Haas’ #13 VF-1 Still Runs Like New
American Performance Engineering (APE) of Burbank, California, makes parts for some of the fastest motorcycles in the world, including a 1000-hp bike that does 0-234 mph in just over six seconds. It started out as a Japanese-made Kawasaki. But, before long, almost every part had been replaced by a beefed-up custom-made part. Now, it’s actually an American-made bike.
In 1989, APE was a job shop weaning itself off aerospace work by developing a line of high-performance motorcycle parts. Most of these parts are machined out of aluminum, and involve drilling holes or milling pockets and profiles. Since the parts are used as covers and plates, it’s important they have a smooth finish. In addition, some parts, such as cam sprockets, are milled out of light steel.
APE initially farmed out work to local job shops equipped with CNC mills. But as these shops became busy in the late 80s, it became increasingly difficult to get parts made fast enough to satisfy customers, without cost-prohibitive rush charges. So, APE looked into buying its own CNC mill.
“We had to buy our own CNC mill,” says Jay Esbach, president of APE. “We didn’t have a choice. If we didn’t deliver on time and at the right price, our distributors would buy from our competitors – and we’d be out of business,” Esbach said.
In 1989, Haas Automation began manufacturing machining centres to compete with the low-cost offshore brands. Back then most people thought the reason not to buy a Haas was that, even if Haas built a machining centre that worked, there was no guarantee it would last past the warranty. Of course, they were all wrong, and that attitude has changed now.
“I never would have bought a first-year machining centre,” said Esbach, “but I knew Gene Haas. He said he’d stand by his machines, so we bought a Haas VF-1, serial number 00013, and a 5C collet indexer. We’re still using it, and it’s still cutting parts just like new,” notes Esbach.
The Haas VF-1 has travels of 20” x 16” x 20” (xyz), direct drive with a toothed drive belt, and a 10-hp spindle that delivers up to 7,500 rpm. It has a wide, cast-iron base that provides dependable cutting torque and superior rigidity.
“The VF-1 did two months worth of work in two days. So we were able to expand our product line, and offer more parts. Plus, the VF-1 helped us with our corporate identity. We could engrave our trademark monkey on most of our parts. That has helped us in Japan, where they won’t buy our parts without our trademark monkey,” adds Esbach.
One of the biggest differences between machining centres is found in their controls. Some are easy to use and program; some aren’t. According to Ben Esbach, who programs the VF-1, the Haas control is easy.
The control of the VF-1 is made by Haas. It’s a 32-bit Fanuc™-compatible control that executes 500 blocks per second of programming. (The only difference between old and new VF-1s is that program execution speed is now up to 1,000 blocks per second.) It features a number of Haas one-touch features, including one-touch power-up, which turns the power on, homes all axes, picks the number 1 tool and loads it into the spindle – so the machine is ready to make chips.
“I like the way it’s easy to set the work coordinate system offsets. You indicate a hold, touch a button and the offsets are loaded automatically. Those are the G50 codes, which are really simple to do. The offsets are really easy to enter on that machine. You touch the tool to the part, press a button and the coordinates are saved,” Ben Esbach said.
“Another feature that saves time is the editor. It’s easy to use, and quick. For example, to get to the bottom of a program, push a button and you’re there instantly. The Fanuc™ control on our other machine takes a while to scroll through the program,” reports Ben Esbach.
The Haas control has a number of features that ease programming and reduce errors, such as the ability to change between Yaznac™ and Fanuc™ settings. And, a built-in safety feature stops the program from running if the wrong tool is called up. This command can be disabled, if you want to take a chance.
“Most of the work we do on the mill is cosmetic – making parts that look good on the motorcycle. We put grooves on them, mill out fancy-shaped pockets and inscribe our name. The Haas mill makes a great engraving machine. Our logo, a monkey holding a little APE sign, is programmed on our CAM system, and engraved on the parts,” he adds.
Hole locations on parts can be pretty important; they often have to line up with fixtures. In the case of APE’s parts, the holes often must match holes on a motorcycle engine casting.
“We drill holes in the parts, then have to fit the parts into another fixture. They fit every time,” says Ben Esback. “The graphics on the control show the part being cut, and also let you know whether you’ve got your work zero coordinates set,” he said. “One-touch power-up saves us time. On our other CNC you have to load the X and Z coordinates in the morning to let the machine know where it is.”
The Haas control also has built-in online help, which helps with programming. For example, enter the coordinates to program a circle or radii, and the control will write the G-code for you. It’s almost like having a CAM system in the control.
“My CPA says he can tell when I bought each CNC machine,” adds Esbach, “because we increased our sales and profits after every purchase. In fact, we grew 1,000% in seven years. We’re finding it difficult to keep up with the orders again, so we’re going to buy a couple more Haas machines.”