Model Business Cuts the Real Thing

Contour Corners the Silicon Valley Model Shop Market

by Preston Gratiot

What do you do when you want to check the ergonomic feel of a product that only exists on paper or in a 3D database? How do you show prospective investors how your new design works and that it will attract sales when all you have to show is an artist’s rendering?

The answer to these common challenges is really quite simple. Take your ideas to a model shop like Contour Incorporated and let its team of expert modelmakers turn your dream concept into a colorful and tactile sales tool: one that you can hold in your hands or pass around the conference table for all to see and feel.

Silicon Valley Design

Contour Inc. is a full-service model shop that specializes in developing prototype project studies into production-ready consumer items. Contour can even assist with package design by providing pre-production replications to ensure that the product and packaging hit the marketplace with a perfect fit.

An example of one of the many projects Contour is currently working on consists of a number of simple puzzle pieces representing the different chemical elements as listed on the periodic table of elements. Most of these are simple two-axis models, but an occasional bit of three-axis work is thrown in when additional complexity is required. When completed, this "chemical symbol" library will allow students and professionals to design or illustrate chemical compound groupings by connecting the individual elements together, much like common puzzle pieces.

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Because the professor developing this illustrative learning aid is blind, the model "elements" have been designed with raised portions on the top of each piece that allow them to be identified by feel. Contour is helping develop a book of these models that illustrates each of the different elements of the periodic table. The book is filled with pages indicating the elements by name in both Braille and in letters. Embossed representations of the elements as they are cast in "puzzle-piece" form are also included.

Contour also works on a large volume of study models for clients. These are typically form-study models that allow Contour’s customers to see how the final product’s surfaces will look and feel. Contour obtains an exceptional end finish on its models using a variety of materials such as Renshape*, ABS, acrylic, polycarbonate, aluminum, etc. These materials are conducive to making models easy to finish for pre-production photography. The creation of form-study models gives Contour’s clients a head start on the marketing and advertising of their products.

*(Renshape is a registered trademark of Ciba Chemical Specialties Corporation)

Advanced-Surface Models and Multi-Axis Machining

Because the design trend has been towards more complex three-dimensional surfaces, most of the models that Contour currently produces require three-axis machining. According to Jim Baratono, Contour’s model shop manager, "there is very little ‘two-axis-only’ work currently done at Contour. Contour uses state-of-the-art computers and software to generate the code necessary for three-axis machining. It also relies on powerful machining centers to cut three-axis models. Contour uses SolidWorks and Pro Engineer for design software, and SURFCAM as its primary machining software.

Most design concepts are fashioned in some form of plastic, providing an easily workable, yet realistic, final product. Much of the prototype work that Contour performs for its clients is in the early developmental stages, requiring Contour to prototype several different concepts for one product. Contour’s customer then chooses which of the concepts they want to develop, and Contour continues to advance the prototype process with the client, all the way through engineering and initial molding.

Contour performs work for clients in many different industries, including computer, medical, airline, consumer products, automotive, manufacturing, engineering and industrial design.

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Contour Team

After working in product development for seven years, Jim Abendroth began Contour in January 1991. Abendroth holds the positions of president and CEO at Contour. Contour currently has about 25 employees. "The Company is staffed with people who have all worked together at some time in our past," says Baratono. "The ‘Silicon Valley’ modelmakers are actually a close-knit group of about 30-50 specialized machinists. There are no traditional CNC operators at Contour. We are programmers who need to be versatile and ready to build whatever is necessary."

In August of 2000, Contour will be moving from its Mountain View location to a 12,000-square-foot building in Sunnyvale, California. At this new location, the machine shop will cover approximately 4,000 square feet, with the remaining space allocated to molding, assembly, programming and general office space. Contour also operates a facility in Tempe, Arizona. At both its new location in Sunnyvale and its Tempe location, Contour will continue to provide high-quality, cutting-edge product to new and existing clientele.

On the Shop Floor

There is a need for extremely fast turnaround of one or two days in the design industry. Contour is known for being able to meet the fast-paced deadlines of its clients. The faster Contour can cut the models, the quicker the model can be finished and delivered to the client. To enable it to meet its customers’ needs, Contour has six Haas machining centers at its California location, and another five machines in its Arizona facility. In California, Contour works four VF-3s and two VF-OEs. In Arizona, Contour has two VF-1s, one VF-0E, one VF-5 for larger projects and one SL-20 CNC lathe with a bar feeder.

Contour had been installing Haas machines at a pace of about one every six to eight months. With its current ratio of eleven full-time programmers to eleven machines at both of its facilities, Contour has achieved a nice balance for being able to meet the needs of its customers. The modelmakers at Contour are highly skilled and are able to perform programming, machining and finish work. In addition, Contour frequently uses multiple fixturing to optimize machine use, and sometimes runs the machining centers around the clock to meet customer deadlines.

Money & Management

Abendroth believes that the Haas machines deliver a great value for the investment. "We have looked at comparably equipped new machines for twice the money," Abendroth says. "At Contour, we have found that it doesn’t pay to buy a used piece of equipment when we can buy a new Haas for either the same amount or slightly more." According to Abendroth, "Used machines do not have all the latest features, specifically in high-speed machining, which Contour needs and which Haas provides."

Baratono states that the controller is actually his favorite item. "It’s quick, it’s fast and we run everything DNC in here. We don’t do any manual programming. Everything is done in SURFCAM. I run everything off one computer using Extreme Multi-DNC. I need high feedrates, high code generation and good block throughput. This gives us a fast machine doing a lot of three-axis services. Since we’re doing almost everything in either plastics or aluminum, we need to be able to run efficiently, push lots of code and maintain good accuracy.

"These machines are accurate to within five tenths (.0005"), and better than that if set up properly," says Baratono. "I’ve seen $200,000 machines running at 700-1200 inches per minute maintaining sharp corners. But then you have to realize that you could buy four Haas machines for that price, slow the feeds down slightly, do the same cutting with four spindles, and get a lot more production for your $200,000! That’s why we like the machines. We like the way they work. I can run at 200 inches per minute all day long and it just does everything I want it to do. I don’t know what Haas has planned for the future, but I hope they keep improving the speed of the machines, so we can push more blocks per second through the controller. It would also be nice if the high-speed machining (HSM) option were a standard item – we need it," says Baratono.

Prototypes to Production

Many of Contour’s projects involve the production of one-offs. Others may entail as many as five or six copies of a prototype. Contour does some short-run production, and plans to expand the volume of this business in the future. This would allow Contour to run overnight and nail the cycle times down. According to Abendroth, "There are plenty of model and machine shops that perform two-axis machining. At Contour, we specialize in doing models that are more complex and out of the ordinary. We enjoy the challenge of the three-axis machining, and find this work to be more rewarding."