See how aerospace and defense contractor Nerc Precision Engineering uses the Fusion 360 Machining Extension to increase business opportunities and output.
Nerc Precision Engineering Ltd. (NPE) is a subcontractor in the defense, offshore, power generation, general precision engineering, automotive, and aerospace sectors. Aerospace manufacturing is especially challenging, with components that often require complex 5-axis machining from materials that are expensive and difficult to machine.
To get ahead in the space, the Bristol-based company recently installed a DMG MORI 3, 5-axis machining centers, and Leadwell 3-axis machining centers — all programmed with Autodesk Fusion 360 CAM software. But the journey to finally adopt a system that works took a few twists and turns along the way…
Expensive doesn’t always mean top-quality
“When I first started Nerc Precision Engineering, I researched many different CNC machines and CAM software to see which ones would best meet my needs,” recalls NPE Managing Director Konrad Nerc. “It was evident that Autodesk Fusion 360 was the most suitable system for our business.”
As the business evolved into complex 5-axis machining, many of my competitors were using the same high-end CAM system, so the logical choice was for me to do the same – after all, if it’s good enough for them, it should be great for me,” he continues.
However, the company’s diversion away from Fusion 360 resulted in multiple technical problems and lengthy implementation delays. The system ultimately failed to meet NPE’s needs. “When you spend tens of thousands of pounds on a CAM system, you naturally expect it to deliver great results,” explains Nerc. “We provide top-quality service to our end customers, but the CAM system was causing us too much pain, so we decided to look at alternatives. It was apparent that the 5-axis strategies and the Machining Extension within Fusion 360 were all I ever needed.”
Returning to Fusion 360
Like many subcontractors, Nerc Precision Engineering produces anything from prototypes and small batches up to short production runs of around 5000 components – all with geometries and complexities varying greatly from one job to the next.
After its brief break, NPE fully embraced Autodesk Fusion 360 and the Machining Extension once again — and it hasn’t looked back since. “Our business has grown by 400% in just over a year, and we can attribute a lot of this growth to Fusion 360. Fusion 360 is a CAM system that is made for making parts.”
Getting the right CAM tools for the job
Fusion 360 is undoubtedly a leading CAM system for 3- and 5-axis machining; simultaneously, it is also an industry-leading system for start-ups and small businesses looking to make their first steps into CAM – a system for all companies and applications.
“The previous system wasn’t a good fit for our business, but Fusion 360 is perfect,” Nerc explains. “It has an extremely cost-effective price point, making it a great choice for startups. In our case, we needed 5-axis programming tools, so we adopted the Machining Extension. I’m the first to admit that Fusion doesn’t offer every single option seen in some of the more expensive packages, but it does everything I need, and I’m not paying extra money for features I don’t use. In my view, it is better than other so-called market-leading systems.”
Reducing programming times
Nerc Precision Engineering typically produces up to 10 different parts in a day – all with different batch sizes. This makes its CAM system’s programming speed critical for getting jobs through the shop as quickly as possible.
“We needed a CAM system that fits with our business and can compress our programming times,” Nerc continues. “We have default tool positions set up in each of our machining centers, with some special tools in the remaining tool positions in the automatic tool carousels. Likewise, we have a corresponding tool library set up in Fusion 360 with default tool positions in each tool pot of the machines’ tooling carousels. Within the Fusion 360 tool library, we also have default speed and feed settings for each tool. When this is all set up, Fusion makes it as easy as selecting the appropriate face mill or end mill and hitting the ‘OK’ button.”
NPE now has three seats of Fusion 360 with two seats also incorporating the Fusion 360 Machining Extension. “Each machinist programs and runs their jobs from start to finish, programming the jobs with Fusion 360 at the machine,” he continues. “This gives every machinist a completely rounded skill set and avoids the potential bottleneck of having just one programmer in the office. It also instills a sense of ownership and pride when a machinist follows the job from drawing to delivery.”
“When we first receive a drawing or model from a customer, we input that straight into Fusion 360, and the machinists program the parts and make any necessary amendments at the machine.”
Nerc Precision Engineering programs approximately 10 different parts a day, so its programming speed is critical to throughput. “The programming time with Fusion 360 is 50 to 100% faster than with our previous system,” Nerc adds. “This makes a huge impact on our throughput and, subsequently, our profitability. What Fusion 360 gives us is the least amount of clicks to get my spindles turning. This means we can make more parts every day.”
Most manufacturers have focused on automation, and NPE is no exception. “Automation is so important and can make or break a business,” he continues. “We’ve built a reputation for delivering projects faster than our competitors, and this is at least in part thanks to Fusion. We use some of the smart strategies, like Steep & Shallow and Feature Recognition, to simplify programming. For example, Fusion 360 can recognize an M3 thread in CAD and automatically assign a 2.5mm diameter drill for that feature. This saves us huge amounts of time and stress and means we can shorten our production times.”
“Not only does Fusion 360 compress our programming times, but it also has industry-leading toolpath strategies. We recently won a major aerospace contract. We weren’t the cheapest option for the customer, but we can turn parts around faster than anyone else and to a higher quality. This was the defining difference in why we won the business. Fusion 360 was instrumental in this. The toolpath strategies are making a significant difference to our surface finishes and the blending of surfaces. They’re having a major impact on the aesthetics and quality of our parts.”
“Fusion is ideal for all types of manufacturing business,” Nerc reflects. “Sure, you get CAD and CAM, and the price is really appealing, but there’s more to it than that. The time and effort needed to get it up and running were much lower too. Our previous system took weeks to learn and involved expensive training courses – during which time our machinists were busy and couldn’t work on customer projects. That’s tough for any business to handle, especially for startups. Fusion is different. We trained ourselves using YouTube videos and were machining by the end of day one and delivering finished customer parts by the end of the first week.”
When asked about ongoing costs, Konrad explained that “Some people aren’t keen on software subscriptions. I don’t know why, as they work perfectly for us. There’s no huge upfront payment, and I only pay for the products and tools that I need when I use them.”
Thinking about the future at Nerc Precision Engineering, we probe into Konrad’s plans. “When I look back at the early days of NPE, I know I made some good and bad choices – swapping to Fusion 360 is definitely one of the better ones. Autodesk played a big part in getting us to where we are now, but I’m even more excited about what’s coming in the months ahead.”
“I signed up to be part of the Fusion 360 preview team, meaning I get early access to future functionality. I’ve already started using the new 5-axis deburr toolpath, and I love how it works. Even though it hasn’t been fully released yet, it’s allowing my team to improve the quality of the parts we make, making us more competitive. With so many powerful options coming, we are excited about the potential. Autodesk and Fusion 360 really have empowered our business.”
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