Roncelli Plastics is headed into their 50th year of business, and even after 30+ years with the company CEO Riley Cole is still blown away by the parts and processes.
The San Gabriel valley was ripe with manufacturing in 1969 when Gino Roncelli set up shop in Monrovia, Ca. The early days saw every job that could be cut on a band saw, drilled on a drill press, or machined on a manual lathe and Bridgeport mill come through the door. All work was welcome, as long as it wasn’t metal. “Our concentration has always been with non-metallic,” tells Roncelli Plastic’s CEO Riley Cole. “Over the years the materials and our abilities have changed, but not our core focus. I’ve been with the company for 36 years and the parts we make now just blow my mind. We are manufacturing parts that were not possible even 5 years ago.” Roncelli Plastics has come along way since the days of making circuit type boards and gauge windows. They grew with the technology and began manufacturing mechanical parts out of generic materials like Nylon or Delrin. Now it is high tech materials like PEEK, Torlon and Vespel that get manufactured on 5 axis machining centers.
Roncelli Plastics was an early adopter of CNC and they continue to upgrade their manufacturing technologies. “We got our first CNC machine tool in the early 80’s,” details Riley. “It was a 3- dimensional router. That led us to CNC milling and CNC turning soon after.” With 42,000 sq.ft. Roncelli Plastics has 30 different CNC machining centers spread between three primary cells and 120 employees to meet the growing demands of their customers. “We don’t have a single brand of mills or lathes,” explains Chris Cole, Roncelli Plastic’s third generation of management and new president and COO. “We work with a variety of manufacturers and pick the machines that best suit our manufacturing needs. Right now, we’re utilizing Haas, Doosan, Mori Seiki, Okuma, Star, and RoboDrill for tight tolerance machining on non-metallics, laminates and composites. Our work tends to be more complex than your average job shop, but we don’t have any products of our own designs. I’d label us as a build to print contract manufacturer specializing in 5 axis machining of exotic materials.”
“CNC West did a feature on us 15 years ago,” tells Riley. “The difference in the company then and now is night and day.” “Back then our AS and ISO certifications meant something different to our customers,” adds Chris. “Back then it was a big selling point, now it’s just expected. So we’re looking towards what that next level of expectations will be. ISO27001, which is the new security standard, is on the radar. Our government customers are saying having that is a plus today, which means it will be a pre-requisite down the road.” Roncelli Plastics is AS9100, ISO 13485, ISO 9001 and ITAR registered with the majority of their customers being in the aerospace, space, semiconductor and medical industries. “All our customers have two things in common,” continues Chris. “They demand precision and cleanliness. To achieve this we continually invest back into the company via technology and systems. FOD can destroy machines or potentially harm people, so we need to make sure the shop environment stays as clean as possible.” Along with state of the art CNC, Roncelli Plastics has an extensive 3D printing department, a Class 1000 clean room, temperature controlled manufacturing cells, and robotic automation.
3D printing started as kind of a science experiment for Roncelli Plastics in 2009. As the technology improved, Roncelli Plastics searched for innovative ways to utilize and profit from this rapidly growing manufacturing process. “3D printing has become a big part of what we do in a variety of ways,” explains Chris. “Most 3D print houses are essentially model makers. They print it, and then you paint it up and make it look nice. We are a fabricator. We know what our customers demand as far as tolerances go and we use 3D printing for actual parts, parts that are flying today.” Post processing is an avenue that many traditional 3D printing companies don’t offer, let alone have in-house. Roncelli Plastics will 3D print a near net shape then place the part on one of their 5- axis mills and finish it with features too difficult to do directly on the 3D printer. They clean it, install any inserts, and assemble it for shipping to the customer. “We can achieve what is needed through our complex secondary operations,” continues Chris. “You see the most degradation in the Z because the material is fused on that axis. If it meets the structural demands of the spec sheet, 3D printing is an efficient method to produce parts.” Roncelli Plastics has two big production Fortus 3D printers and another half dozen smaller units that they use for production as well as internal needs. “Internally we use our 3D printers often for fixturing,” describes Chris. “Fixtures on non-metallics have the same basic characteristics as you’ll find in any machine shop. Vices, jaws and so forth still hold the part, but we can print our own custom pieces to speed up the process.” They will print the fixture overnight then finish with a quick clean up before it’s ready to roll. “We don’t have to take time away from our production cells to machine fixtures. It is pretty handy.”
Tight tolerance machining of non-metallics has a unique set of parameters different to that of standard materials used in the aerospace and medical industries. Non-metallics typically are more susceptible to environmental changes than their metal counterparts. “The laminates we could machine in the parking lot,” jokes Chris and Riley. “Plastics generally speaking expand and contract at a rate of ten times that of most metals. Our tight tolerance parts regularly see us holding 5 to 10 thousandths.” A slight change of 5 degrees in temperature can be the difference of them staying within spec or being out. Before having temperature controlled machining cells Roncelli Plastics would have employees come in early in the morning to run a part, then if need be finish the run later that night. “Here in So-Cal it can get hot in the shop,” details Riley. “Currently we have two of our three machining cells completely regulated at a steady and cool 68 degrees. The employees love it, and our customers appreciate our dedication to manufacturing precise parts. We started by climatizing our rapid prototype cell. The quick turn department was the smallest cell, and gave us a way to test out the benefits with the least amount of expenditure.” Right away they noticed less of a variance from part to part and how much easier it was for the operator to maintain the needed tolerances. The last of the three cells is scheduled to get their temperature controlled work environment later this year.
Like any job shop “how fast can I get it” is a daily ask from Roncelli’s customers. Being as lean as possible is one way they stay ahead. “We just added robots to our workflow and let me say how much we love them,” touts Chris. “It is our first foray into full blown automation and the results have exceeded our expectations. The Rethink Sawyer robots came on line less than six months ago and have added 24/7 lights out capabilities to our machining.” The Sawyer robot is a highly deployable automated solution with the flexibility to move between mills and lathes depending on the need. They have two now and will be ordering more. Management was initially concerned about the perception of adding such automation, but employees have latched on to the Sawyers and are learning new skills. “Our goal was not to eliminate jobs, but to grow the company,” details Riley. “Over the next ten years you will see more and more automation and trained people to work with that automation will have a higher level of demand than those who didn’t embrace the technology. Our employees stay with us a long time, but even if they go somewhere else we’re glad to see them expanding their skillset.” The Sawyer robots are amazingly flexible with the ability to be moved from location to location. You set points around the robot with its vision system. It then knows exactly where to pick up and drop parts. Every joint has force controls so it can seat parts as needed, but its smart enough to know if it comes into contact with something it shouldn’t. The Sawyers don’t require a big fence around them to work, allowing them to safely operate side by side with humans.
Roncelli Plastics has served the industry for 50 years, providing high quality made in America parts to their customers. Seeing out the next 50 years will require them to stay at the forefront of technology. “We dedicate 100 hours a month looking at new technology,” tells Chris. “We have a group that sits down every other week and goes over hard and soft technologies.” Topics range from machine tools and software to inspection equipment and robotics. They bring together a brain trust to help see what might be the next big thing in manufacturing. “We know what is innovative and exciting to the customer today will be expected tomorrow,” concludes Chris. “If we don’t stay ahead of that we will get passed up by someone else. Our goal is to be around for another 50 years supporting California jobs. We can do that by building the best efficiencies using technology and with the best people.”