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Waterjet Cutting Builds Shop's Speed and Agility

LifeFitness

As a leading manufacturer of commercial and consumer cardio and strength equipment, Life Fitness depends on tradeshows for business growth and continued success. These events are where gym and fitness club owners, equipment dealers and other potential customers gather to evaluate and actually purchase products. So needless to say, new product development and production schedules at Life Fitness revolve around and are meticulously timed according to several key industry tradeshows for unveiling all its new units/pieces, systems and equipment.

Life Fitness has nine manufacturing plants globally, one of which is in Ramsey, Minnesota, where raw steel enters the 333,000-sq-ft facility and completely finished products exit. With 500 employees, Ramsey is the biggest of the company's plants and runs three shifts/seven days per week. It develops and manufactures Life Fitness and Hammer Strength product lines as well as generates a majority of the weldments for the company's cardio-equipment assembly plants. 

The Ramsey facility ships about 50,000 finished "strength" products/units per year, and customization is key to that line's popularity. The choice of features and options are virtually unlimited. Customers can get units in any color they desire, select from an array of upholstery types and stitching and opt for either standard or ergonomic handle styles.

Like many of the athletes who use its equipment, Life Fitness strives to build speed and agility, but in terms of its prototyping operations. The company must quickly respond to new demands and trends in fitness training with the continuous development of new and improved products, and do so ahead of the competition.

To keep pace design wise and work within its hectic tradeshow circuit, the Ramsey facility constantly evaluates the speed at which it builds prototypes. A critical part of those evaluations involves keeping abreast of advanced machining technology and determining if it could, in fact, help the facility's prototyping shop go from concepts to testable prototypes faster. Most recently, such an evaluation resulted in the incorporation of high performance abrasive waterjet cutting capability.

The Ramsey facility's prototype shop installed an OMAX 60120 JetMachining Center from OMAX Corporation. And, unlike the shop's previous plasma cutting systems limited to only metal, the OMAX 60120 cost-effectively processes all the different materials that Life Fitness works with while also providing quick and easy programming, simple setups and short job changeover time, as well as blazing fast part cutting.

With this increased machining speed, the shop is now able to handle almost all of its prototype part production in house to avoid having to deal with outside suppliers and their fluctuating schedules. Plus, abrasive waterjet cutting eliminates the need for any secondary slag clean-up milling operations required after plasma cutting a part.

The OMAX 60120 is a bridge-style abrasive waterjet machine with a work envelope that offers an X-Y cutting travel of 10' 6" x 5' 2" (3,200 mm x 1,575 mm). The machine features OMAX's Intelli-TRAX® high-precision linear drive technology designed exclusively for the abrasive waterjet environment, a Bulk Abrasive Delivery System and an extremely durable OMAX MAXJET®5i Nozzle. 

Equipped with an A-Jet cutting head accessary, the OMAX 60120 delivers repeatable, high precision, detailed 5-axis cutting. Such capability allows Life Fitness to cut weld bevels and do other prep work – operations that were previously impossible with its plasma equipment. The A-Jet cuts beveled edges up to 60 degrees at angles determined by the machine operator or by the part program. The head features a compact design and delivers a positioning accuracy of ± 0.09 degrees (± 6 arc minutes).

According to Westin Nelson, senior program manager for the commercial strength division at Life Fitness, the OMAX 60120 produces complete show-quality prototype parts the first time. Doing so, it eliminates any need for secondary weld-prep operations or those required to make parts aesthetically pleasing. The machine not only cuts part shapes/profiles, but also their other features such as holes and slots needed for assembly. Parts are so precise in terms of feature dimension and location that assembly operations go quicker and easier because individual parts line up with one another perfectly and without extra effort or rework.

"Before the OMAX, our prototype area was more like a blacksmith shop," said Nelson. "It was dirty with dust and slag on the floor from plasma cutting. We would cut parts and end up having to mill and grind the slag from the rough cut edges to make them presentable. And on top of this, we had to go back again and add the other features."

The speed and agility of the OMAX abrasive waterjet system also makes for faster prototype part iterations. If Life Fitness needs to tweak a design – make a part and/or feature a bit longer or shorter or change it somehow – it can in a matter of minutes. Plasma cutting, on the other hand, typically involved a 24-hour turnaround time.

Shorter job changeover times are another key benefit of the OMAX machine. Life Fitness quickly transitions from cutting one type of part to the next, and Nelson indicated that the machine's extremely fast and easy programming contributes significantly to that fact.

"The OMAX, in particular its programming software, is so user friendly and easy," he said. "We can literally have parts running in five minutes – develop the part in CAD, send it to the machine and start cutting."

From a prototyping as well as an R&D perspective, Life Fitness needs to cut more than just metals. It also works with rubber, plastic nylon, granite, ceramics and some proprietary materials. And according to Nelson, "the 60120 cuts all of it."

"When considering to step up our cutting capabilities and output, we could have approached it from the standpoint that 90 percent of the time we cut steel," explained Nelson. "But, we truly believed we would have passed up so many other opportunities to produce truly different and customized parts had we gone another route other than the OMAX machine."

As Life Fitness customers progress from entry level equipment to sophisticated high-end systems, customization becomes increasingly more important to them. Fitness clubs and Division I college football teams, for instance, all want to differentiate themselves from the competition. They do so by incorporating not only the highest quality, most advanced training systems, but also those that are a bit unique and personalized in one way or another.

The challenge, however, is to manufacture a standard product, yet customize it without adding significant cost or production time. To accomplish this, Life Fitness offers customers special features beyond color, fabric and handle choices. One of which is special signage that incorporates their school or facility names as well as logos and team mascots. And according to Nelson, the OMAX abrasive waterjet machine is the only way to generate the intricate designs and shapes of these signs and do so cost effectively.

"Before our waterjet, we lacked the production capability to quickly, economically or easily produce custom signage and other personalized details," said Nelson. "Now, customers send us an AI or .eps file of the logo they want, we import it to the OMAX software and run it."

Besides prototyping and custom signage, Life Fitness also cuts a lot of welding jigs and fixtures on its 60120. Every product the Ramsey facility produces involves, on average, six fixtures. And because the shop is so vertically integrated, it produces all of them in house, including those cut from 2" thick aluminum plate for robot welding operations.

Most other parts cut on the OMAX are aluminum and steel in thicknesses that range from 0.06" to 1.5". Most parts are cut from large 4' by 8' sheets, and the shop uses the OMAX nesting software to conserve material.

Two individuals are designated to run the OMAX at Life Fitness – Gary Poe, model shop supervisor, and Joe Radatz, prototype technician, while Nelson does some programming for it. The machine is in the prototyping area, and within a week of having it, the three of them were making parts.

"We looked at five waterjet suppliers along with OMAX," commented Nelson. "We evaluated every aspect including training, warranties, software costs, pump technology, time between pump rebuilds and machine installation requirements. Mistakenly, we assumed all the abrasive waterjet technology on the market was comparable. But we soon found out that OMAX far exceeded its competitors not only in advanced technology but also training, software and application support."

The OMAX at Life Fitness is as busy as can be and at full output. So Nelson plans to train more operators and may add more shifts on the machine. Nelson said that "Life Fitness has only just scratched the surface when it come to the full potential of abrasive waterjet cutting and plans to expand the process's role in the facility's operations."

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