Opting for Orbs Over Easy: Finding a Niche in a Tight Market
In 1952, Eugene Gleason opened a small shop in Los Angeles called Micro Surface Engineering to perform flat lapping operations primarily for the hydraulics and national defense industries. But, over time, the company found its niche and became focused on manufacturing custom-made precision balls.
Today, Micro Surface is a highly respected, versatile contractor. The company’s Bal-tec™ division manufactures precision balls of any size and material for a wide variety of industries, including electronics, quality control, aerospace and the U.S. Government.
Eugene’s son, Joseph, began learning the industry at the age of seven, and by the time he turned fourteen, he was already adept at scraping ways and completely rebuilding various machine tools, such as horizontal mills and cylindrical grinders.
Joe later went on to learn CNC programming at Don Bosco Technical Institute, and apprenticed for several years doing basic machining and inspection. He now runs the precision CNC and production arm of Bal-tec, and has numerous inventions and patents to his name.
Every machine shop seems to have a horror story about a job that turns out to be a real pain, and Joe says Bal-tec is no exception. “We currently have a running order for 300-series stainless steel balls for ball valves. We start with a 1 5 /16 " ball turned to a spherical tolerance of 75 micro inches. Then we machine a hole and slot into the ball without creating burrs or distorting the roundness of the ball. We do this job on a Haas VF-3 vertical machining center.
“We have to hold position, squareness and size on the slot to within 0.001",” Joe continued, “and 316 stainless is notorious for burrs. We cut the slot with small cuts and high feedrates, and we depend on the rigidity of the Haas to eliminate any chatter and the associated burr formation. We end up with very little scrap.”
Chips were another concern on this job, explains Joe. “We do the milling operations after the balls have been lapped to a surface finish of 4 micro inches, and we were afraid the chips from drilling and milling would damage the surface. But the programmable coolant nozzle on the Haas keeps chips flushed out so they don’t damage the finish on the balls.”
BOX WAYS? NO WAY!
When Joe and his father Eugene decided to take the big step up to CNC machining, they found themselves on opposite sides of an argument that torments many first-time buyers. “Yeah, we were looking to purchase our first modern CNC vertical machining center, and the argument was about box ways verses linear guides,” explains Joe.
It turns out that Eugene was looking for the box ways, but Joe stood firm with an adamant NO WAY! “Well, basically, my reasoning was that there’s an old-school feeling about box ways being associated with rigidity. My argument is that every major machine manufacturer that I know of uses linear guides, and I thought that the Haas, with its linear guides, gave a lot of value for a much more competitive price. Once my dad saw the machines cut, he was convinced. Rigidity has never been an issue.”
The Bal-tec stable of Haas machines has grown quite a bit since the first purchase back in 1996. “We have two verticals, the VF-3 and the VF-4,” says Joe, “and we recently purchased an HL-4 lathe with a bar feeder and an HL-2 lathe with the new Haas Servo Bar 300 bar feeder.”
TURNING PROVES PROFITABLE
As with most major machine purchases, the first lathe was bought to fill a void in the overall production picture. Many companies purchase an additional machine either to take on a new project or to bring a previously jobbed-out manufacturing process in-house. Such was the case with Bal-tec’s HL-4.
“We made the jump into turning mainly to produce ball blanks in an automated way with a bar feed,” explains Joe. “Before we took delivery of the HL-4, we cut blanks and machined the balls individually on a tracer lathe. With the Haas lathe and bar feeder, we’ve been able to reduce the cycle time on one particular part from 40 minutes to about 12 minutes. And with the included parts catcher, we are able to run the lathe unattended.
“We make custom balls to order out of all sorts of materials,” continues Joe, “stainless steel, brass, aluminum, inconel, titanium. And sizes range from 0.008" to 20". With the Haas lathes, we can machine blanks out of several different materials with the same program, just by changing the speeds and feeds.”
According to Joe, the balls are also more accurate. “The constant surface speed ability of the Haas yields very accurate blanks and allows us to eliminate one entire process. The balls used to go through a filing process after machining that could take days. Now they go right from the lathes to finishing.
Bal-tec is a well-equipped machine shop with all kinds of machines on the floor, from EDMs, to VTLs, to grinders, so the crew is exposed to a number of different controls. This situation presents a perfect environment for side-by-side comparisons of some of the more popular controls on the market today.
When you have to use a number of different controls in your daily routine, it doesn’t take long to figure out what you like, explains Joe. “We have found the Haas control to be really straight forward and simple to use. In addition, it has some features, such as Quick Code programming and editing on-screen, that are not available on other machines. For convenience, we store many programs on disk. The ease of interface between the floppy drive and the control on the Haas is a real plus.”
Like any company, Bal-tec loses key employees from time to time. But thanks to the easy-to-learn compatibility of the Haas controls, training a new operator isn’t so much a problem as it is a momentary setback.
“Most of our programs are in the memory,” explains the younger Gleason, “and the control provides a Help menu that’s easy to use. In fact, the Haas control even offers a switchable language feature that allows machinists who consider English their second language to easily change programs into a language they are more comfortable with, like Spanish, French, German or whatever. And it’s just as easy for us to change it back!
“One of the biggest selling points of the Haas machines is the ease of setting the tool offsets, especially on the lathes with the tool presetter. That makes a world of difference. And, the graphic dry-run feature is important because it catches simple errors that are sometimes easy to miss, and it keeps the operator from crashing the machine!”
Bal-tec presently runs Haas rotary tables on both verticals, using the versatile devices to work parts of all descriptions and materials. “We’ve been running some big cast-iron donuts on the HRT 310,” relates Joe, adding, “I should mention that we cut a lot of cast iron on the VF-4. We drill these on the O.D., and hold tight tolerances when indexing. These are heavy castings and require an extremely rigid set-up. We haven’t been let down yet. The Haas machines continue to meet our needs.” According to Joe, that’s one of the biggest challenges to machine tool manufacturers like Haas, “keeping up with customers’ needs.” And the Haas equipment is allowing Bal-tec to venture into new markets.
“We’re starting to make a lot of calibration devices for CMM applications, and we offer these at wholesale or retail,” says Joe. “For example, we make the balls that Renishaw uses for their ball bars, and we make our own ball bars that we sell to some of the major CMM manufacturers. But, during the next five years, we hope to have our own complete line of calibration equipment for virtually any machine tool.”
If the time spent with the Gleasons is any indication of where the company is going, there is little doubt that the father and son team will most likely be found out in the shop, one-on-one with the latest innovative job challenge. “I had a chance to see Gene Haas when we visited the new factory in Oxnard,” says Joe. “He seems to have the same work ethic that I have, so you’ll probably always find me out in the shop with dirty hands and a rag in my back pocket . . . it seems to work for him!”