process.

To assure continuous production flow, Frazer keeps about 20 of each of the standard parts in stock. Many parts have a minimum alert number that triggers production. But some components, like doors, are in such a steady demand that they are constantly on the production list.

NASA-like conditions
Rushing takes pride in the new facility and enjoys giving paramedics and medical directors a tour when they pick up an EMS vehicle.

"We keep it very clean, and the CNC machines have helped us better handle our quality control," he says. "Some of [the medical personnel] understand the shop and some don't. One looked at the shop and said that it looks like NASA."

Although parts might be in inventory, the majority of the vehicles are made to order. On occasion, Frazer will build a standard unit for display at an industry trade show, but Rushing says, "Usually, as soon as it's built, someone wants to buy it. So we don't have one for very long.

"Right now we're just a small company, but we pride ourselves on the quality," he says. "Our units will stand up to anyone else's." FFJ


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