Title: Easing the daily grind

Sub-title: Following the birth of his son, Jean-Pierre Vilanova decided that he wanted to build his grinding business into something he could pass on. His first step was to invest in productivity enhancing machinery.


By all definitions, Pierre Vilanova`s machine shop is a modest one. This recent French immigrant, who works out of a small industrial space in Granby Quebec, has built himself a nice market niche by producing high quality precision grinding work such as drill bits, end mill and step tools. If it was not for his wife Beatrice, who handles bookkeeping, answers the phone and does paperwork, Vilanova would have only the radio to keep him company.


But take a few steps into the shop, and it becomes immediately clear that Vilenova has big plans for Entreprise Affut-Mill, the business he founded early in the decade, working nights, while holding a day job to support his wife and five kids. For one, though he space he works in is small, it is spotless and extremely well-organized.


Vilenova’s production equipment is spaced meticulously and equidistantly and his machine tools are laid out in precise rows. But Vilenova’s piece de resistance is in the back; a spanking new CNC Walter Helitronic Power grinder, which stands out starkly amidst much of his older, though spotless, grinding equipment.


Vilenova’s new acquisition, -- which is designed both for regrind shops and for first time users, - cost him a pretty penny. But he expects to more than make up for it through the many productivity features that it provides, ranging from short cycle times, quicker setups, an autoloader and an automatic measuring/positioning system. “I have been working on manual grinders all of my life and I waited a long time, to get a computerized numerical controlled machine,” says Vilenova. “If I had realized how functional it was, I would probably have gotten one earlier.”


Growing a family, growing a business

While growing one’s business may seem like an obvious step, it was by no means clear that Vilenova needed the headaches, particularly during current tough economic times. Vilenova moved to Granby Quebec from France early in the decade, hauling a wife and three kids. Despite the fact that he knew no one here, he soon developed a reputation as one of the most skilled craftsman in the district.


That said, one asset Vilenova had, was lifelong experience in the grinding trade. His earliest memories data back to when his father used to bring him and his siblings into the family shop on weekends, where the kids would so all sorts of odd jobs, and where they all learnt the business from the ground up. However Vilenova’s father decided to leave the business to his oldest brother, so he decided to seek out his fortune in the new world. But like many Europeans, his taste for the continuity of being in a family business never left him.


After his son Mathys was born, Vilenova began to think about the future. “My first four children were daughters and I was not sure that they would like this kind of life,” said Vilenova. “But after Mathys came along, I began to want to leave something behind.” However to do that Vilenova know that he would first need to grow the company and to boost productivity.


About Entreprise Affut-Mill, and Vilanova

In a sense the CNC Walter Helitronic Power grinder is a perfect fit for Vilenova’s needs. Affut-Mill currently supplies regrinding services to more than a hundred clients. Most of these are machine shops, which Vilenova got to know through word of mouth recommendations. Vilenova’s services are crucial, because the tools and bits that he supplies are typically fit onto machines used to produce precision aircraft and automotive industry parts. Delays in production lines at these facilities can be extremely costly and Vilenova’s customers have come to rely on the fact that he can often deliver jobs the next day, by working late hours when needed.


Vilenova also supplies large companies such as GE which has a large plant in the area, but is cautious “You have to be careful taking large contracts,” says Vilanova. “They can allow your business to grow quite rapidly. But once the contract expires, you can never be too sure that it will be renewed. By keeping production diversified, you drastically reduce the risks that come from any sudden slowdown.”


About the Walter grinding equipment

John Manley, president of Machine Tool Systems Inc., the distributor who sold Vilenova his CNC power grinder, agrees that the machine was a perfect choice for Entreprise Affut-Mill. “The Walter Helitronic Power is very flexible, much faster than manual machines and can be put into operation quickly,” says Manley. “Furthermore once the machine has been programmed to produce one tool, you can just keep it running to pump out several more with little additional work. Since the process is mechanised, each of the parts produced is identical.”


The multi-axis CNC machines have several design characteristics which make them substantially more productive than earlier generation equipment says Manley. “In manual machines, the grinding wheel has no lubrication, so often these wheels break down not through wear, but because of the heat they generate.”


Another of the Walter Helitronic Power’s key benefits is that it works well on Carbide billets, the raw input of many modern tool bits. Carbide is far harder than stainless steel, which continues to be used in many tools and bits, however as a result, carbide is more challenging to machine and reshape. This sometimes creates challenges says Manley. “Carbide tools made with manual equipment tend to have microscopic stress fractures in them,” says Manley. “However producing tools using CNC machines substantially reduces this problem.”


From re-grinding to manufacturing

According to one of Villenova’s clients, his new machinery will increase Affut-Mill’s value as a supplier. “One of the key values he adds is that he can turn around a job fast,” says Jocelyn Lacoste, a buyer at Automatech. “The new equipment will make it much easier for him to do this.”


However now that he has all of this new equipment, Vilenova seems less inclined to content himself with merely doing regrinding work, an area that he has focused on in the past.  Hi latest plan is to move beyond mere grinding into original tool manufacturing. He has already made several tests, and the initial results have been good.


Ironically, once again it is his son Mathys, who is partially responsible for this change of plan. Mathys suffers from a particularly uncomfortable form of diabetes and Vilenova wants to help him by contributing a portion of the funds he earns from his manufacturing work towards diabetes research. “It is true that I am a workaholic and I love what I do,” says Vilenova. “But sometimes life has a funny way of telling you that there are bigger things out there. And if there is anything I can do to help along diabetes research in Canada, I’ll certainly give it my all.”


Sidebar: Keeping the work in-house

One of the biggest challenges facing conventional re-grinding shops that use manual equipment is that many of them are seeing business slip away from them, toward full-service operations. “Regrinding is a business model that is fading,” says John Manley, president of Machine Tolls Inc. “That’s because while many of them can do regular tool upgrades, they are not competitive when it comes to doing original manufacturing.”


However in recent years the problem is becoming more acute. “As many new shops equip themselves with CNC grinders, the productivity spikes they are seeing, are tempting many to seek out the maintenance and re-grind work in addition to the tool manufacturing,” says Manley. “That leaves shops that only do regrinding work vulnerable.”


The upshot is says Manley is that machine shops like Affut-Mill, who upgrade to CNC equipment not only open the door to enter new markets, their enhanced productivity also puts them in a better position to hold on to existing accounts as well.



Photo caption:  Jean-Pierre Vilanova gives his five-year old son Mathys pointers about how to program Affut-Mill’s new Walter CNC machine.



Machine Tool Systems Inc.


Walter Grinders:




Peter Diekmeyer (peter@peterdiekmeyer.com) is a Montreal-based freelance business and economics writer.





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