API technology helps speed programming & production at Fetzer Architectural Woodwork
August 13, 2021 | 10:31 am CDT
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Fetzer Architectural Woodwork’s basswood replica of a slot canyon, programmed and machined with the help of Mastercam API technology.

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A 5-axis Morbidelli m800 with a custom made cutter machining a molding profile.

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Erik Fetzer, owner and chief technology officer, and David Musser, senior programmer, on the shop floor at Fetzer Architectural Woodwork in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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A 5-axis Morbidelli m800 CNC machining center with a surfacing cutter run by Mastercam, is shown machining a wood panel.

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One of thousands of individual parts for the basswood slot canyon, programmed in Mastercam for 5-axis machining.

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The Mastercam toolpaths used to machine this slot canyon part were Drill, Contour, and Pocket. The ends were cut with a 1- inch saw using a Contour toolpath.

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David Musser, Fetzer Architectural Woodwork senior programmer, programs a 5-axis part in Mastercam.

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Poplar molding custom machined with Mastercam.

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J. Grant Ferrin, Fetzer 5-axis machine operator, manages the speeds and movement of the Morbidelli CNC as it performs intricate cuts and movements programmed in Mastercam.

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A closeup look at the 5-axis Morbidelli m800 machining center, tool changer, and head.

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The interior of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Conference Center, Salt Lake City, Utah. The wood panels were designed and machined by Fetzer Architectural Woodwork.

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The interior of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Conference Center, Salt Lake City, Utah. The wood panels were designed and machined by Fetzer Architectural Woodwork.

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Fetzer Architectural Woodwork headquarters in Utah.

For more than 110 years, Fetzer Architectural Woodwork has melded precision engineering with craftsmanship to create stunning architectural millwork and woodwork design. Founded in 1909 and based in Salt Lake City, Utah, Fetzer is known for its in-house veneering, a process that sets the company apart from its competitors. Rooted in tradition, the woodworker selects individual flitches of veneer, then stitches them together in the appropriate sequence on a Kuper veneer stitcher to create custom looks for each customer. Veneer faces, which are pressed onto wood panels, are then cut, sanded, and stained or painted.

“We have a wide variety of customers, and our mix varies year to year between retail and architectural markets,” said Erik Fetzer, owner and chief technology officer, and a fourth-generation Fetzer in the family business. “We usually work for general contractors and, in that work, we specialize in performing arts halls, public spaces, banks, law offices, and large hotels.”

Though the company does residential work, its niche is in the premium commercial, educational, and religious sectors of millwork. The jobs here are complex, massive in scope, and may require extensive materials acquisition efforts. Fetzer Architectural products can be found in structures throughout the world, including the Salt Lake City Conference Center. The building’s cherry interior is an impressive example of the intersection of manufacturing technology and art.

“It took one year to collect the wood,” said Fetzer in reference to the conference center. “We worked with architects and their designs and had zero manufacturing defects. It was a phenomenal project.”

Currently, the company employs 175 people, though that number is usually closer to 200. Company size is trending back up as revenues and hiring increase.

“We are feeling the effects of COVID this year,” said Fetzer regarding the impact of the pandemic. “We were smaller in 2020, but we seem to be back in our realm.”

Productivity enhanced

The company’s 120,000 square foot manufacturing facility is equipped with seven CNC machines and six seats of Mastercam CAD/CAM software (CNC Software, Inc.), four of which are upgraded with 3D software and the Multiaxis add-on. Many of Fetzer Architectural Woodwork'’s advanced projects rely on the ability to work with 3D models and produce them in wood to create carvings, complicated miters, and geometric shapes.

“We chose Mastercam because it works really well with simple geometry as well as complicated 3D applications,” said David Musser, senior programmer. “It does not limit us.”

Because every wood species has different characteristics, working with this medium presents challenges. From oak, maple, and cherry to sycamore, mahogany, and teak, programmers must consider the properties of a particular species and determine its response to manufacturing strategies. For example, how will the wood type react to being cut on a CNC machine or being cut cross grain? After careful consideration, the feasibility of meeting architect or drafter specifications is determined.

For a complicated project, a Fetzer programmer often uses a 5-axis Morbidelli CNC machining center and works closely with an operator to come up with a process to position parts and machine them in a way that is sustainable throughout the project.

“We work inside of Mastercam directly, producing the code that the machine then runs,” said Musser. “The software has a lot of built-in features for working with multiaxis machines. It allows us to cut those crazy miters and figure out the logistics of how thick, how wide, how to get an angle, and how to reproduce a part.”

Depending on the type of cut, Musser and his team rely on a set of multiaxis Dynamic Motion toolpaths. According to the company, programmers appreciate the built-in functionality of Dynamic Motion technology and its speedy, maximum material removal, which results in shorter cycle times and longer tool life. In addition to Dynamic toolpaths, the team uses Mastercam’s application programming interface (API) technology to develop functions that meet specific job needs. A tool to help programmers create software, an API helps deliver solutions by allowing different software programs to communicate with each other.

“Two years ago, we had quite a large project made from basswood that was meant to replicate a slot canyon look,” said Musser. “Thousands of parts had to be individually programmed. We were looking at the numbers — we just weren’t going to hit the deadline or the budget. It was going to be too big of a project.”

When the job landed in the CNC programming lab, the Fetzer team collaborated to find a feasible manufacturing process. Using Mastercam's API, programmers were able to identify parts that were repetitive, which allowed them to streamline and automate the entire process. CNC Software's team responsible for the development, support, and promotion of its software development kits (SDK) also helped on several Fetzer projects, including input on SDK libraries to help to develop the company’s own Mastercam add-ins. Once the CNC team identified Fetzer Architectural’s needs, it supplied code and project examples to the manufacturing team.

“Mastercam API technology allowed us to actually reduce the programming time to a fraction of what it would have been,” said Musser. “The project flowed smoothly from there on out. CNC programming time was reduced by 75 to 90 percent. That really opened the door to looking to other areas that we could expand into.”

3D designs made easy

Fetzer Architectural now has its own tool panel of built-in functions that are specific to its needs.  For example, the set-up process for programming individual 2D and 3D parts is now completely automated. In addition, the team is working on projects that require 3D CAD.

“We’ve automated taking those files and applying toolpaths and nesting them for our CNCs without any direct programming,” said Musser. “Our first products are now being produced from the tool panel, which will be used on this particular project through the middle of next year. We anticipate that it will almost eliminate our CNC programming time on this project because everything is automated.”

The company often receives projects that require highly detailed architectural features plus production of additional custom cabinets for office rooms or kitchens. In the past, producing such a high volume of parts using traditional workflow processes proved difficult. To remedy this issue, Fetzer programmers developed a system within the CAD program that allows them to speed up the process. The system is fully integrated with Mastercam APIs, which read the information, lay out the parts, and automatically program them throughout the process. The company notes APIs are invaluable for large jobs such as this, which could require hundreds of thousands of parts. Besides meeting the demands of high-volume jobs, Fetzer Architectural Woodwork produces complex parts with tight tolerances.

“We had a large, three-dimensional geometric-shaped panel that had to be sequenced in thin air,” said Musser. “We were able to use Mastercam to align all of our cuts perfectly so we could lay that out. The end-product was spectacular. The grain looked like it was flowing through a three-dimensional panel.”

To achieve this feat in wood, programmers took a 3D model and arranged the parts in CAD; they used Dynamic Motion toolpaths to rotate and move parts to align with the woodgrain. The parts were cut to shape and size for an almost perfect flow of the grain. The materials used were a medium-density fiberboard (MDF) core with fumed aspen veneer with a distinct grain pattern. Using the saw toolpath on a 3-axis milling machine allowed for removal of a minimal amount of material between parts, yielding material savings. Dozens of panels were cut and then assembled to create a sequence of 3D panels for placement in a large auditorium.

On another project, a network of huge ceiling panels was produced on a 5-axis Morbidelli CNC machining center using several Mastercam toolpaths, namely Flow, Curve, Swarf, and Parallel.

“We imported the 3D CAD file for each section we were working on — typically 2-foot by 2.5-foot,” said Musser. “Then, we leveraged Mastercam’s API technologies to create tools that allowed us to pick an edge and have the part be correctly orientated for machining. We streamlined the toolpath process through the API as well.”

When initially evaluating the ceiling panel project, team members analyzed their previous manufacturing process and identified redundant steps. They added in a few custom-made tools to automate those processes, which resulted in a 25-percent reduction in production time. According to Musser, when it comes to using Mastercam for multiaxis CNC machining, the sky is the limit.

“We can’t emphasize enough the power of API technology,” he said. “It’s not overly complicated to use and it is extremely powerful. Because this is a specialty avenue for Mastercam, CNC Software Inc.’s API/SDK team answers all direct questions that relate to the API. They’ve been really great in addressing anything that’s come up.”

Source: Chris Taylor, Senior Editor, Lynn Gorman Communications LLC. Chris is a business and industry journalist. She has been writing about manufacturing technology for 35 years.

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Chris Taylor