Free Force quality is microscopic, literally
September 24, 2012
Since opening in 2007 the company has grown from two to eight people, expanded to include five Swiss lathes, and increased sales by about 2,000 percent.
"If it's going in your body, it has to be 100 percent. There can't be a question about quality or materials." That same 100 percent requirement, said Stephen Charlton, president of Free Force Machining Technology in St. Catharines, Ont., is applied to every component shipped from his facility, not just the parts that go into medical devices.
In addition to unquestionable quality, all Free Force parts share a similar size. They are small—very, very small. "We've done parts that are 0.006 inch in diameter and parts that are 0.007 inch in overall length—that's a hair's thickness of length on the part. Those were for use in a microsurgical application," said Charlton. "Typically, I can put a year's supply of parts in a small plastic bag.
"That could be hundreds or thousands of dollars' worth of parts. Sometimes people look at the size of a part and think it's worth half a cent. I tell them, no, it's worth $5. The size doesn't control its value."
Components that don't end up in medical devices may be headed to a nuclear reactor, an aircraft assembly, or to another high-technology product. "Critical components—that's our niche market," said Charlton. "We do nuts-and-bolts type of components, but people tend to come to us for critical components and the problem job the other guy doesn't want to take on."
Free Force's Swiss lathes mill, turn, and machine parts, holding tolerances to ±0.0001 in., drill holes down to 0.004 in., and maintain ultrafine finishes down to 8 RMS. There is no secondary equipment, no subcontracting any machining processes, and no plans to change that policy. "It either comes off our machines complete or we don't make it," said Charlton. "Quite often customers suggest that we make parts outside of our range and we simply decline."
Microscopes with a minimum of 20X magnification are used for part inspection and deburring. "It's a one-by-one, hand-finishing situation," said Charlton, "but then we deal with low-volume, high-margin parts."
At the dawn of the 2007 recession, Charlton and Heather, his wife, co-owner, and business manager, took the leap and began Free Force. They started with one Star Swiss turn machine with a 10-mm-diameter maximum, and no customers. It took Charlton three months to find a landlord who would risk leasing space to a new machine shop. "All they saw was machine shops going out of business," said Charlton.
What they did have was Charlton's experience and Heather's business background.
"Before starting Free Force I was employed as a machinist in the same role I'm in now. I'm the most experienced and highly skilled machinist in the shop. I'm hands-on, spending the majority of my day setting up machinery, working on process refinement, programming, and making sure we provide that extra level of support," said Charlton. "Heather gathers information, monitors margins, and keeps track of all the regulatory requirements. She analyzes numbers and provides feedback so we can make decisions in the best interest of the company."
The combination worked. Free Force has grown steadily. After five years, eight employees machine parts on five Swiss lathes with seven-axis capabilities, producing components with diameters up to 32 mm. That equals one piece of capital equipment per year since the company's inception.
Charlton chose Swiss machining centers, originally developed for the watch industry, because of their high degree of accuracy and speed. Materials are held within the machines and advance through a guide bushing where machining takes place on one section of material at a time. Parts move along the Z axis while the tools remain stationary. "The machines are high-value," Charlton said, "so to bring in one machine a year is pretty significant."
New staff members were trained in-house to operate the equipment within the fast-paced environment. "We tried hiring machinists who have experience in other industries or with other types of equipment and found that, in most cases, their experience was not a benefit because our equipment operates differently; our company operates to a standard that is significantly more strict than other shops; and sometimes people's abilities or willingness to adapt presented a barrier.
"We have an excellent team now," said Charlton. "Despite the fact that we haven't added equipment or people in the last year, we've grown about 30 percent. Process refinement, planning, organization, and staff capabilities have contributed to that."
Company growth quickly extended beyond the addition of people and equipment to include industry certifications. Free Force's achievement of ISO 9001:2008 was quickly followed by ISO 13485:2003, the medical device certification. "Once we were medical device-certified, our growth in that area tended to be 10 to 20 percent per year. So that's kind of taking over."
Free Force is housed in a 35,000-sq-ft. plant. "It doesn't sound like a lot of square footage, but the machines are small and the parts are small," said Charlton.
He continues to build his customer base through Internet research and cold calling with an ambitious goal of one new potential customer per month. In five years the Free Force customer base has zoomed from zero to more than 50. It's not unusual to have 20 open orders at any given time.
"I'd never worked in a sales role before opening the company," said Charlton, "but my confidence in the value of what we provide makes my sales efforts successful. Compared to our first year of sales, we are probably at a 2,000 percent gain."
Some orders are set up, machined, and completed in one day. Others may run for weeks or even months, although long runs are not the norm. Smaller lots run from one to 50 pieces; typical lot sizes are 500 to 5,000 pieces; the larger runs are usually capped at 10,000 pieces. According to Charlton, much of the company's success lies in focusing on the smaller runs that many Swiss lathe shops shy away from because of extensive setup times.
"Swiss machines are more cumbersome to change over than traditional lathes," said Charlton. "And because we are talking extremely complex parts that push the limits of what's capable, not only on the equipment but by dimensional requirements or tough materials, it could take a few days to iron out the process." Once setup is complete, complexity and the number of features determine cycle time, which falls anywhere between 10 seconds and 10 minutes per part.
Free Force fills orders on a just-in-time basis or stocks orders depending on customer requirements. And although the company strives to bring in material as needed, it does stock over 30 diameters of stainless steel, titanium, and aluminum from 0.125 to 1.25 in.
"We'll work in pretty much any material that comes in round bar form, although we occasionally work in shapes like hexagons, squares, or rectangles," said Charlton. "From steel and titanium to plastic, aluminum, high-temperature alloys, and superalloys or things like that.
"In recent months the challenge has been material availability. It's either unavailable or has exceptionally long lead-times. We do a lot of short lead-time work, and I would be out of business if I had to wait 35 weeks for material."
Material suppliers are all domestic, and each one is highly scrutinized. Vendors are Nadcap- (formerly National Aerospace and Defense Contractors Accreditation Program) accredited. Customers may request the use of RoHS- (Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive) and DFAR- (Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation) compliant materials. Complete traceability is provided on all orders.
Shipping isn't a problem. Most orders fit in a small box and are shipped by courier. Charlton recalls shipping a skid of parts by common carrier only once in the company's first five years.
Prototype work usually leads to new production runs for Free Force. Charlton said that quite often an order from a new customer is for a prototype or product development project that is not time-sensitive. If delivery is missed or the components are not correct, the customers' day-to-day production is not affected.
"Working on prototypes provides good service to our customers because they want to develop new products," he said. "But it also gets us in the door. We don't impact the engineering designs because of liability, but we typically offer input on manufacturability. They shift production to us as they gain confidence in our production, delivery, and cost."
About 60 percent of business is Canada-based, and the bulk of nondomestic business is from the United States. Free Force is contributing to the current reshoring trend. "There is one customer who used to buy his parts from either Europe or Japan. Now we make all of his machined components. We've managed to take 100 percent of his work back from international competition."
And exports to Europe and Asia are building. "We have customers who have in-house capabilities in China, but we still deliver parts to them because of our quality, special process capabilities, and competitive rates. It's that 100 percent quality that is hard to get overseas."
The need for small, precise parts is growing, causing competition between manufacturers to heat up. "If you look at the size a cell phone used to be versus what it is today and its capabilities, you see an example of the expanding trend toward miniaturization. That's happening across every industry, and we're well-positioned to take advantage of that. Small-parts manufacturing is a growth industry, and other people are looking to get in. We see an increasing number of competitors coming into the market.
"The thing that makes us different," Charlton added, "is our ability to make the really difficult parts within a short time frame, plus our dedication to customer service which we have applied since day one. Since we started our company at the beginning of the recession, I don't take for granted that any customer will be here tomorrow."