Fly Fusion

Escape reality . . . take hold of a fly rod and turn loose of everything else in the world. To a growing fraternity of enthusiasts, fly fishing is as much a metaphysical journey as it is a quest for dinner. Not surprisingly, the talented professionals who produce the sport’s best-selling machined reels approach their work with the same Zen-like finesse.

The disciplined art of fly fishing has been a peculiar part of popular culture for a very long time. Philosophized in ancient Greek scrolls, romanticized in Renaissance paintings, glorified in Hemmingway novels and mysticized in Robert Redford movies, it has remained unique – a quiet sport, dedicated to perfection.

“Perfection” also nicely describes the aim of an American manufacturer familiar to serious fly fishermen everywhere – Ross Reels of Montrose, Colorado. This tightly-knit company of machinists, businessmen, engineers, authors and, above all, fly fishermen, makes more of the sport’s high-end, machined-from- billet reels than anyone else on the planet.

Ross Reels’ founder and namesake Ross Hauck was a veteran investment moldmaker by trade, but his true passion was fly fishing. When he found himself out of work following the aerospace “bust” of the 1970s, Ross decided to use his considerable machining skills and abundant spare time to create something never before seen: a fully machined fly reel that was saltwater approved, and durable enough to last a lifetime.

“People thought he was crazy,” relates the company’s plant manager, Larry Donaldson. “Ross was trying to sell a reel that cost $150 – probably six times what the simple stamped and die-cast models of the day were going for. But surprisingly to many,” Donaldson continues, “the good-looking product caught on.” Ross Reels is now a world-renowned company, machining around 60,000 pounds of aluminum into fly reels every year.

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The Metaphysics

“Fusion” is the sport’s newest buzzword, reflecting a blending of older and newer angling techniques – fly reels are being used for more types of fishing now than ever before. Ross Reels produces a range of product styles and sizes, but builds to only one standard of quality – the highest. “Even our smallest reels are made impervious to salt water,” boasts Donaldson, “so you can head out to the ocean if you want to. You might not be too successful going after marlin with a trout reel, but the product will hold up. Our customers demand it!”

The biggest difference between fly reels and other types is the fly reel’s simple construction. Unlike other casting methods that rely on a lure’s weight to pull line from a gear-cranked reel during the rod’s forward whipping motion, fly fishing is a technique of casting the line, rather than the lure. Accordingly, slower-turning hand-cranked fly reels are designed for a somewhat simpler job.

Fly fishing lures (flies) are typically too light to cast, so they’re usually paired with a plastic-coated, castable line. This large-diameter line is seldom cast directly off the reel; instead, the fly fisherman strips the line off by hand and plays it out in large loops, using the “whip” motion of the rod to pull the line through the guides and lengthen the cast. The effect is similar to sending a wave along a garden hose to remove a kink. The line is retrieved the same way, by hand, often left to fall at the fisherman’s feet or float in the water.

Even when equipped with precision spindles, unidirectional drag mechanisms and audible clickers for “playing” larger fish, fly reels are typically used as little more than simple line-storage devices. However, the sport’s demanding customers want the most satisfying equipment they can get. High-end reels must delight the senses – they have to look perfect, feel perfect and sound perfect. And, above all, they must perform perfectly, every time.

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The Mechanics

“Fusion” also describes Ross Reels’ manufacturing process: an efficient blending of traditional and modern techniques. While the reels contain as many as 25 parts, the assemblies boil down to two basic components: a stationary frame that attaches to the fly rod, and a rotating spool that snaps into the frame.

“Frames are the most difficult parts we make,” notes Donaldson. “They begin as 3- to 41/2-inch diameter by 11/2-inch thick ‘pucks’ of 6061-T6-G aluminum bar stock. They’re mounted on 5-axis trunnion tables in vertical machining centers. By the time they’re finished, most of the original material has been milled away.

“Spools also start as aluminum billets,” Donaldson continues, “but they’re initially shaped and faced on lathes, then transferred to mills for the final ops that sculpt their decorative cutouts.” In years past, the cutouts were simply round holes made to lighten the reel and better balance the rod. “Today,” says Donaldson, “they’ve become an important part of the product’s look. Our designs get more artistically stylish every year.

“The 6061-T6-G aluminum we use,” Donaldson explains, “was originally developed for the hydraulics industry, to allow single-stroke deep drilling in surfaced-hardened material. It’s a little stronger than regular T6. ALCOA originally produced it only in rectangular extrusions, but we persuaded them to make it for us in bar form. The denser outer shell adds stiffness to our frame posts, yet allows clean removal of the interior material.

“We machine to reasonably tight tolerances and really fine finishes,” Donaldson says. “Standard dimensions are held to 2 or 3 thousandths, and surfaces are initially finished to better than 20 RMS. We strive to get a really good look right off the machine; our QC department checks initial finishes extensively to verify production control. Aluminum parts are then vibratory-finished with plastic abrasives, and shipped out for custom anodizing.”

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The Machines

In the months following the 1992 debut of A River Runs Through It – Robert Redford’s movie featuring fly fishing – both the sport’s popularity and the fly-fishing industry grew phenomenally. Within 5 years, the industry reportedly had expanded by 300 percent. During this chaotic time, Ross Reels bought its first Haas CNC machine – an acquisition that eventually led to major changes in the shop.

“We liked that first Haas vertical machine [a VF-0 that’s still in use], and eventually added several more,” says Donaldson. “We’re up to about 14 now. Everyone in the shop preferred the Haas control, and over the years, we learned we could always rely on the brand. In 2002, we decided to standardize as much as possible on Haas equipment.

“Now,” Donaldson adds, “we rely on the newest Haas VF- 2SS Super-Speed VMCs to produce the hard-to-make frames. The billet weighs 4 pounds going in, and the part that emerges weighs just 7 ounces.” The specially developed, high-material-removal, fine-finish process is a fusion of traditional horizontal machining procedures and modern 5-axis vertical machining techniques.

“For years, we used complex Japanese horizontal machining centers to do the frames,” he continues, “We figured horizontals were the best machines to give us the high productivity and fine finish we wanted. But as production expanded, it became a nightmare to keep the complicated machines running; they were a well-known brand, but they were down 50 percent of the time. It got to the point where I needed a full-time maintenance man to keep four machines going.

“I finally woke up one night, thinking: ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this!’

“I realized that, of all the machines we’d ever had on the floor, the most consistently perfect were the Haas,” Donaldson says. “We’d owned a lot of more-costly machines, but the Haas equipment always held up best. The next day, I contacted our Haas dealer (Haas Factory Outlet Denver), and told them: ‘I think I’ve come up with a new way to make our frames on a vertical machine with a trunnion table, but we’ll need your help!’”

HFO Denver jumped right in, upgrading Ross Reel’s VF-2SS to 5-axis capability, and loaning the shop a Haas TR-160 trunnion table to develop and test the process. “It took us about two weeks to iron out all the bells and whistles and get the programs to perform the way we wanted,” says Donaldson. “But the new process works perfectly! It saves us 30 to 50 percent cycle time over the old way, and I was able to get rid of the four big horizontals. We now see much greater productivity from just two Haas VF-2SS machines.

“The same thing happened with the spools,” Donaldson continues. “We used to have half-a-dozen lathes with captive operators doing the first and second ops on all our spools. We’re now set up with two Haas SL-20APL lathes equipped with automatic part loaders. The basic process stayed the same, but now we load anywhere from 45 to 72 parts at a time, depending on size, and let the machines take over. Cycle time is as short as 3 minutes, but the operator is freed up for hours. At the end of the day we go home, but the equipment keeps going.

“Haas has been a real success story for us,” Donaldson adds. “We have a great relationship with our distributor, and they’ve helped us find machines and work out processes to best manufacture our product. Despite years of growth, I actually have the same size machining crew today that I had 14 years ago. Yet, today we’re producing six times as much product.”

Mirroring the characteristics of the sport they represent, Ross Reels strives to be the perfect fusion of people, processes and machines. “Nothing is so traditional it can’t benefit from change,” says Donaldson. “We look for ways to improve things every day.”

The Frames

The frames for Ross Reels fly reels require heavy material removal and fine finishing. The flexibility of 5-axis positioning allows them to be machined in a single mounting.

Special 6061-T6-G billets are loaded into 3-jaw chucks atop Haas TR-160 trunnion tables. “With one mounting, we can grab the piece, tilt it, rotate it in different directions, position it horizontally for good chip-clearing, and cut a full-radius edge chamfer in a continuous 5-axis path,” notes Ross Reels Plant Manager Larry Donaldson. “The blend lines are subtle, but critical. They must look perfect.

“To reach all the tight inner areas with good tool clearance, we grip only 60 to 80 thousandths of the billet’s bottom edge. We make custom jaws for the chucks, with gripper teeth to bite into that lower lip, and carefully control our cutting forces during the heavy material removal.

“Very little special tooling is required,” Donaldson continues. “The radius cutter is the only custom tool we use. Nearly all roughing and finishing cuts are done with small carbide drills and standard endmills.

“The frame backs are finished in second or third ops on different machines. Mounted into collets or onto expanding mandrels (depending on the style), they get lathe-turned faces or milled cutouts and chamfered edges.”

The Spools

The spools for Ross Reels fly reels are shaped and faced on Haas SL-20APL turning centers equipped with automatic parts loaders. As with the frames, heavy material removal and fine finishing are required during the process.

“We’re holding with 16C collets machined to a grip-depth of only 125 to 250 thousandths,” says Donaldson. “Auto loading must be more accurate when using a collet instead of a chuck, but the collet allows higher speeds and heavier cuts when the mounting grip must be this shallow.

“The APL does a good job of critically positioning the parts,” Donaldson adds, “but to hold dimensions on the second op, we must ensure the part gets fully seated into the large collet. Besides setting air tubes to blast away any debris from the area, we mount a 41/2-inch diameter urethane pad on the tool turret. This pad comes in and pushes against the part during a momentary release in the collet’s grip to guarantee it’s set.”

A similar urethane pad, live-mounted in the SL-20’s programmable tailstock, comes in to press against the work during the heavy cuts to gut the inside. The spool’s thin outer flange would vibrate and cause chatter without this additional support to damp it. Next, the turned spools go to Haas VF-2SS vertical machining centers for the decorative weight-reducing cuts, contouring and final finishing. They’re mounted 12 at a time on compound fixtures fitted with expanding mandrels.