Moving the Metal: With eMachineShop's virtual factory, engineers can go online to design machined parts in this simplified CAD environment and get price quotes in a matter of minutes. Once an order is submitted, real machinists will turn out the parts in about three weeks.
Want to see a factory of the future? Well, turn on your computer. A New Jersey company called eMachineShop recently launched a new on-line factory that lets engineers quickly design, price, and order machined metal and plastic parts.
To use the system, go to www.emachineshop.com. There you can download the company's free CAD software. With its simplified interface, it takes just a few minutes to design parts in 2D or import an existing file in .dwg format. You can then "expand" the designs into a rudimentary 3D model by specifying z-axis values and a few geometric attributes for the various part features.
According to Jim Lewis, eMachineShop's president, the CAD system can tackle a wide variety of shapes, including rounded ones. "The only thing we can't do right now is complex 3D curves," he says, citing a computer mouse housing as the kind of part that would give the system some trouble. But the software, at just a few months old, is a work in progress, and Lewis plans to add more complex CAD functionality and file import options in future releases.
The eMachineShop software also includes a couple of design "wizards" that can automate some design tasks. One wizard will automatically generate spur gear geometry. The other models the sheet metal bending for enclosures, even allowing users to check the fit-up of the various enclosure parts. And even more wizards are planned for future releases.
Once the geometry has been established, the software's machining "expert system" evaluates each design for manufacturability. "One of our major technology innovations involved incorporating a huge amount of machining knowledge in the system," says Lewis. For example, the system can currently flag issues related to milling, bending, part finish, and more. The bottom line, says Lewis, is that the system "won't let users design any parts we can't make."
Next, the software then spits out a price quote. And once you place an order, eMachineShop then farms out the actual manufacturing work to a stable of brick-and-mortar machine shops. The actual parts can be on your doorstep in as little as three weeks, Lewis reports. That's not exactly overnight service. But Lewis argues that the real time advantage of the system comes down to streamlining the design process. To go from concept to a firm price quote in eMachineShop takes about 15 minutes. "Our experience tells us that the same process can take about 40 hours using traditional methods," Lewis says.
The company's customers have so far used the system mostly for prototyping and for short- to medium-run production. "We've had orders from a single part to about 20,000 parts," says Lewis. The system handles part sizes similar to those covered in traditional machine shops, and Lewis says orders have "ranged from tiny to a steel part 3 ft in diameter."
The company currently relies on about 20 manufacturing partners who together can offer three-axis CNC milling, turning, punching, blanking, wire EDM, laser cutting, bending, tapping, and water jet cutting. The system also supports plastic extrusion, thermoforming, and injection molding—this latter process thanks to proprietary mold production techniques. Surface finishes include brushing, plating, powder coating, anodizing, polishing, and grinding. As for materials, the system draws on a broad selection of metals, plastics, woods, and composites. The company's website contains a complete list.