Technology Solutions: Angling for Angstroms in Optics

Technology Solutions: Angling for Angstroms in Optics


Contour Metrological & Manufacturing, Inc. (CMM) is a shop unlike most others. Specializing in very high-end optics, tools for optics and ultra-precision tooling primarily for military and aerospace customers, optimum finishes and accuracies are not only desired but required as well.

And unlike most accepted industry tooling requirements for accuracy within tenths or even a few ten thousandths, that isn’t quite good enough. Optics require a surface finish down to 30 angstroms.

What’s an angstrom? There are approximately 254 angstroms in one microinch or 0.001 millimeters! It’s really small.

As more and more business has come to Contour, Tom Sowden, president and founder, needed to keep updating his manufacturing technology to meet the needs of his customers.

Recently, he’s not only added Makino high-speed, hard-milling capabilities to the shop, he also added a precision Makino wire machine. And today, he’s able to work faster and smarter than ever before.

Technology for the Times

“When we bought our old wire machine, it was the top of the line,” says Sowden. “As time went on, we were losing accuracy and started to move things away from the wire and really began to use it as a last resort. So we knew it was time to look for a new machine.”

Sowden called Single Source Technologies (SST), his local Makino distributor, got a quote and did some test cuts on a Makino U32i. After the test results were in, CMM purchased a U32i and has been rethinking how work moves through the shop to capitalize on the benefits that have already been realized from the new machine.

“Programming on our old machine was extremely difficult,” says Chuck Fayed, general manager at CMM. “You couldn’t read the files of the program because it took the first and second lines and reversed them and it was not user-friendly. Now, an operator can look at the code and understand what the path actually is with the Makino.

“Before the operator was at my mercy and relied on me for any programming changes. Now, with the Makino, he can restart a program at any line number and make changes easily at the machine. This has already saved us a lot of valuable time.”

Fayed says he likes that the U32i uses regular G-code which is both easy to understand, and is translatable from the shop’s U32i wire EDM machine to its V33 vertical machining centers. “This has been a big help for us,” he explains.

“Before, everyone thought the wire programs were like some kind of black magic! I’d do the programming, give them a disk, they’d plug it in and it just worked. Now, they can look at it and understand what they’re doing on their own.”

Wire Satisfaction

In addition to the easy programming, Fayed has also been very impressed with other aspects of the U32i. “The Makino is far superior to our old machine on the time it takes to thread, the table movements, pickups, everything.”

He and Sowden are also very happy with the precision they get from the wire machine. “We’re literally trying to take things from other areas of the shop and move them to the wire to keep it busy, and having no problem doing that,” Fayed says. “It’s fast. It’s easy. It’s convenient.”

And because of the extremely fine surfaces required for the work that CMM produces, every piece goes through diamond turning before ever leaving the shop. “We used to have to jig grind holes after taking parts off our old wire, but now we can go to the wire, and hold the tolerances, the straightness and squareness we need to hold, so we don’t have to do any jig grinding. Parts can go directly from the wire into diamond turning. This saves us time and translates into savings for our customers.

“And, we used to only have one or two people that could run the old wire machine. Now pretty much anyone in the shop that can run the milling machine can run the wire. A guy that was doing two- or three-thousandths work on a milling machine is now doing two or three ten-thousandths work on the wire—the same guy!”

Vertical Performance

CMM also has two Makino V33 machining centers on the floor. The vertical machining center is used to cut everything from hardened steels to aluminum to glass and acrylics.

“We do things on the V33 that we never would have done on another mill,” says Fayed. “Things that we were forced to grind before because of the tolerances we had to hold can be done on the V33.” Contour is also using the mill to make a variety of custom workholders for the wire machine, and vice versa.

The shop is seeing fantastic time savings on the V33s, as it does with the wire. “One example is a part that we used to put on the jig grinder,” Sowden says. “It took 15 minutes to complete on the grinder. On a V33, each part is done in 57 seconds! That’s an enormous time savings. And, we’re seeing numbers like this on many applications—it’s not an anomaly.” And the ability to eliminate entire processes like jig grinding because of the surface finishes they get straight from the V33s will continue to save CMM time.

“In many cases we’re doing things that couldn’t be done otherwise,” he continues. “We’re moving work away from our grinding operations to just milling and we’re holding the tolerances and averaging a time savings of about 10 to one. For our sinker EDM, we’d have to make an electrode and EDM a part, but now we can mill it directly. It’s much quicker and doesn’t take any longer to machine the parts than it would have to cut an electrode, so we’re done in a heartbeat on the machine.”

Location, Location

Sowden and Fayed say that while they’re extremely impressed with the technology behind the Makino machines that gives them their precision and speed, another factor in their decision to go with Makino is having the company and SST literally up the street from their shop.

“Having Makino and SST so nearby is great. The responsiveness and quality of service personnel to come in and get the machines up and running if there is ever a problem—to some guys it’s more important than the machine itself. It’s great to know that Makino and SST are right there, even if we never need them to come into the shop. Just knowing they could if they had to is a great comfort, and something we can assure our customers, also.”

Becoming an Optics Guru

When Tom Sowden started his apprenticeship, he did it as a way to take a break from college and make some money. He was lamenting to his father that he was tired of living the life of a broke college student, so his dad helped him get a job. He stayed in school while he finished his apprenticeship, and found he really enjoyed working on the NC machine in the shop where he was employed.

But after graduation, when he found out a company down the street had bought a CNC jig grinder, he went to work for them. “I had a college background, I knew about computers, and I was hired to make it work. So I spent my time writing software to program it,” Sowden recalls.

"One example is a part that we used to put on the jig grinder, it took 15 minutes to complete on the grinder. On the V33, each part is done in 57 seconds!"

In the mid-1970s, Polaroid approached his company after deciding to make its own camera with plastic optics instead of glass. The company was out to prove that plastic optics could be made just as well as glass optics for camera applications.

“As far as I was concerned, they wanted to cut an equation into a part and that’s what I was used to doing. After we successfully completed the work for Polaroid, another company (which is now part of 3M) came to us and wanted to make the same sort of product, so I made it for them. For the next 17 years of my career, I made nothing but optics for that company. I moved from one shop to another more than once, and they came with me. That’s how I became a specialist in optical molds and parts.”

Sowden remains a student and continues to learn how to improve his craft through embracing new technology like what he’s seen on his newest Makino equipment.

“I am fortunate,” Sowden continues, “because I have been able to marry my education with my trade, and not everyone gets to do that. And, I truly, genuinely like it. I enjoyed my trade then and I still enjoy it today, and that’s so important in being successful. The technology we’re seeing on machines like the V33 and U32i makes it easier to keep that excitement alive.”

Contour Metrological can be contacted at 248-273-1111 or online at