CNC machining equipment can be a double-edged sword to many engine builders that promises flexibility and profitability, yet often requires a significant upfront investment. As with any piece of equipment, there’s no “one size fits all” solution, and three top engine builders explain how they overcame the fear of financing and failure to find success with CNC.
Pat McCreery from Nyes Automotive in Muncie, IN, says CNC equipment has opened up his shop’s capabilities and allowed him to easily service the street gas and performance diesel customer.
“Our operation is multifaceted, I guess, is the big way to put it,” says McCreery. “We have some customers that we do work for completely behind the scenes, so no one really knows about it – some really major players. We don’t advertise those relationships, but because of some of those needs we’ve been able to branch into other areas.”
The reason McCreery went down the CNC path, he says, is because the manual equipment he was using eight years ago required too much time and babysitting. “When it comes time to machine a block, put it in the machine, level it, measure piston-to-deck, figure out where everything was, you know, you’d have seven or eight hours in machine work reasonably easy. You had to stand there the entire time it was running – with CNC we took an eight hour block preparation time down to an hour and a half.”
For Tony Salloum, of VAC Motorsports in Philadelphia, expanding his machining capabilities was originally a matter of survival.
“In the early ’90s, we were an autobody shop, and a show and racecar builder. My neighbors – two brothers – had a machine shop. The older one was retiring and the younger brother, who was in his early 50s, didn’t want to do it all on his own. They offered the shop to me, and I thought ‘Hey, if I don’t buy it, I’m really going to be in trouble because that was the machine shop I depended on to do my engine work and do some of my custom machining.’”
He purchased the machine shop by necessity and got into CNC for the same reason. “We were doing roll cages, and we needed parts. And every time I tried to get a subcontractor, it drove me crazy, because I couldn’t get parts I needed when I needed them. The companies that were good at CNC, were focused on military work or on medical work. High dollar, high volume. I couldn’t really find anybody to meet my needs. So I said, well, you know what? I’m going to buy a machine.”
Jeremy Wagler, Wagler Competition, Odon, IN, says his experience in standard automotive repair begat the performance side of his business which, like Salloum, meant he needed to have custom machining done. We’re building competition diesels, primarily Duramax, and and as far as the CNC world, I couldn’t get any of the machine shops to do what I wanted them to do. I just bought a machine and started doing it myself.”
Wagler says after first buying his equipment, his second move with CNC was to hire a local programmer. “He was working for government, and he came in and helped me start programming, and away we went.”
Like Salloum, Wagler says the custom parts he wanted – transmission coolers, transmission filter kits, engine-related parts and custom one-off parts – weren’t attractive to his local CNC machine shop sources. “I just couldn’t get what I needed. The local guys with the CNC machines are so busy running all the government parts that they didn’t want to hurt their business making my one-off parts. And the only way you can test something is to build it and put it to the test.”
Many of the CNC machine in use today are found in high-end performance shops, such as Nyes, VAC and Wagler, with good reason – they require high volume and high levels of precision. That isn’t to suggest that they’re simply producing the same product over and over again.
“Every block has a build sheet on the block, so we document every spec and every dimension,” McCreery says. “We don’t necessarily build the exact same thing every time. We might build two or three alike but it’s usually different every time. And every customer wants something just a hair different. But our block build sheet for each one allow the machine guys to just set all the clearances where they’re needed and not have to change anything other than the tool sizes, basically.”
McCreery says his shop’s block machine runs at least 35 hours in a 40-hour week, and the head porting machine is nearly as active, being used at least 30 hours per week.
Wagler agrees that keeping his equipment in use has not been a problem.
“We were already doing truck repairs and engine builds and all that. But put that on the CNC side of it, now, instead of waiting weeks or months on a part, we go over and tell them what we want and we can have it within a couple hours. So that’s the huge benefit of having the equipment here. And the manpower to do it.
We’re always busy,” he says. “Even with seven or eight machines now, we’re getting ready to purchase another one because we’re running behind and we have customers screaming at us.”
Key business for Wagler has been diesel engine components, including blocks and heads machined out of solid billet aluminum. “We’ve stayed focused on that. The gas guys have called and wanted us to do stuff, but we’ve just kind of stayed focused with the diesel stuff. We’re plenty busy with that, and it has definitely helped expand. Without the equipment, we wouldn’t be able to do any of the work that we’re doing for other shops.”
VAC’s Salloum says he’s doing engines and accessory parts for many different types of cars, with a strong affiliation BMW. He relies on CNC for cylinder head porting as well, with a regular Chevrolet customer as well as a very active Subaru customer.
“My customer in Maryland is involved with one-mile runs and crazy stuff like 1,000+ horsepower at the wheels. I created one CNC program that works across the different Subaru engine platforms, Salloum says. “They may have different year castings, different identification marks and be called different things, but the port design I’ve done manages to clean everything up across the board, whether they’re W heads, or D, or B, or whatever.”
VAC’s CNC expertise saved Salloum’s customer a fair amount of money in development, he says. “The best part of it is that one port on the Subaru is a nightmare. From what I can tell, nobody was able to go through it by CNC. So I had a special tool made and used some of my, I guess, expertise and knowledge and general manufacturing skills to be able to go through that. We had to use up about 58 and 1/2 degrees of my machine’s 60 degree tilt to get through that port. It takes more time because I got to go through it three different times with different tools. But it works, and it repeats, and it flows – and it’s kind of like a work of art.”
One of the immediate hurdles CNC machines present to the typical engine builder are their price tags and all of our interview subjects admit to swallowing hard when faced with the investement. However, as one industry leader said “People always look at the sticker and think used is better but they should talk to their CPA and find out that automation is much more profitable! A few minutes on each job may not seem like much, but add it up over a year and then 5 years and then 10 years and more over the life of a machine!”
Other frequent challenges, such as integration into the shop layout or employee acceptance, are relatively easy to overcome, say experts.
“Financing can be a challenge,” says McCreery, “but it all worked out. The machines are the size of a car – they’re big machines. So be prepared for that. We really weren’t, but we felt it was worth it because it makes our operations so much better.”
“It is a leap of faith to buy an expensive machine like that and expect to have it pay for itself, when you don’t know how to use it, like I did,” explains Salloum. “I think potential buyers just really need to be honest with themselves. First, if you already have volume, that’s a good start. In other words, if you’re overwhelmed, you’re doing way too much manual labor, and you just can’t keep up because you have so much work that you’re not producing the work fast enough, then that’s a solid justification for a machine.”
Wagler encourages prospective buyers to get as much detail about ancillary costs as possible. Don’t forget that tooling isn’t indestructible.
“When we first started out it was tough adding all the necessities, but but now I’m glad we have it because of the simple fact we can make whatever we need,” Wagler says.
Salloum says the decision to join the computer generation took him awhile.
“On the cylinder heads, the manual porting is a pain in the butt – frankly, I hate doing it. I was subcrontracting a lot of that work to a friend with an engine shop and even on top of what I was doing myself I still subcontracted out over $100,000 worth of labor. I figured it’s about time I start looking at this,” he says.
The learning curve for his equipment wasn’t nearly as difficult as he might have expected.”My machine sat idle for about six months and then all of a sudden it started to spit out parts. How much consistency do you need in your work? Do you want to have unique designs? Do you want to make them look all the same all the time? Because you’re not going to be able to do that manually, at least not in the same amount of time.”
As others and we have cautioned, one CNC solution isn’t necessarily right for every shop. Each of our engine building interviewees say the “how to implement” and “what to buy” questions each need to be answered on a case by case basis. However, in many cases, a progressive engine builder can benefit from modern machines.
Wagler says, “If they’re big enough to where they’re getting parts made right now, they could probably pay for the machine by just making their own parts. If they’re not, if they’re using off-the-shelf parts, it probably wouldn’t be beneficial. But if there are engine shops that are doing one-offs and custom builds, that’s where you would definitely benefit from it.”
McCreery says having those unique specialized capabilities is more important now than it has ever been. “I didn’t really train my employees to use the equipment first – I did all the training on my machines myself, and I then I trained somebody. I truly believe that as an owner, I need to know how to do everying in the building correctly and be the smartest guy in the shop. Not that I am, necessarily, but I feel that I should be able to walk up to any position or any job and do it as well as any of my employees.”
Times change, says McCreery, and his approach to new technology is to first understand the old.
“I think the best CNC operator is a guy who understands machining. He undertands older machines enough to know when it is going to crash because it doesn’t have enough power or clamping strength. Talented machinists who know anything about machining – that’s the perfect fit.”
To these engine builders, the challenges have been well worth the benefits. “It’s awfully nice to know that you can hit the start button, go answer the phone or take care of something else and come back and the operations done.”
Of course, it may be difficult to give up some of your control to a machine, McCreery acknowledges – but it isn’t as painful as you may think. “Of course you need to check your work to make sure it’s right – but it’s going to be right. n
Thanks to Centroid Performance Equipment, Sunnen Products and Rottler Manufacturing for their assistance with this article. For more information on CNC machining equipment, search for past Engine Builder articles at our web site, www.enginebuildermag.com.