Ft. Walton Machining’s Transition to CATIA, an Interview with Timothy McDonald and Glenn Larson

After the visit to the Ft. Walton Machining facility, Timothy McDonald, the company’s Program Manager and Secretary / Treasurer invited me back to his office for a chat. We were joined by Glenn Larson, the company’s CAD-guru and software technology manager, who heads the engineering department. The two discussed everything from CAD software to management. What follows is a collection of topics that were cleared for print.

At the time of this interview, Ft. Walton Machining is using Inventor and CATIA Design to perform all of its engineering model preparation for manufacturing. While they are in process of purchasing more seats of CATIA design, and adding CATIA’s manufacturing modules, they currently use MasterCAM for all of their CAM (Computer Aided Manufacturing) needs.

Timothy McDonald - Ft Walton Machining

McDonald started out his career sweeping floors in his father’s shop, and ultimately moved up to programming machines. He went off to South Alabama Univeristy and earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 2007. He returned to ultimately take on the position of company Secretary /Treasurer and their Program Manager.

I began the discussion by recalling the tight control the company had on materials. I remembered being able to pick up any remaining piece of metal, and the team could tell me exactly what parts it was ordered for, material properties, etc. The opposite was true as well.

DM: “I recall from my last visit that your team has a very tight handle on accountability with not only the components produced, but also the stock materials at every step of the process. How is that managed?”

TM: “We currently use SysPro for our ERP system. This includes all of our traceability, job status tracking, material requirements, and contracts. It’s been online here for about 3 years and is doing really well. Back in the day we used to be able to schedule our machines on a white board. Earlier products we used were easier, but we’ve tripled in size and we soon realized we’d outgrown the previous software. SysPro was the next step up. It is a bit more cumbersome and complex, as there are more locks to go through, but we are working through it pretty well. Like any software, you have to customize the out-of-the-box functionality to suit the application that your business uses.”

DM: “Are you still using Autodesk Inventor to prepare your model data before manufacturing?”

TM: “We are moving to CATIA. It’s much more intuitive than our previous product which was MasterCAM. One of the bigger problems you get into with multiple software systems in one house is multiple formats. For example, using MasterCAM for CAM [Computer Aided Manufacturing], Inventor for CAD {Computer Aided Design}, and PC DMIS for CMM [Coordinate Machine Measuring], you have multiple file translations occurring. CATIA has all those in one package; you lose all the interruptions and transition headaches.

DM: “Is that cost effective?”

TM: “It’s very cost effective. It is a significant initial cost, not only in terms of purchasing the software, but also the training and inefficiency during that crossover…Plus, everyone is going MBD [Model Based Definition]. No one wants to deal with 2D drawings anymore. When we receive a 2D drawing, it still has to be loaded into CAD and CAM in order to prepare the toolpaths. Considering complex 5-axis contoured toolpaths, it becomes almost impossible to translate those from 2D to 3D.We are the largest supplier of airframe parts for the F-35, and when you look at those models, there is not a straight surface on them. While MBD is helping us, it is going to cost us some initial heartache. You have to keep up with the customer, and they don’t have any problem packing up and going somewhere else if they can’t get what they need at a price they want, and when they want it.”

“We’ve gone to a drawing vault system from Dassault called SmartTeam. Not only is the model data catalogued, but also all the separate processes are driven through SmartTeam. It flows from department to department as tasks, and has created a lot of visibility for that upfront work [work orders and tasking] that we didn’t necessarily have in the past. For configuration control purposes, all of our drawings are locked down in that vault. Configuration control is huge in this business. We no longer have problems where old drawings might get down to the floor.”

DM: “What kind of volume is the company doing currently?”

TM: “We’re seeing somewhere along the lines of 2.5 to 3 million dollars in sales monthly. We’re probably looking to hit 24 million in sales this year. We started the new Materials Finishing Division recently, making us much more vertically integrated. We’ve just won our largest contract to date. Its $24 million with Goodrich on newly designed floor panels for CH-47 Chinook helicopters. We are a 24-7 operation with 211 employees today.

Ft Walton Machining - Glenn Larson

Glenn Larson has been involved in CAD and manufacturing for over a decade. After Lee Minor left a few the company a few years ago, Glenn  stepped up to take over the engineering department’s care. He has my passion for design and manufacturing software, and spends similar loads of time with the subject as I. (He MUST be an OK guy)

DM: “Happy to be leaving MasterCAM?”

GL: “I don’t do the programming, so I’m happy about it, but by the day, they [programmers] are becoming happier. Regularly I show them new ways that CATIA will accomplish their tasks. Now all of them are excited to use it, and 6 months ago no one wanted to talk about it. What’s really exciting is the speed we’re going to pick up.”

DM: “Are you dumping the entire Autodesk Inventor line?”

GL: “No, we’re going to keep a copy of Inventor here, and let me tell you why. Nobody in the industry has the drafting tools that AutoCAD has; it’s as simple as that. Are you familiar with full Model Based Definition. [I’m nodding]. If you’re going to have any kind of drafting power, you’re going to need to keep a seat of it [AutoCAD]. Any time you buy a seat of Inventor, you get AutoCAD. You can pull in old PDF drawings and scale them. We get a lot of old aircraft drawing PDF’s that lack sufficient detail, and we may need to gather information out of those drawings, and I like AutoCAD to do that.”

“We’ll keep 1 or 2 seats [of Inventor] around, and use the sheet metal unfolding capabilities as well. CATIA does it well, but there will be some transitional time. We currently have 5 seats of Inventor, and 1 seat at a time we’ll eliminate it down to 1 or 2 seats.”

DM: “Once you get that Sheet Metal module for CATIA, and you can operate completely in one platform you are unlikely to go outside.”

GL: “Not only that but it has more power.”

DM: “Have you found it to be better tuned to the type of aviation work that you do?”

GL: “Yes. The surfacing tools in Inventor are a bit lacking, but the surfacing tools in CATIA are marvelous. I’ve been using these for about 3 years now after we bought what is called our ‘masking’ module. I didn’t realize that when I bought the masking module that I was getting the surface module. You can take a surface out of anything and flatten it out; doesn’t matter how complicated it is. We bought it for our Metal Finishing Division, where they could take complex surfaces off and print them out on a cutting plotter.”

DM: “We used Inventor and Fusion once to do some complex sheet metal clips that were rolled and then stamped. It was quite a tedious task.”

GL: “It’s a push of a button for me [grinning], and that is where you get the power of a company that has been involved in building aircraft. Once I saw the power I started digging in more and more. The real kicker is the true model based definitions. Boeing is great with this. [He gestures to one component that I was not permitted to discuss] That component came in with true model based definition; all the annotations were on the model.

DM: “and tolerancing?”

GL: “All the tolerancing. They bring it to you with the material; they add the extra piece of material with the coupons modeled into it; they add the assembly parts into it. All the notes are included; standard notes and flag notes, it’s all in the model. It’s amazing, you don’t need any paper at all. All they give you is a model, and nothing else. There is nothing to interpret it by. If you don’t know how to do model based definition, you are not going to read it.

DM: “Are you seeing any particular MBD standards or certifications being demanded from your clients?”

GL: “Boeing is leading the way in this. I don’t know of a standard, but I know that’s coming. As for the model, it’s all revision controlled. When we receive the model we lock it into our revision center, and it can’t change.”

DM: “I know Boeing audits your processes. Do they audit that as well?”

TM: “There is a MBD approval process. They won’t give you MBD models if you are not approved.”

GL: “The approval process generally surrounds having the software to read the files [CATIA].”

DM: “Tell me about your revision and job control processes.”

GL: “There is SysPro and SmartTeam. SysPro is our MRB system, where we process the jobs through. SmartTeam is our configuration control system. It starts out in SmartTeam which is where all of our intellectual property is stored. It goes through a CRB Process [contract review], and then on to document control, and then to the engineering department. At that point, drawing based data simply goes through the peer review process, programming, and quality review. If they send me a model, it goes through an MBD review. I certify that the MBD is right using a stripping tool in CATIA. It’s actually an FAI (First Article Inspection Form) that it’ll make for me. Then we’ll step the model out [referring to exporting a STEP file]. This is where things get sticky with the MBD certification. You see Boeing expects you to be able to certify that once you step the file out, that it hasn’t changed; now how do you do that?”

DM: “You validate the final product.”

GL: “Yes, but it doesn’t get validated against the CATIA file, it gets validated against the STEP file that you made from the CATIA file. Every time we export that file, there are problems and losses associated. CATIA files are intelligent and feature based. You run that model through the CAM software, and pick a pattern of holes, it’s going to find that pattern of holes and machine it. Then when the QA department uses Metrologic software that’s developed by CATIA to measure the features, CATIA checks the features.”

“When you step it out and open that in MasterCAM, it’s twice converted; you’ve got a problem on your hands. Is that file good? I’d say it’s probably within thousandths, but when you start talking tenths, it’s not. Nothing coming from the aviation industry is straight, and the conversions are nasty. I get it the worst with Unigraphics STEP file formats. You get gaping holes in stuff.”

“There is one STEP file format that is certified by Boeing, that they say will be identical to the original CATIA file. That software is $10,000 USD [jaw drop]. Do I spend $10,000 on that or do I spend it on CATIA software?”

DM: “The CATIA performance boost must be wonderful”

GL: “Let me give you an example [Glenn gestures to the big weldment frame member on the desk]. In MasterCAM what I have to do is to slice this wall here and draw a rail, and slice this wall up here and draw a rail in order to get that ruled surface. It’s the only way I can tell that software to tilt that head [5-axis machining]. Even if it’s just pockets, I have say: run down this line, and draw that line in there, as contours. With CATIA, click the pocket, click the wall, machine it [he claps his hands together for effect].”

“One on the latest innovations in MasterCAM is OptiRough. With OptiRough, you click on the model and click on the stock and say: rough this out within 0.020 in. Programmers love it because they don’t have to draw all the toolpaths… but there’s a problem. They are doing it with Troquoidal tooling; they are peel-milling it and that is the only option. Now you will lose 25% of your efficiency on a part this big [gesturing to the big frame], I don’t want to waste a bunch of time spinning in circles, I want to bury that cutter and go; straight down. It’s problematic and I didn’t realize how problematic it was until I went to that CATIA class.”

I discussed a similar experience with another vendor’s High-Speed Machining technique that took a half hour to do a 10 minute profile. The tool paths spent more time cutting over pre-cut regions than they did cutting material.

GL: “That’s what I ran into with MasterCAM; a lot of needless passes; table jerking around all over the place. I can’t understand why the software is trying to behave this way. This new High-Speed technique is supposed to automate the methodologies needed to machine the parts, but it doesn’t. When you do that [use automated tool path calculations] in CATIA, you control that. You are going to use those High-Speed Machining techniques, but you are going to tell it how, and it gives you that control.”

I’m not trying to sell you on CATIA, it’s just that I have learned a whole lot recently that blows my mind. I didn’t know how handicapped we were.

DM: “Does the engineering aspect in CATIA feel good?”

GL: “Engineering is a bit more difficult. It’s harder to model in it. I’ve been modeling in Inventor for a long time; modeling parts for aircraft as well, and I can move fast in that. One thing I like about Inventor is the constraints menu. You pick the constraint, and then what you want to constrain. With CATIA, you pick on your elements and then on to constrain. I’m not as happy with that as I could have been. But then there is the power of their tree; it’s much better. There is so much stuff you can do in CATIA that can’t be done in Inventor, such as fillets on short walls. “

“One thing about CATIA: I found the manufacturing software much easier to use, and the modeling software much harder to use. I suppose this stems from what I was proficient at first.”

DM: “You are sitting on 5 seats of Inventor, and how many MasterCAM?”

GL: “9 copies of MasterCAM, 10 if you include the wire. I have 1 seat of design, and I’m adding 2 seats of machining this year. Those 2 seats will feed 4 of my programmers. Then next year we will move to 2 more seats… and that’s it. That doesn’t include the Lathe and Wire departments. We will no longer need 9 seats of MasterCAM here; we’ll keep 1 updated.”

Final Thoughts

I am passionate about Autodesk Inventor modeling, and all the improvements that are being added. That said, there is no doubt that Dassault CATIA is a full featured and complete manufacturing powerhouse. Autodesk is in the process of including numerous aspects of manufacturing and management into their software, but unfortunately the dust had not settled on the HSMWorks purchase at the time of this interview, nor had the company purchased Delcam. Would that have changed anything for Ft. Walton Machining? Probably not.

Ft. Walton Machining’s purchase of CATIA mostly for its surface flattening capabilities is a strong argument for more powerful feature technology in other vendor’s products. FWM purchased a vastly more expensive CAD product than they were already using, and after experiencing more of what it could do, they were willing to not only replace all their CAD/CAM software with Dassault, but also to keep it all in the family, and move their management platform to Dassault as well. That reseller is having a party [I can think of one that is probably not, the one that seriously dropped the ball here].

FWM continues to stay on the cutting edge of manufacturing and efficiency to keep a very impressive list of client’s happy. That includes spending a small fortune on software, and arguably at this point in time, they have made a wise investment.

Visiting them again in a few years should prove to be a real litmus test for companies that are looking to make similar changes to their manufacturing and engineering departments.