Wagstaff Inc., a Spokane, Washington based company has been in business for more than 70 years. Today, they are a world leader in vertical direct chill casting of aluminum, but they got their start as just a small local shop and evolved from there. “Wagstaff is a third generation company,” tells project coordinator Dale Arnold. “We have 350 people on staff at this facility and it still has the heart of a small business. We are not just numbers, the owners know everyone’s names and are involved in the work we do.”
The Spokane facility is Wagstaff’s corporate headquarters and the primary manufacturing site. They have several hundred thousand sq.ft. of office, manufacturing, and research space spread between multiple buildings on 16 acres with 27+ CNC combined machining, and turning centers. They also have a second manufacturing facility located in Kentucky to support their world wide demand. “We are best known for our ability to provide technology, equipment, and services to worldwide aluminum producers enabling them to transform molten aluminum into billets and ingots using “direct chill” casting.” describes Dale. “The direct chill casting process uses machined aluminum molds filled with circulating water to chill molten aluminum in order to solidify it into desired shapes. We produce molds for doing that along with the casting machines and other supporting equipment.” Most of their product goes overseas with customers in almost 60 countries.
The Spokane plant also does what Dale refers to as “custom machining” through the Wagstaff Applied Technologies division. “We take on job shop style work, but calling it that doesn’t really fit what we do. Most people think of manufacturing widgets when they hear that term. I have nothing against widgets, but we are manufacturing a different kind of part.” Wagstaff’s Applied Technologies’ customer base includes power plants, primarily hydroelectric and nuclear, so their job shop style work is on a very large scale. It is typical to see 24’ of travel on a machine in the shop with 13’ between the columns. The aluminum mold production department have multiple 60”x160” Mazaks that are dwarfed by some of the machining centers in the custom machining building. A fair portion of the custom machining work means one or two of a certain part. They get everything from retrofits, and refurbish to complete run to print assemblies. Having the right machine for the right job is where Dale comes in.
As one of three project coordinators at Wagstaff, Dale is tasked with assessing the needs of a certain job and pairing it with the best possible machine to do the work. He treats each department like a customer and puts his 39 years of experience to good use. “I’ve been around machine tools since 1977,” explains Dale. “My career started close by in Idaho before I headed to the Seattle area for 23 years.” Dale bounced around some of the bigger name equipment sales companies before going to work for Mazak as a field service agent out of Los Angeles. He lived in Spokane and serviced the 8 western states and 4 Canadian provinces; Wagstaff was one of his customers. Dale’s most recent project required the purchase of a fairly large lathe to do shaft work and large boring. Over a year ago he began his search.
“I enjoy all types and brands of machine tools,” details Dale. “I try and look at everything without a preconceived prejudice or bias.” Dale researched 14 different lathes in his quest to match machine with the job. His process includes a complex spread sheet with all the specs and pros/cons of each. Once you start comparing, certain machines will rise to the top. They narrow it down based on which features were most important. Things such as 2 way vs. 4 way, it needs to be good at boring, have a C axis, and how to change the machine around, which CNC control does it use and then basic ease of use all played a part. In this case Wagstaff purchased a Geminis GT5-G4 from Lagun Engineering Solutions. “The Geminis met all my requirements,” continues Dale. “It was the machine with the best fit for the job, but also had the versatility needed to continue as a top producer once the original job was completed.”
A couple machines fit the bill so it then came down to value. Dale feels they got a lot of machine for the money. Wagstaff added “The Transformer option,” a quick switch unit with live tool turret, grinding wheel and boring bar. “The Geminis has 20’ of travel in Z,” touts Dale. “I can machine a shaft 36” in diameter and twenty feet long, then switch the head over in a few minutes and bore or grind it. What’s not to love about that? I also like that it is heavy. It weighs 60,000lbs +. You can’t sacrifice weight; it makes a difference in stability and better accuracy.” Wagstaff is also a fan of the Fanuc controls. They do shop floor programming on some of the machines and have found the Fanuc to be a great tool for doing just that. Simple stuff gets programmed on the machines and most of their custom machining department operators can do programming. If it is more complex it gets kicked it up to their programming department. “Operators do their own setups,” adds Dale. “They learn to be better machinists by knowing more about the machines they are running. We don’t have parts loaders and setup guys; they are the same person”.
Surprisingly service wasn’t a big selling point to Dale even though service is a big selling point for Lagun. Wagstaff expects all their machines to not need much major servicing, but if it does then most of the time it is handled in house. “We have a complete service department,” explains Dale. “I have no doubt that if we needed service Lagun Engineering Solutions would take good care of us, but service from the supplier is a secondary thought. Service for us is having parts available in the country and ready to go. Since the Geminis GT5-G4 is a relatively new style of machine we decided to stock a fair amount of parts inventory ourselves. Our theoretical insurance policy is having the parts not readily available in the U.S. The machine was brought online late in 2015 and I thankfully haven’t had to touch my spares inventory.” Thanks to their in-house service department Wagstaff has a tendency to make their machines last well beyond their normal life cycle. Dale looks at the Geminis GT5-4 not just as a capital investment for today, but one that will payoff for decades to come. Wagstaff has a vintage machining center with a “war finish” on it. The machine has been retrofit multiple times over the years but still keeps doing its job. He expects the same from his newest machine.
“This project was mine and the Geminis is my baby”, concludes Dale. “I am proud of this machine; it was the right machine for us to buy. Had the job requirements been different we might have considered something else, but the fact is we really like the capabilities. I can also say I really liked Phil Wyatt, the salesman I worked with at Lagun. Working with Phil and the entire Lagun team has been very very good. I send them an email and I have an email back from them the same day. If they don’t have the answer then I normally have one the next day after they talk to the manufacturer in Spain. You realize how hard that is to get from some of the other manufacturers? Trust me it can be hard, but that is not the case with Lagun Engineering Solutions. This was our first large purchase from them and I’m so pleased with our decision.”