Ft. Walton Machining – a company profile

I had the opportunity a few years ago to visit Ft. Walton Machining and to meet its owner, Mr. Tim McDonald Sr., a great business man with some amazing toys: One amazing machine facility, and one really cool WWII-era T-6 Texan training aircraft. Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to spend more time with him before his passing in 2010.

I decided to return to Ft. Walton Machining, for a better look at the equipment and teamwork that makes company so successful. It really is an amazing company and has built an incredible reputation that has landed them some of the best contracts in multiple industries. Timothy McDonald Jr., runs the operations center, and agreed to see me and show me around.

Ft Walton Machining Front View

General Profile

Ft. Walton Machining was founded by Mr. McDonald in 1997. Since then it has been housed at 2 locations, and has increased from 35 employees to more than 210 team members at this time. The company houses more than 50 machine spindles, including fifteen 5-axis milling stations. They supply major corporations regularly with various components, including names such as Boeing, Gulfstream, Locheed-Martin, NASA, various military units, oil production companies, and more. The most exciting contract that I was permitted to mention was that Ft. Walton Machining is the largest supplier of F-35 airframe components in the world. Awesome!

The 65,000 SF Manufacturing facility is divided by process as follows:

  • CNC Milling
  • CNC Lathe
  • Electrical Discharge Machining (EDM)
  • Engineering
  • Fabrication
  • Finishing
  • Lean Manufacturing
  • Quality Assurance
  • Waterjet
  • Welding

One thing I learned since my last visit was that the company has purchased another facility in order to expand its materials finishing division. Now that location handles 100% of the finishing, giving more room to the machining facility, and streamlining their overall process.

The 42,000 SF Material Finishing Division facility is composed of process divisions as follows:

  • Anodizing
  • Assemblies
  • Chem-Film
  • Passivation
  • Prime & Paint
  • NonDestructive Testing (NDT)

This new addition includes a conveyor drying paint line, a gas curing oven, paint booths, and a PLC controlled custom chemical finishing line.

Manufacturing Walk Through

After I hefted out from under the enormous non-disclosure agreement the company’s kind receptionist ‘encouraged’ me to sign, I was issued a guest pass, and reacquainted with Timothy McDonald, Jr., who took the time to chat with me about this article, and to furnish some background on the company that I didn’t know. McDonald is the Program Manager, as well as the company’s Secretary/Treasurer.

It is difficult to get a grasp of the scope of the facility without a map; it’s huge. It’s not to the magnitude of say the Lockheed facility in Marietta, with cars on roads with named streets inside the oversized building, but you could spend a week at Ft. Walton Machining trying to figure out where everything is. A fun question to ask is, “what’s beyond that wall over there?”  The answer was usually “more!”

Immediately I happened upon these beautiful oil well drill drive shafts. 4’ long and 8” in diameter, with the finest looking bearing journals. I asked about the processes involved and was surprised to find that while the entire part was turned, the journals were not ground. McDonald went on to explain that they are roller burnished, using a peening-like process that rolls the journals into submission under great pressure [30,000 psi], delivering superior bearing strength and trueness. McDonald noted “As you can image, being a mile down a hole, the components will experience a great deal of vibration. That ultimately converts into fatigue stress and cracks, and this process extends the life of these shafts significantly.” I was however not permitted to take one home. That’s my kind of art!

Ft Walton Machining Oil Well Drill Shafts

The precision on the drill shaft turning and burnishing is held to 0.0005 in.

McDonald continued “If something goes wrong down in that hole, it costs $4 million an hour to pull that drill. That’s when feelings start to really get hurt, so you have to make sure your product is spot-on correct.”

As we moved, what I could observe was numerous aircraft parts including flight critical components for C-17’s aircraft and CH-47 helicopters. I was escorted through all the departments and given time to chat with the team members. We discussed everything from manufacturing processes to strategies, most of which could not be mentioned in this article. One topic that was approved was the oil drilling components, which turned out to be really interesting as well. The team explained, in detail, the ingenious strategies used in oil well drilling, as well as the processes used to manufacturing these tools. It was pretty awesome.

I found a dedicated team of individuals that know their machinery and products. When engaged about different approaches to specific components and techniques, everyone was eager to share their experiences and methods used to successfully get the components out the door. Everything from their adoption of High-Speed Machining to advanced materials was discussed; where things worked and where they didn’t. When I’d ask about the tolerances of a component feature, the technician’s would stop to explain what these were, and various strategies that paid off in maintaining them.

Ft Walton Machining Haas CNC Mill  Ft Walton Machining Milling

The two silver boring bars in the turret are 2 in. solid carbide DeVi bars. These are tuned to bore chatter free at extended depths. I just priced them out at over $2000 USD each, plus inserts. Pricey; I’ve never used one, but the industry swears by them. “We had Iscar make us a 4 in. slam drill that will chew metal like you would not believe. It took us 4 months to get it. It will pop a 4 in. hole, 5 in. deep in about 5 minutes. That’s a massive insert.” McDonald said. The technician pulled the turret down for me to inspect. “The savings were instantaneous.”

Ft Walton Machining Iscar Drill on Lathe

Ft Walton Machining CNC Water-Jet  Ft Walton Machining Inspection

While discussing the merits and problems with waterjet, McDonald mentions, “we used it once to cut 8 in.-thick titanium. We called the manufacturer and asked how it could be done. They said you couldn’t do it; that presented a challenge. It took 28 hours, but when talking titanium at 80 bucks a pound, it was worth it in the end.”

I was able to inspect some beautifully crafted components. High precision, small components and very large scale multi-process assemblies. Unfortunately I was only permitted to show a small sample for the sake of security.

Ft Walton Machining Multiple Processes

This Navy ship exhaust duct was one component that was extremely tedious to manufacture. The processes involved include sheet metal fabrication, water jet, welding, and finish machining. The mating flange surfaces have to be flat within 0.005 in. The team welds the processed components first, and then after substantial blocking, the custom jigs are removed, and the flanges are surface milled within tolerance.

Another really nifty gizmo was the Iscar Matrix tool vending machine. Sounds funny, right. Instead of Twinkies, this cool cabinet dispenses inserts. The team members enter their employee password, and then scan the scan bar on the job order. The Matrix is tied in with the ERP system, and after the scan is made and the insert is selected, the cost of the insert is automatically applied to the project for cost analyses. The vending machine then unlocks and opens the appropriate drawer. “It’s like a giant Pez dispenser”, one technician said. McDonald added “When the last insert is removed, an email is sent to the tool crib notifying them that the drawer needs to be restocked. We never run out of inserts this way. These are used throughout the industry in various ways, we use them for inserts… and subsequently the occurrences of having ‘missing’ cutters has dropped dramatically.”

Ft Walton Machining Medical Parts  Ft Walton Machining Medical More Parts

McDonald escorted me through every area of the shop. As we passed by their Blue Streak department, I pointed to the sign and asked about it. He told me that department is comprised of machines that are ready to work with low volume to handle their client’s emergency needs. This way when a problem arises, they don’t have to shut down an operation to accommodate the need.

As we were wrapping up the tour, Glenn Larson, Ft. Walton Machining’s software guru caught up with us and we began discussing some CAM issues and strategies in parts as McDonald took us by components and tooling. We looked at their R&D changes to the AccuView contact lens palettes (my wife wears those!), and the intricate detail required to accomplish their needs.  Moving along we passed by a FARO portable CMM unit and the discussion turned to inspections, and how they use it when they can’t check the parts in the QA Lab. They mentioned that a laser scanner can be attached to the unit and McDonald added “We are quite interested in light scanning, it’s the next wave and the direction we are going”.

I wanted to give their Haimer Power Clamp a try. The unit heat expands the milling collets in order to fit the tooling inside, and then cools the collets back down which clamps the tolling down tight. No screws, no clamps. McDonald said it absolutely kills the runout associated with collets. They showed me one application where they needed a small diameter tool in this arrangement. They had a tool, heat shrunk into a collet, heat shrunk into another, and into another.

After making it to the QA lab where all the components are inspected, the pair noted that the part being inspected had a variable radii developed in Autodesk Inventor with some special love from Glenn Larson’s team added in. McDonald noted, “Once we’re done welding, we verify the positions before adding that bottom fillet radii in the mill. The top surface has a 0.002 in. tolerance and is a bit tight to hold throughout on a mill. What we’re going to do is make a special arbor on the lathe; we’ll mount two of them to it to counterbalance, and turn the top profile. This part is very complex in the sequencing we had to go through, but I’m happy with it thus far.” The two were confident [if not a wee bit squeamish], as they reflected on the prospects of the final surface turning process. That’s a lot of time and money invested in a process that only gets more difficult and precise. By the time of this article, they should have completed that process. I’d love to hear how it went.

One thing I found odd but didn’t inquire about was that the company doesn’t do any plasma spray buildups. They outsource the process to favored companies when needed.

My thoughts

I always enjoy hearing about the progress of this company ever since I first met them and toured the facility years ago. Their continued expansion and successes have stemmed from staying on top of the technology, knowing the trade, thinking far beyond the norm, and building exceptional relationships. I never think twice about referring companies to them to handle any component manufacturing needs.

It’s an awesome team and facility, and I’m going back as soon as they get over my excitement during this past visit.

Check back in soon for the follow-up interview article with Tim McDonald and Glenn Larson, and their discussion about the company’s successful transition to CATIA.