Innovative Designs Set the Pace

From Crash-Test Dummies to 220 MPH Driving Machines, IMD Sets the Pace and Delivers

Looking ahead, you compare your abilities to your limitations as you start setting up for the corner. Attack too aggressively and you end up on the sidelines as everyone else goes flying by. Enter with too much caution and trepidation and your competitors will bump you aside and leave you in the dust as they race on to the winner‘s circle.

Yes, driving a high-performance race car is actually quite similar to running a competitive machine shop: If you’re too fast and aggressive, you fly off track and you’re out of the running. Go too slow and you’re just another cautious loser.

Innovative Metal Designs (IMD) is a family run business. In fact, it got its start back in 1982 when Carlos Danze, a veteran tool and die maker working for a company manufacturing crash-test dummies, took a chance and stuck an old Kent milling machine out in the family garage.

Carlos, who had operated machine tools since he was 13 years old, realized it was time to become his own boss and start setting his own hours. Good business sense and a 15-year relationship with his previous employer, First Technology Safety Systems, allowed him to continue making those same crash-test dummy parts at home as an outside supplier. His son Alex, who started his machining career in his father’s garage machine shop – also at the age of 13 – says that same company is still a customer – a testament to the quality work that has become the trademark of IMD.

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Still a Family Shop

It didn’t take long for the company to outgrow the family garage and relocate to a new 700-square-foot shop. This move allowed for the purchase of a new lathe. The customer base, and IMD, continued to grow. Today, 17 years later, Alex Danze manages the family-owned business and its 22 employees with help from his father, now company president, and his brother Marcelo, the company’s senior programmer. Located in Huntington Beach, California, IMD runs three shifts per day in a 6,500-square-foot building loaded with CNC equipment. They currently book more than $2.5 million in annual sales.

But, like most success stories, the road was paved with a few rough spots. “We were doing fairly well back in the early 1990s, with annual sales in the $200,000 area,” says Alex, “when things suddenly went downhill, sending us looking for new customers in new markets.” One of the new clients IMD hooked up with during these reformative years was GT Bicycles Inc., a company building high-tech performance bikes for both adults and children.

“When we first got GT, back in 1995, they ordered 1,200 clevises and gave us a really short deadline so they could beat the arrival of the Christmas buying season. It was our first experience with large-volume production, and we weren’t really equipped to handle that much work, but we worked night and day and delivered on time. They were happy, and they’ve been with us ever since.”

New Demands Lead to CNC

The Danzes say it was their association with GT Bicycles that really made them change direction and look into automation. In order to keep pace with these new demands, IMD had to modernize and gear up for production of large orders. They had to get into CNC machines fast.

“Our first CNC machine was a Haas VF-3,” says Alex. “We bought it through Machining Time Savers (MTS) of Anaheim (Calif.) back in May 1995. That VF-3 gave us the ability to accept more high-volume, multi-part runs. Our production capability and sales have been growing ever since.

By shifting from short-run parts to continuing part runs in the thousands, IMD was able to increase both their profit margin and contract-bargaining power by reducing the percentage of setup time charged to each completed piece. In addition, the repeatability of the CNC machines cut down on other cost-incurring aspects of metalworking production.

Their stable of Haas CNCs continued to grow with the delivery of seven more Haas VF-series machines over the next few years. Included in the gray garrison of vertical machining centers are a VF-0, VF-0E, three VF-2s, the original VF-3 and a VF-4. “We run a lot of suspension components for GT Bicycles, and on one particular part, the top link, we have been able to cut down the cycle time considerably with the newer Haas VF machines,” says Alex. “In fact, we have realized a 35-percent decrease in cycle time.”

Working in conjunction with these machines are four Pentium Pro 200 MHz personal computers linked to the CNCs through dual DNC switches. Machine programming is entered on three Teksoft 3D CAD/CAM systems by Alex and his brother Marcelo.

Programming for Success

However, when the first VF-3 arrived on his shop floor, Alex didn’t know how to run the accompanying Teksoft software. “So I went to the Teksoft three-day school at MTS, and I was making parts the day after my classes.

“Haas machines are very easy to set up because of their user-friendly control,” says Alex. “We love the way the Haas control touches off tools and sets work coordinates. Other features we depend on include the rigid tapping, Quick Code, P-Cool, easy editing, the ability to copy and paste and the faster tool changes.”

Previously, a typical order at IMD was for 10 to 50 pieces, but now orders run into the 10,000-20,000 piece range without taxing the company’s ability to deliver on time and to spec. As a result of shifting to CNC production, IMD is now more marketable and profitable than ever before.

Opting for Versatility

“We order all of our Haas machines equipped with the chip auger system; P-Cool; 1 MB program memory; the Quick Code programming system; a 3.5" floppy disk drive; rigid tapping; 4th axis drive; custom macros; remote jog handle and the coordinate rotation & scaling feature,” says Alex. “We also do all of our own fixturing using Chick vises, and run two Haas 8-inch, high-speed rotary tables (HRT 210) for multiple-axis versatility.

“We’ve stayed with Haas because of the reliability, good local service, and the commonality of parts in the product line. All Haas machines have virtually identical controls that are easy to learn. If you learn one, you can find your way around the control on most any other Haas, so we don’t need to look for operators who are versed on a number of different manufacturers’ machines.”

Familiarity with the machines also cuts down on waste. “We inspect all of the parts we make here before we release the order,” he says. “We haven’t had a rejection in more than a year. We’re pretty pleased.”

Full Speed Ahead

While looking for new markets back in the early 1990s, Alex started Danze Racing. The small company was originally formed to keep one of his Pro Formula 2000 race cars outfitted with special custom-built parts. “While doing that, I found a new market for us making custom pieces for other racers,” says Alex. As this new market grew, so did Alex’s interest in open-wheeled formula car racing.

Alex now campaigns an American Indycar Series (AIS) racer – a Buick V-6 powered Lola – that was previously driven by John Andretti. Andretti raced it in the 1991 Indy 500 as the “Pennzoil Special” (car number 4) with a qualifying speed of 219.059 miles per hour. (The car finished first in both the Vancouver and Australia CART races in 1991.)

The AIS series allows ex-CART/ USAC cars to compete in this international series at a cost much lower than fielding a team in the current CART/IRL series competition. The car is sponsored by GT Bicycles, Innovative Metal Designs, Haas Automation, Machining Time Savers (MTS, the Haas dealer that services IMD), Classy Cars and RSD, USA.

While conducting the first pre-season testing at Willow Springs Raceway – a nine-turn road course that runs up and down the side of an upper desert mountain in Southern California – Alex was able to push the freshly painted car (#17) to lap times more than a second faster than his old best time at the track, and within .03-second of the track record for AIS cars. Not bad, considering the mid-July mercury was hovering at the 100-degree mark, making the Goodyear Eagle racing tires lose adhesion because of the excessive track temperatures.

The international AIS schedule will find the Danze Racing team competing in races in Canada and Mexico along with a number of races here in the United States. Support vehicles include a fully enclosed tractor-trailer transport with air-conditioned crew quarters behind the cab, a Daihatsu mini-mini van (painted Haas red and running Haas Automation lettering) that rides in the trailer, a flat-top tire-carrying golf cart and four high-tech mountain bikes from GT Bicycles.

Alex hopes to continue advancing his racing career with the ultimate goal of racing in the Indianapolis 500. Of course, that not only takes driving skill, but skill in lining up sponsors to finance such an expensive form of competition.

But the Danze family understands the value of investing for a profitable future. “We have been able to increase production from $200,000 a year to more than $2.5 million annually with the addition of the Haas machines,” says Alex. “We only buy Haas, and the reasons are obvious: more production, more profit and less stress!”