Machine Users Make Better Builders

Haas Automation's User Background, Performance Measuring and Customer Collaboration Help It Innovate and Simplify

By Jim Montague

Only one group knows more than machine builders about the ever-changing tasks required of their equipment, and that's the end users who operate them every day. So, the few builders that deal with continually shifting product designs and specs are the most conscious of matching an application's needs with a machine's capabilities — and can get out in front of both.

Such is the case with Haas Automation in Oxnard, Calif., which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Starting in a 5,000-ft² shop in Sun Valley, Calif., in 1983, the company was founded by Gene Haas to manufacture the first, fully programmable 5C collet indexer, which he created to increase production in his own machine shop. The Haas 5C indexer was an immediate success, and the company expanded to include indexers, rotary tables and machine-tool accessories.

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By Users, For Users
"Because Gene Haas was a machinist, the initial philosophy at Haas Automation was to build machine tools that he, himself, would buy and use," says Peter Zierhut, vice president of European operations and special projects at Haas. "They were designed from the operators' and programmers' points of view, rather than that of the engineers, with emphasis on simplicity and ease-of-use."

For example, Haas began to develop its first vertical machining center (VMC) in 1987 to provide a full-featured, U.S.-made, CNC that could compete on price with machine tools from international builders. "The first VF-1 prototypes were completed in 1988, and introduced at the International Machine Tool Show (IMTS) in Chicago for the then-unheard-of price of $49,900," Zierhut says. "As with the original 5C, the VF-1 also succeeded quickly because, not only was it affordable, but Haas could build and deliver it quickly. Haas introduced its first horizontal machining center (HMC) in 1994 and its first CNC lathe in 1995."

Zierhut adds that making its machines affordable was also a big factor in Haas' history and development. "Gene insisted on publishing the prices for his machines, so customers would know up front what they were going to pay," Zierhut explains. "Haas still publishes prices for all to see for every one of its products. That's something no other machine tool builder does even now. Gene's philosophy continues to drive the company today, with the goal of providing machine tools that are reliable, easy to use, and easy to service."

Joel Weiss, Haas' tradeshow manager, adds, "What's unique about Haas is that it's all about what can be accomplished, setting goals that make sense, and progressing on a scale we're able to support. This takes a lot of faith and involvement among our staff, but our managers encourage everyone to innovate. As a company, we constantly look at ourselves, measure our performance, innovate and move forward, and reduce the complexity and cost of our machines."

Seek, Serve Global Customers
Today, located on an 86-acre campus with more than 1 million ft² of manufacturing space, Haas manufactures more than 100 different products across four main lines — VMCs, HMCs, CNC lathes, and CNC rotary tables and indexers. Its customers are small to medium job shops and contract manufacturers from garage shops to full-scale production machining houses. These users provide machining services to nearly every industry, including aerospace, automotive, mold and die, electronics, medical, telecom, motor sports, electronics, oil and gas, and defense.

Haas' machines and related equipment are distributed worldwide via a network of more than 170 Haas Factory Outlets (HFOs) in more than 50 countries. The HFOs are supported by Haas' two regional headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, and Shanghai, China. 

To reach more new users, Haas also exhibits at many international tradeshows, including EMO Hannover 2013, which will run Sept. 16-21. The biennial event is the largest machine-tool-specific tradeshow in Europe.

"The machine tool business is cyclical, and so there's been a lull as Europe emerges from its recession," Weiss says. "However, EMO 2011 was pleasantly busy, and we secured 1,135 qualified customer leads. We were satisfied with the traffic and the size of our effort, and so we're going to keep on being pragmatic in 2013, fit in everything we want to show, and expand where needed."

Weiss adds, "When users visit our booth, they're interested in what Haas is showing, but it also gives us a chance to learn about their businesses. So, we're pleased that EMO Hannover draws manufacturers from around the world, which helps us attract buyers and qualified distributors in new markets."

Homegrown, Optimized Controls
Given its highly independent nature, it should be no surprise that Haas is also one of the few machine tool builders that designs and builds its own CNC controls. "It's optimized specifically for Haas machines, and designed to be simple, easy to use, and easy to understand," explains Zierhut. "The Haas control is also nearly identical across all product lines. This commonality makes it easier for Haas users to move from one machine to another — from VMC to HMC to lathe — without added training. The fact that Haas builds both the control and the iron also simplifies service because we can take full responsibility for the entire machine."

Other automation devices available for Haas' machines include the Haas Intuitive Probing System for setting tool and work offsets, a Haas-built automatic bar feeder for lathes, a six-station pallet pool system on its EC-400 HMC, and a robot-ready interface that simplifies integration of Haas machines with robotic parts loaders.

Fewer Setups, Better Accuracy
More recently, Zierhut adds, Haas has observed and responded to two major technical trends — an increase in five-axis machining and an increase in multi-tasking capability on lathes. Consequently, thanks to its rotary tables and indexers, four- and five-axis capabilities are available on nearly every Haas mill.

For example, its latest VMC, UMC-750, is a five-axis, 40-taper machining center with 8,100-rpm spindle and a dual-axis trunnion table, which can position parts at almost any angle for five-sided (3+2) machining, or provide full, simultaneous, five-axis motion for contouring and complex machining. To simplify job setup, UMC-750 features Dynamic Work Offsets and Tool Center Point Control. In fact, UMC-750 will cut metal on the exhibit floor at EMO 2013.

"Both of these trends are designed to reduce setups and increase accuracy on parts through a 'done-in-one' type of approach," Zierhut says. "Much of the five-axis work we see is 3+2 machining (five-sided), rather than simultaneous five-axis motion. The fourth and fifth axes are used primarily to present a different side of the part to the spindle. In this way, all five sides of a part can be machined in one setup."

On the lathe side, Zierhut reports the addition of driven tools, C-axis and Y-axis motion, and secondary spindles allows secondary milling operations to be performed on the lathe, eliminating the need for additional setups on a mill. "The Y-axis motion allows off-center milling, drilling and tapping operations, and the secondary spindle allows backside operations," he says. "The end result is a finished part off the machine in one setup."

Despite all its recent technical gains, Zierhut stresses that Haas stays focused on its in-depth understanding of its customers' needs, and matches them to product designs. "Too often, machine tool manufacturers end up with the 'perfect' product, but miss the mark on what a customer really needs or can afford," he says. "Striking a balance between design and price requires a good understanding of every facet of the business. So, the best advice is to be prepared for the commitment required to excel in the machine tool business. Companies or individuals that aren't prepared to learn everything about the business and their customers need not apply."