How CAD Enables Small Part Machining
Michael Alba posted on May 31, 2018 | | 2172 views
Christian Welch, President of Swissomation. (Image courtesy of Swissomation.)
Christian Welch, President of Swissomation. (Image courtesy of Swissomation.)

The Swiss—known for their fine chocolate, perforated cheeses, and multifunctional knives—can also be credited with a specialized type of lathe. The Swiss lathe, initially built for the watch industry, has proved extremely useful in machining small parts. So useful, in fact, that it inspired the name of American machining company Swissomation.

“We're a family-owned business that does small parts machining,” Christian Welch, President of Swissomation, said. “We work with some of the largest companies in the US and some of the smallest one-man shops, as well. We do prototypes from three or four pieces all the way up to a million pieces. We specialize in a lot of smaller parts, from 3/1000th of an inch in diameter up to an inch and 5/8 in diameter.”

Swissomation has been a private company for 21 years and operates two shops with nearly 80 machines. Welch runs the shop in Fredericksburg, Texas, while his parents and brother operate the shop in Amherst, Virginia. The family’s machining roots run deep.

“My grandfather did an apprenticeship many years ago in Germany when he was 14 years old, and he taught all his descendants the business up to this point,” Welch said.

A selection of parts machined by Swissomation. (Image courtesy of Swissomation.)
A selection of parts machined by Swissomation. (Image courtesy of Swissomation.)

With three generations of the machining trade behind it, Swissomation has garnered a diverse range of customers.

“One of the largest GPS manufacturers in the US is a customer,” said Welch. “One of the largest phone manufacturers in the US is a customer. We've done things for the semiconductor industry. We make a lot of parts in the hobby industry. We make a lot of parts in the medical, dental, as well as the electrical connector industry.”

Though they operate other types of machines, the majority of Swissomation’s fleet is Swiss-type turning machines, or Swiss lathes. On a conventional lathe, the cutting tool moves along the length of material as well as in and out to control diameter. On a Swiss lathe, the tool only moves in and out. The length is controlled by moving the material forward and back through what’s called a guide bushing.

“That allows you to run long skinny parts,” Welch explained. “For instance, screws or shafts, electrical connectors that have long tails, things like that that. If you were to put them on a conventional lathe and try to come in from the side it would try to push away.”

A Hanwha ML20H 7-axis Swiss-type lathe in the Swissomation shop. (Image courtesy of Swissomation.)
A Hanwha ML20H 7-axis Swiss-type lathe in the Swissomation shop. (Image courtesy of Swissomation.)

Switching to Fusion 360

To design parts, create drawings, and program his machines, Welch began using SOLIDWORKS in 2001. Today, Swissomation exclusively uses Autodesk Fusion 360. Why the change? It began around 2008 when Welch, tired of constant problems with his company’s PCs, decided to switch over to Mac.

“During those transition years, we ran both Mac and PCs, but by about 2010 we were starting to phase out the PCs. Our only hold out at that time, the lone PC left in the shop by 2014, was running SOLIDWORKS,” Welch recalled.

Eager to ditch the world of Windows completely, Welch began looking for a CAD option that would work on Mac. He tried a few options—including running SOLIDWORKS in a virtual machine—before encountering Fusion 360, which had recently debuted.

“They had a lot of significant problems in the early days as we started to switch over, but we just slowly started moving toward it. They reached out to us many, many times for feedback and discussions,” Welch said.

According to Welch, those early conversations with Autodesk were a bit rough. Fusion 360 suffered from a host of problems, and Welch couldn’t help but be frank about them. He even recalls a conversation with ex-Autodesk CEO Carl Bass who, to his credit, took the criticism in stride.

“I even went to the CEO at the time, Carl Bass, and told him his drawing package was awful,” Welch said. “It was right after their big reveal of the drawing package that they'd been working on for a couple years, and I pulled him aside and told him his package was completely awful. And he listened to me, he didn't just blow me off, he didn't try to make excuses. He called over one of the developers and said, ‘Hey, you guys need to sit down with him and figure out what's wrong and fix it.’”

Welch’s requests were being addressed as early as the next release, not much more than a month after Welch’s discussion with Bass.

“Over the next few years, we saw a complete turnaround in the drawing package,” Welch said. “And a lot the things that we asked for, they're either in the pipeline or have been delivered at this point. The program over the last four years has just exploded with functionality and many reliability improvements.”

A recent part designed, prototyped, and tested by Swissomation. (Image courtesy of Swissomation.)
A recent part designed, prototyped, and tested by Swissomation. (Image courtesy of Swissomation.)

Today, Swissomation has 13 seats of Fusion 360. Though Welch still has a few items on his feature wish list—some more advanced features in the sketch engine, some tweaks to folder and file sharing—he has no regrets about switching to Fusion 360.

“There have been bugs here and there, but they've fixed them. And they've always treated us well and I always get the support I need directly from Autodesk. And the forums have been very helpful. It's just been a great experience for us, honestly,” Welch said. “I love what I do. I love working with the people at Autodesk, and we like working with all our customers and being the source for small precision turn parts.”

In the case of Swissomation, Fusion 360 happened to be the best choice for its applications, but you can learn about a number of new trends and tools in our recent report, “The Best CAD Software for the Modern Engineer”.


Autodesk has sponsored this post. They have had no editorial input to this post. All opinions are mine. —Michael Alba


Recommended For You