Paragon D&E has installed what it claims is the largest double-gantry five-axis Fidia milling machine on the continent. The machine, which is about the size and length of a car wash, could easily cut the entire fuselage of an F-22 Raptor fighter jet within a hair's width of tolerance, the company says.
"Our new Fidia milling machine represents a significant leap forward for Paragon D&E as we supply industries that demand highly precise molds and machined parts that are also very large," said David Muir, President of the Grand Rapids, MI-based company that serves industries including aerospace, alternative energy, automotive, heavy truck, and nuclear. Aerospace is a big growth industry for the company, he added.
In addition to cutting large three-dimensional shapes from aluminum, steel, composite, or other materials, the Fidia machine can be fitted with sensors to precisely measure the shape of very large objects, allowing Paragon D&E to help customers reverse-engineer existing parts such as helicopter cockpits and airplane tail structures to produce replacements.
Purchased and installed at a cost of $3.5 million, it has a table 60 x 12 ft with virtually unlimited weight capacity. As a five-axis machine, the Fidia precisely controls the position of cutters as they move along the length, width, and depth of the material but also as the machining head is rotated along two additional axes.
"The capabilities of the Fidia will allow us to fabricate very large parts and molds with very sophisticated shapes," Muir said. "This is particularly important in the aerospace, automotive, and any other industries that require curved surfaces to accommodate the aerodynamics of their products."
To install the machine, the company first had to dig a rectangular trench 75 ft long, 30 ft wide, and 8 ft deep, which was then filled with a mixture developed by Michigan State University of concrete and small metal fibers to give extra rigidity as the base for the machine tool, allowing for its remarkable tolerance of only 0.005 in over a 60-ft distance. The thickness of an average human hair is about 0.004 in.
The cost of site preparation and the Fidia is only part of the investment that Paragon D&E has made in the new technology. "We've also made a significant investment in our Paragon team members,” said Muir. “We have a very deep pool of machining knowledge here, so we are really leveraging the team approach to projects."
Since the company was purchased in 1962 by Muir's grandfather, Fred M. Keller, Paragon D&E has established a reputation as a full-service mold supplier with engineering and build capability that has consistently invested in new technology. With annual sales of approximately $30 million, Paragon D&E employs about 140 skilled toolmakers, machinists, and support staff.
An advantage of the Fidia is that it can operate both gantry heads simultaneously using the same program, which means it can precisely position two milling heads to cut on the same job. That capability makes it possible for the machine to address both sides of an aircraft fuselage at the same time or for one cutter to perform rough milling, followed immediately by a second cutter that performs finish milling. The result is that some jobs can be performed in half the time it would take other companies.
"We do have some projects now for the U.S. Department of Defense that are slated for this machine," Muir said. In addition to being AS9100-certified for the manufacture of aerospace components, Paragon D&E is ISO-certified and registered under International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) as a secured facility for defense component manufacturing.