“We don’t have a sign out front, so no one would even know we are here,” laughs Will Best, the owner of Best Machine & Fabrication.
This kind of invisibility does not concern Best because business is booming. His seven-year-old company designs and fabricates just about anything and everything in batches from one-off jobs to large production runs.
Best’s 9,000-sq.-ft. machine and fabrication shop is in North Carolina, about an hour and a half drive southeast of the Raleigh-Durham area. The building is unmarked and set back from the road, but the customers always find the shop, with some arriving from as far away as California.
Custom equipment design is something that Best knows well and it’s what draws customers to Best Machine & Fabrication. As a trained and certified mechanical engineer, Best began his career doing similar work for another equipment manufacturer, GXi Outdoor Power.
GXi manufactures landscaping equipment, and Best collected several patents for power equipment drive systems, brake assemblies and transmissions as a company project manager. His talents were recognized quickly, and he was soon promoted to vice president of engineering, a position he remained in until he started his own company in 2014.
With Best’s strengths in engineering, production and process improvements, Best Machine & Fabrication found a niche helping other manufacturers set up and improve their own production lines and equipment. Like a consulting firm or an external engineering department, Best and a lean team of 10 people – designers, machinists, welders and fabricators – listen to the customer and develop solutions that not only get the job done but provide competitive advantages, as well.
“We can machine and fabricate almost anything the customer needs,” Best explains. “We’re flexible, too, so we can retrofit and modify any existing piece of equipment. We design and fabricate custom welding fixtures for manual and robotic cells. We integrate robotics from Kuka and ABB for welding, material handling and assembly. We make fixtures that can pass or fail parts and build assembly fixtures with workstation tables.”
One thing the shop couldn’t do, however, was waterjet machining, which Best outsourced in the beginning because it just made sense. The pricing was reasonable and his relationship with the job shop that did the cutting was solid. The only issue was the job shop is a two-hour drive away, round trip. This arrangement worked for five years, but a new business opportunity challenged Best to rethink how he was managing operations.
“The job was making two custom-designed jar-filling machines for a local pickle plant,” Best says. “We needed to cut stainless steel as well as UHMW [ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene, or plastics] and other food-safe materials. We built these machines using standard stainless flat bar stock in our machine shop. The parts we couldn’t make went to the waterjet job shop.”
When Best won more jobs related to food processing and stainless steel cutting, he considered purchasing another CNC milling machine and hiring two more machinists. This would mean adding headcount and an increase in manual work. However, he decided against this because these jobs only accounted for a year’s worth of work. He also knew it was getting harder to accept the project delays that outsourcing creates, so two years ago, he began shopping for a waterjet.
“I knew that we were in a growth spurt and needed automated equipment,” Best explains. “The debate was won by waterjet because it can cut basically any material up to 10 in. to 12 in. thick. The nature of custom projects means we use different types of materials – aluminum, plastics, Lexan [polycarbonate], carbon steel, stainless steel, tool steels, etc.
“The waterjet doesn’t produce a heat-affected zone and maintains the machinable surface,” he adds. “I knew not having a waterjet was limiting our growth, but I needed to find
a waterjet that was cost-effective and would allow us to remain lean and nimble yet speed up the turnarounds.”
Best researched several waterjet manufacturers before choosing WardJet’s X-1530. This machine is a 5-ft.-by-10-ft. mid-sized table with a 5-axis Apex 60 cutting head that bevels up to 60 degrees and features a Hypertherm HyPrecision P-50 intensifier pump. The job shop Best outsourced to also had a Hypertherm intensifier, so he felt confident about the pump; and the WardJet system can process large industrial-sized jobs, while not taking up too much floor space in the shop.
“Machine shop milling machines are programmable but labor intensive,” he says. “With the addition of the waterjet, two machinists alone can run the entire shop. For instance, we did a 10-hour cut on a 1/2-in. piece of stainless plate that ran virtually unattended, and the project was finished in two days. Prior to our waterjet, that same job would have taken close to a week with our saw and mills and even longer when we outsourced the rest of the work.”
Hitting its stride
Not only did in-house waterjet cutting shorten delivery times, reduce staffing and improve assembly line throughput, but Best achieved tighter tolerances. Because of WardJet’s built-in taper compensation and the Apex 60’s ability to guide the cutting head smoothly, cuts are so precise that the shop no longer needs to clear holes with a drill before tapping. Everything is now cut at once on the waterjet.
“We needed the part accuracy and precision of machining centers, and WardJet’s Apex 60 5-axis cutting mechanism delivered the part accuracy and quality required for our jobs,” Best says. “The heartbeat of the machine is the Hypertherm intensifier and the power it sustains to the nozzle. We have the 50-hp pump and routine maintenance is straightforward. The support from WardJet and Hypertherm has been great, as well.”
Best Machine & Fabrication is really hitting its stride now. In the last year, the shop processed roughly 200,000 lbs. of stainless and carbon steels on the new waterjet, and a series of racks were just installed that will improve the flow of materials to the waterjet.
“We’ve been awarded multiple jobs that require a substantial amount of stainless cutting,” Best shares. “Processing jobs is just easier now. Sometimes turnaround from design, cut, fabricate, weld and delivery can be completed within a week. Previously, these same projects would have taken three weeks or more because we would have to get in line behind the waterjet job shop’s other work. Now, we control the flow of materials.”