Skip to main content

Left – For exhibitions FUTEK has working models made of LEGOs that utilize a variety of sensor combinations. Top right – LSB205 Miniature S-Beam Jr. Load Cell. Bottom right – LCB500 Tension and Compression Load Cell.

FUTEK designs and manufactures sensors for industry. Every industry you can think of is probably using their sensors, but their recent focus has been in medical and aerospace. “A lot of our efforts are targeted towards high growth industries like aerospace and medical,” tells Thomas Bowles, Director of Quality Assurance. “They both offer challenges like no other, but miniaturization and redundancy are a common theme.” FUTEK prides themselves on being part of groundbreaking technology with their sensors on the da Vinci surgical robot, autoclavable sensors and the Mars rover Curiosity. “We have two sensors on the Mars rover,” explains Thomas. “It continues to send back amazing science from the surface of Mars. We cheered right along with mission control as it landed. It is incredible to be a small part of endeavors like that. For every one of those projects, there are thousands of seemingly less exciting applications for our sensors. Anything you need to weigh from bags of potato chips or bags of blood to torque and force on an oil-drilling rig. Chances are that our sensors are doing those jobs.”

FUTEK manufactures made in the USA sensors from standard to niche applications. Their small sensors can measure from milligrams up to 200 lbs, while the larger ones can measure 1 million pounds. “We sell a lot of the large capacity sensors,” explains Thomas. “Heavy industry uses them on cranes and outriggers to insure everything stays in balance. NASA used eight of them on the vehicle transporter that moved the space shuttle from the vertical assembly building out to Kennedy Space Center’s pad 39a. They didn’t want it to tip over, so our sensors made sure it remained level.” Each industry has its own set of challenges and FUTEK has the most inhospitable conditions covered. They manufacture sensors capable of withstanding temperatures of 500°F down to -310°F and up to 1,500 psi pressure. “Newer sensors for medical and dental require the ability to be reused over and over,” details Thomas. “No one wants to throw away these expensive instruments, so they use a form of sterilization like an autoclave. Our sensors are designed to withstand multiple sterilizations. At the other end of the spectrum the Mars rover sensors are cryogenic and need to cope with extreme cold on the planet’s surface. The cold side of Mars is as cold as -243°F so JPL spec’d out a sensor that could survive down to -310°F. Quality is number one on everything we do regardless of the application.”

Thomas has a Master’s Degree in Engineering with a minor in Math. This former LAPD police officer and commercial pilot has spent the last 15 years building up FUTEK’s quality lab. “I’ve been in quality and manufacturing for more than 30 years,” tells Thomas. “Before coming to FUTEK, I worked for a company that did ultraviolet disinfection and sterilization. I hold a patent in HVAC sterilization and worked at Magnavox Advanced Systems building the first GPS receivers.” Maria SanFilippo is FUTEK’s Quality Manager and handles all day-to-day operations in QA.  FUTEK pays a lot of attention to their suppliers, and Thomas takes care of the training and qualifying all their vendors. Unless there is a question with the supply chain he stays out of the trenches and lets the QA team of five do what they do best. Both he and Maria are Certified Quality Engineers and Certified Quality Auditors by the ASQ (American Society for Quality). As experts in their field it comes as no surprise the amount of research that went into purchasing a new CMM for the quality lab.

The Zeiss Micrura is considered to be a small format CMM. It has a work envelope of 500mm x 500mm x 500mm. 90% of FUTEK’s parts fit within a 4” cube, so the size is perfect for their workflow. With the VAST Gold XT head they easily can measure 10-12 different parts simultaneously.

Up until two years ago, FUTEK was using an all manual CMM in their quality assurance laboratory. Their experience with the manual CMM was that it made good measurements, but was slow. As business grew, it was becoming difficult to keep up with production. “We were not keeping up with the advancement in the sensors at the same rate using a manual machine,” explains Thomas. “It didn’t record data, so we had to transcribe the readings manually from the control panel to our inspection sheets. There is no typical drawing, but say on average for a mechanical machined part there are 25 features to check.” They wanted to take the operator variable out of the mix and automatically record all the measurements they were taking. It became very apparent that they needed a better way of doing things. All of FUTEK’s parts are individually serial numbered and inspected. As soon as the part begins its journey through production, the Oracle ERP system assigns it a serial number. In January 2015 FUTEK assigned serial number 500,000, quite the milestone for the company. “Our inspections are done to AS9100 and AS9102 inspection for first articles,” tells Thomas. “All the details of that part are recorded and kept forever. Everything from the dimension and tolerance, to who made the measurement and what equipment was used to make the measurement is stored in a part’s genealogy. We have a high mixture of parts, so for example, we have more than 300 different size thread gauges. 0-80 to 6”x8 and most sizes in between. We have to track everything for the genealogy, so automation was the only option. We surveyed the market, looked at every machine that was available to us, and decided on the Zeiss Micura.”

The Zeiss Micura is a small format CMM machine with a 500mm x 500mm x 500mm measuring envelope, but the majority of FUTEK’s parts fit within a 4” cube. “Ninety percent of what we manufacture fits the machine perfectly,” details Thomas. “What doesn’t fit we send out for measuring. The Zeiss Technical Center is in Irvine and is literally a few blocks away from our corporate headquarters and based on their reputation, we were very interested in their products. We were able to take parts down and measure them on a machine like the one we were planning on purchasing. We buy the majority of our inspection instruments through Pacific Inspection in Irvine. They are a dealer for Zeiss and a wonderful company to work with before, during and after the sale. Especially, their after-sales-support.  After seeing the capabilities of the Zeiss Micura firsthand, we knew it was the machine for us. It has been on our floor for almost two years, and we are still tickled pink with it.”

Thomas has found the Zeiss training to be extraordinary, breaking up the instruction you need on the Calypso software into more than two blocks. “Their training is next level,” touts Thomas. “Prior to the Zeiss training our inspectors had no automated experience with a CMM. Everything we’ve learned came from the Zeiss.” Everyone goes through the basic one-week course working on the same machine that you purchased. Zeiss won’t offer the advanced training until trainees go out and use the machine in real-world applications. They even assign measuring homework to do between courses. “Zeiss also offers advanced courses on features that not everyone buys,” continues Thomas. “Such things as reverse engineering and specialty probes. We have a lot of probes. They are pretty standard, but do go down as small as 0.3 mm styli as well as one disk probe. Our VAST XT Gold sensor head enables high-speed scanning. It can take individual points, or it will scan the entire surface taking hundreds or thousands of points. You get a much better picture of the surface and eliminate any outliers. Scanning is a big deal and is the first step to reverse engineering.” FUTEK’s five-styli star probes allow them to inspect all sides of a part, even underneath it, without the need to refixture. You can even measure tilted on angles. The Zeiss Calypso software makes great use of the VAST XT Gold sensor that even has adjustable touch force for different measuring surfaces. “We’ve found the Calypso software to be very intelligent,” adds Maria. “You set up the routine and tell it to measure. It will take the most efficient path along the surface, and completes each step in the most efficient order. You tell it what you need measured and it self-optimizes. It knows the number of points to take for GD&T.” The reporting format matches their AS9102, so they use it exclusively to get a complete genealogy of the part. “The fact that it reports and stores the data automatically, even into our SPC program is something we couldn’t do on a manual machine,” continues Maria. “You can place ten or twelve parts within the work envelope, and it will measure and record all of them.”

FUTEK has a high mixture and variety of parts. The Zeiss Micura and Calypso software eat up the work through intelligent measurement and self-optimization.

A major feature that FUTEK appreciates is the ability to program offline. They have one seat of remote programming, and as soon as the engineering design is complete, the AutoCAD file is ready to download. The inspection routine is programmed offline and then loaded over to the Micura once the actual part is ready for inspection. “We have 90% of the program ready to go before the part is even machined,” details Maria. “We are set when it comes in for first article. On the old machine we would have to start programming a new routine when the part came for first article. That takes a lot of time, and the CNC machine would sit idle while we figured out the best and most efficient way to check the part.” The offline programming has also sped up the process for outside vendors in the supply chain. “We work very closely with our vendors so when they send us or bring us a first article part we are ready to go. It is doubly beneficial to them. It saves time on first article, and is measured by the same machine that will check every one of their production parts. Usually, you are at the mercy of whatever machine they have. Some have manual CMM machines, but none have the level of our Zeiss Micura. We have eliminated the possible issue of their measurements showing different results than ours.”

FUTEK validates the Zeiss Micura every morning. ISO 10012 recommends that you calibrate instruments every day or validate the accuracy, so there is no more than one day’s worth of parts at risk. If you find it to be out of calibration, then you have to go back to the last time it was calibrated. Every part in between is suspect. With daily verification every part measured is still in-house and can be remeasured if necessary. “We’ve been very pleased with the Zeiss Micura even though it doesn’t match the spec in their literature,” jokes Thomas. “Zeiss’s specifications guarantee that it would be accurate to .7 micron +L/400. We are not getting anywhere near that. We’re getting .2 micron, and it’s not dependent on the length of the part. We’re talking across all 500mm of measurement at .2 micron. Even Zeiss is impressed with that performance. Pacific Inspection has even used our machine to demonstrate GR&R to prospective customers. We take great care of it and it takes great care of us.”

All of FUTEK’s parts are not just designed, engineered and made in the USA. They are made right here in Irvine, California. “Everything we do is here,” concludes Thomas. “We’ve been in the community for 30 years, and most of our vendors are local too. All the mission-critical work like micro soldering, wiring, lamination and calibrating are all done in-house. Most of the special processes have been brought in-house as well. We do our own milling, turning, laser marking, laser welding, grinding, and EDM. We don’t do any anodizing or heat-treating, but everything else is done onsite. When you buy FUTEK know that we take great pride in what we do and where it is made.”