Creativity and Customization Overcome An ‘Impossible’ Job

Customer and Industry

One of our primary customers, who had a longstanding relationship with our firm, approached us with a proposition so challenging that every competitor in the industry deemed it impossible. The customer — familiar with our history of creativity and willingness to stretch the limitations of their machines — was confident that we would find a solution, even if it meant developing custom machining equipment. And they were right.

The Challenges

The goal of this project was to fabricate a large vessel. One of the many challenges for this fabrication was the tightly-toleranced features with restricted machining access. The challenges were endless:

  • Space: The fabrication measured roughly 15 feet long by eight feet in diameter and weighed roughly 90,000 pounds. The job required precision work in a tight cavity with restricted clearance; there was very little room for cutting tool access. Specifications included unforgiving tolerances of less than five thousandths of an inch.
  • Lead: Not only did tricky welding challenges arise throughout, but one portion of the project required melting and pouring lead into the vessel. It was critical that the lead was solid with no air pockets, which is likely what stopped other firms from attempting the build.
  • Sealing: In the critical final stage, our team had to produce not only tightly toleranced machined dimensions, but also fine surface finish capable of forming a seal with the mating components. If we had not identified the machining constraints associated with this final step, years of work would have been lost.

The Journey

In order to overcome these challenges, we knew we had to build a custom, long-reach, low-clearance angle head to machine the inside of a cavity on a large, heavy fabrication.

This phase of the project was just one part of a much larger, long-running job — one that we had been working on for two and a half years. Although the customer didn't recognize the unique and complicated challenges associated with their design, we identified the unique specification requirements early on: long before it was time to get to work. Our manufacturing foresight and know-how allowed us to anticipate all of the complications with machining inside of this tight space, design a tool to do so, and produce the results our customer needed.

The Discovery

To meet the myriad challenges associated with difficult machining in a tight cavity of a large, heavy vessel, we knew we needed to create an angle head that didn't yet exist. It is possible to purchase angle heads, but none capable of reaching far enough in such a compact space. With no contractor to call and no angle head to buy, we had to adapt our machinery and go beyond an off-the-shelf solution.

So our team set out on their own, armed only with their creativity and experience.

Normally, an angle head reaches into a pocket and machines a surface at a 90-degree angle. The long length and low clearance required for this job, however, would have created intense and destructive vibrations.

The Solution

We built a mock-up to prove we could reach inside the space and complete the critical surface finish, which was the last piece of puzzle. Vibrations in the cutting tool would have made a very rough surface finish, and without a smooth surface finish, we would have been unable to create a proper seal.

Our team designed the angle head to be self-supporting on the machined surface. This let them build pads directly onto the surface to support the cutting head and alleviate vibration for a clean surface finish. It could then work exactly where it was needed without wasting any material.

The Results

Our team created a one-of-a-kind angle head that enabled its machines to get into a space that otherwise would have been out of reach. The result: a flawless, sealable surface finish and another "impossible" job completed.