Minute precision on a very large scale

November 14, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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The ostrich egg says it all.

Ostrich eggs are relatively big, but one of them placed inside the new milling machine Paragon D&E unveiled last week at its plant in southeast Grand Rapids wasn't even noticeable at first.

That's because the milling machine, made to Paragon's specifications by Fidia SpA of Turin, Italy, is the largest double gantry five-axis Fidia milling machine in North America. The three-dimensional precision-cutting device can make large molds or large parts — including the entire fuselage of an F-22 Raptor fighter jet — within tolerances that measure less than the thickness of a human hair.

Paragon engineers used one of the massive machine's mill heads to daintily etch the company logo on a couple of ostrich eggs, without breaking the shells. The etching, done by a small end mill (similar to a 1/32 drill bit), is less than 4/1,000 of an inch deep.

Representing an investment of $3.5 million by the Grand Rapids firm for purchase and installation, the milling machine is 60 feet long and 12 feet wide and has two cutting heads that can simultaneously operate independently of each other or in unison. The machine has virtually unlimited weight capacity.

"Our new Fidia milling machine represents a significant leap forward for Paragon D&E as we supply industries that demand highly precise molds and machined parts that are also very large," said David Muir, 36, president of Paragon D&E.

An egg shape was chosen for the demonstration because it is not a perfect sphere, thus making it more of a challenge for an automated piece of precision machinery to work on.

The ability to mill very sophisticated shapes is "particularly important in the aerospace, automotive and any other industries that require curved surfaces to accommodate the aerodynamics of their products," said Muir. In addition to aerospace and automotive, the company produces molds and parts for manufacturers in alternative energy, heavy trucks, nuclear reactors, equipment for mining, agriculture, large-scale metal casting, and marine industries.

The Fidia milling machine can also be described as a monster-sized three-dimensional scanner, according to Muir. In addition to cutting large shapes from aluminum, steel, composites or other materials, the machine can be fitted with sensors that electronically scan very large objects, making precise measurements. That data can then be used by the machine to mill duplicates of those parts, such as helicopter cockpits and airplane tail structures.

Muir was asked if the constricted financial market posed a challenge to the company's acquisition of the machine.

"What you see here is paid for," replied Muir.

Muir said Paragon is now working on several contracts for defense manufacturers and aerospace manufacturers. Paragon has played a role in development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, an all-composite aircraft that is the biggest news in years in the civilian aeronautics industry.  Boeing says the long-delayed Dreamliner will make its first flight before the end of this year. Paragon has made tools that will be used to manufacture flaps that go on the Dreamliner wings.

When asked if Paragon already has orders that will involve use of the Fidia milling machine, Muir replied, "Absolutely — and no, I can't talk about it."

That's because some of the work is on U.S. Department of Defense orders.

In addition to being AS9100 certified for the manufacture of aerospace components, Paragon is ISO certified and registered under International Traffic in Arms Regulations as a secured facility for defense component manufacturing.

As part of its program to break into new markets, the company is seeking NQA-1 qualification that will enable it to work on materials and components used by the nuclear power industry.

The Fidia mill will enable Paragon to take on complex jobs with tight deadlines, according to Muir. For instance, one advantage of the Fidia is that it can operate both gantry heads simultaneously using the same program, which means it can precisely position two milling heads to cut on the same job. That makes it possible for the Fidia to machine both sides of an aircraft fuselage at the same time, or for one cutter to perform rough milling, followed immediately by a second cutter that performs finish milling. Muir said some jobs can be performed in half the time it would take other companies.

Paragon D&E spent much of last winter preparing a foundation for the machine at its plant at 5225 33rd St. SE. The company had to first dig a rectangular trench 75 feet long by 30 feet wide and 8 feet deep, which was then filled with a special concrete mixture developed by Michigan State University. The mixture includes small metal fibers to give extra rigidity to the base for the milling machine.

But the cost of site preparation and of the machine is only part of the investment Paragon D&E has made, Muir said. "We've also made a significant investment in our Paragon team members. We have a very deep pool of machining knowledge here, so we are really leveraging the team approach to projects. That team approach is making a huge difference with our customers."

Paragon D&E was known for many years as Paragon Design & Engineering, but officially changed its name about a year ago, a direct reflection of its push to diversify into other markets.

Since the company was purchased in 1962 by Muir's grandfather, Fred M. Keller, Paragon D&E has established a strong reputation as a full-service mold supplier with engineering and build capability that has consistently invested in new technology. With annual sales of approximately $30 million, Paragon employs about 140 skilled toolmakers, machinists and support staff in Grand Rapids.

Muir said the company is "in a hiring mode." Although the recession forced layoffs starting early in 2008, business finally picked up in July and about 20 employees were brought back over the last couple of months, he said.

Muir said he does not see the recession ending "for a lot of people" and believes that "more companies will go under." However, Paragon is seeing some encouraging signs.

"Six months ago, it was difficult for us to see a month out," Muir said. Now, he said, he can see business coming in for a few months out.

But he said no single new market, such as aerospace, will be a silver bullet for Michigan — it will take wide diversity in all the manufacturing markets. The future of Michigan's economy "will be about manufacturing — guaranteed," said Muir. "We just have to find our part of it."

In the 1980s, Paragon began making large molds for automobile bumpers, which became a mainstay of its business throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Paragon was one of the companies that helped develop the injected plastic molded bumper, and worked directly with the Big 3 to go from the metal bumper to the plastic bumper.

Then Paragon began making molds for many different plastic parts for cars, such as side panels, cladding and instrument panels.

Automotive has "always been a strong component" of Paragon's business, said Muri, adding, "We're not moving away from automotive."

Over the last five years, tooling for automotive manufacturing has been about 30 percent of the firm's business.

Starting a few years ago, the company sought work in aerospace, and more recently in defense contracts. Aerospace and defense together now account for about 20 percent of Paragon business, and that is "still growing," noted Muir.

The trade publication Plastics News ranked Paragon D&E as one of the top 20 mold makers in North America in terms of sales in 2007.

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