Using Experience and Expertise to Solve Engineering Challenges
Recently, we asked one of our engineers to talk about what it’s like to work in the engineering department at Rathburn. Derek Horner is a Process Engineer with responsibilities including CNC milling/turning process design, programming and development of inspection criteria to produce precision parts for our customers.
“As a process engineer and CNC programmer, I like a good challenge,” Derek says. “For example, sometimes we receive prints from customers that don’t match what we’ve done before and may not even have all the details we need to make the part. We don’t look at those as problems. They are challenges. Like solving a puzzle. We have confidence we can solve the puzzle and make the part because of what we’ve made in the past combined with the ingenuity of our team.”
“This is a job that can’t be faked,” he continues. “A really good programmer can visualize tool paths in their mind just by reading the program that is written. That comes over time and with experience. CAM systems have come a long way in the last 20 years, but they still can’t beat the knowledge of a master CNC programmer.”
Derek adds: “At Rathburn, we use Mastercam as our CAM software. I consider it to be the best available. It can turn a mediocre programmer into a good one. In the hands of a master programmer, Mastercam can do almost anything. We also use Solidworks CAD software to support minor design modifications for our customers, as well as to create 3D models for our Hexagon CMM. Mastercam and Solidworks used together can be very powerful.”
While important, programming isn’t done in isolation at Rathburn. It’s done as part of the greater team effort. This is evidenced in the repeat batch work the company has managed for its 40-year history. Teams work together after each production run to identify lessons learned and find opportunities for improvement the next time. Each team can review data and get feedback from the operator plus process and quality engineers to figure out how to improve in areas including tooling selection, workflow, equipment selection, cycle times, measurement criteria, and more. Those improvements allow for better output and better parts for Rathburn’s customers.
Getting hands-on experience is critical for Derek. And part of the magic is in the range of work being done. “Having the opportunity to hone your skills as a CNC programmer and process engineer with a variety of new work at Rathburn is exciting,” he says. “We get a lot of batch production work—which means we produce a broader range of parts than we might if we were only running high yields for huge companies.”
Working through different types of parts requires the team to spend a little extra time at the start of projects to get things right. Using the puzzle analogy again, this is where the team works together to understand the type of puzzle they’re solving and how many pieces they’ll have to work on.
“Spending the time upfront to thoroughly understand both the print and the application of the component as part of a larger assembly enables you to go into a job with a good plan,” Derek says. “Experience also plays a big part here because it allows you to draw on prior challenges and not have to start completely from a blank sheet of paper every time.”
That same experience can help you get it right the first time. “It’s a great feeling when that plan comes to fruition on the first pass,” he notes. However, some jobs are just more complex or have issues you’ve never seen before. When that happens, Derek says it’s important to stay patient, persistent, and never give up. “Engineering and programming are all about solving problems. Sometimes those problems are easy to solve, and sometimes they’re really complex. It can be frustrating when the solutions don’t come fast or easily, but that’s what makes the job worthwhile. We dig in and find ways to help our customers succeed.”
We’re proud of the way our teams work together to solve problems and produce precision parts for our customers every day. It’s how we’ve operated for more than 40 years and is an important part of what makes Rathburn the kind of company people want to work for and with. It’s just how we do things at Rathburn.