Aluminum drilling technology boosts roof-rail production

Features - Drilling

JAC Products implemented flex-shaft drills from Suhner to boost output 70%.

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JAC Products is a leading roof-rail producer for automakers in North America, producing as many as 200,000 rail sets per year.
All photos courtesy of Suhner

Franklin, Georgia-based JAC Products puts 30-to-40 million holes into approximately 6 million pieces of extruded and formed aluminum each year. The products made at this facility are used as roof-rack rails on nearly every major automobile, minivan, and truck brand.

JAC Tool Room and Die Shop Manager Mike Traylor notes, “We build and maintain nearly all our own machinery here in our factory. That means the whole team must keep striving to find greater efficiencies and new ideas.”

As a vertically integrated manufacturer, JAC operates hundreds of drilling stations in Franklin, and the company extrudes millions of pounds of aluminum annually from 6061, 6063, and 6463 alloys. The extruded shapes then move to the fabrication department, where they’re formed and drilled on highly automated equipment to produce the finished products. Following a decorative and wear-resistant finishing operation, JAC performs final assembly and ships products directly to customer assembly lines.

A tour of the JAC facility strikes the visitor in several ways. First, there is a steady flow of material between departments and very little wasted motion, as every station is dedicated to producing an average of 100,000-to-200,000 left- and right-side rail sets per year for each automobile model.

Also notable is the openness of the machinery. Traylor says Suhner’s Machining Division in nearby Rome, Georgia, supplies an assortment of flex-shaft and direct-motor-driven drilling units for the company’s internally designed production equipment. The flex-shaft design removes drive motors from the cutting area, making accessibility much better for operators and maintenance personnel. This configuration also improves access to other equipment such as laser trackers and position sensors.

“We get up to 70% more output from our equipment since we began using the Suhner solutions for our drilling,” Traylor explains.

He adds that previous drills were prone to breakdowns and service problems, which caused unacceptable delays in production, especially as the industry transitioned to just-in-time (JIT) delivery.

Suhner’s flex-shaft drilling unit design allows JAC Products to place drive motors outside of machine housings, freeing space within the machine for operators and maintenance personnel.

“If JAC was going to keep up with JIT, we needed a more reliable supplier and better ergonomics on our equipment to improve the output,” Traylor says. He contacted an associate from a previous company relationship, Charles Stitcher, the regional marketing manager from Suhner, who presented his company’s solutions in flex-shaft and related drilling devices. “It was a light bulb moment for our company because we knew we’d found an answer to a lot of our challenges.”

Taking motors out of the drilling area gave JAC operators freer access to the work product, while maintenance personnel could access a single manifold in many cases to do repairs, routine maintenance, or replace components.

Most of JAC’s machines are dedicated pieces of equipment, used to produce a single rail set for a particular model, then retrofitted or rebuilt for the next generation, next model year design, or a completely different vehicle by Traylor’s team. The flex-shaft design gave the machine building and maintenance group a significant advantage and it has continued to benefit JAC.

“We can now use a more compact work area concept, which saves operator steps. It seems like a little thing, but when you do the math and the motion study, it represents a huge annual savings for our company, without sacrificing any safety considerations for our workforce.”

JAC understands the fabrication process for putting holes into aluminum, whether for roof mounting, rivet placement, or trim assembly. Often, the angle of the drill must be oriented to the surface of the workpiece, rather than in a typical X-Y planar arrangement. Here again, Suhner’s flex-shaft design pays big dividends for the machine designers at JAC, allowing them to position the drilling mechanisms in various configurations and tighter proximities. This enables the required accuracies, secondary counterbore operations, or other processing steps. After working on nearly 500 machine builds at JAC, Traylor says he’s been very impressed with the flex shaft drill and its adaptability on a wide variety of applications.

“On one rail set for a Ford vehicle and another for a Toyota vehicle, the old way would have involved one operator performing all the drilling, one step at a time. Today, we have up to 11 drills and a cutoff operation, all performed at once. The savings in setup time alone are off the chart.”

He cites another job where the output was previously 1,200 sets per day and is now 1,200 per hour.

Not all drilling is done with flex shaft models. Several dedicated machining operations use various Suhner motor-mounted drills, including a specially designed system for sawing. (See sidebar, pg. 11.)

JAC Senior Launch Manager Alberto Blanco says, “We need to hold ±0.1mm-to-0.2mm tolerances on the drilling and ±0.5mm on our cutoff lengths for our customers, so the Suhner equipment capability has been very favorable in helping us deliver our value proposition to customers.”

Traylor adds that the drills are used virtually non-stop, so wear is inevitable – making Suhner rebuild kits with O-rings and seals critical for easy maintenance.

Jeff Cavalier, JAC’s engineering & facilities manager concludes, “With the support we get from Suhner, we know Mike and his team can make it happen, every day, creating and maintaining the machines that get the job done for our customers. That’s a nice feeling.”

JAC Products https://www.jacproducts.com

Suhner Machining Division https://www.suhner-machining.com