Custom Fixtures and Automation

Employee Spotlight: Todd Bruhl from Elite’s Machining, Automation, and Controls (MAC) Team

For over 40 years, a small company in the western suburbs of Chicago called Linear Kinetics Inc (LKI) provided area manufacturers with custom-built factory automation systems. These LKI systems helped companies speed up their processes, increase output, and deliver higher quality manufactured goods. 

Along the way, Linear Kinetics also began developing automated testing systems for Elite and its clients. The relationship between Elite and LKI became more strategic with each test automation project and with the growth of Elite’s environmental testing services. Not only was Elite using LKI services to a greater extent, but from the perspective of LKI, the majority of projects devoted to Elite were becoming a key segment of their operations.  

So in December 2016, it made perfect sense that Elite and LKI to join forces in a strategic and formal way. By April 2017 the entire LKI operation was officially moved into the newly-opened North Annex to launch Elite’s new Machining, Automation, and Controls (MAC) services.   

Heading up Elite’s MAC team is Todd Bruhl, Sr. Mechanical and Controls Engineer. Todd was the principal at LKI and now brings end-to-end automation engineering expertise to Elite clients along with a customer-service-oriented “whatever it takes” attitude. Todd was asked to describe the benefits of having MAC integrated with Elite’s testing services.  

Todd: “We have all the equipment, ability, knowledge, and expertise in place to provide test automation and fixturing of all kinds to Elite clients. How about a quick tour of the Elite MAC center to look at our key machining resources?”

Todd: “The Fadal CNC milling machine and Burgmaster CNC milling machine centers make our metalworking processes incredibly efficient. We’re able to take a Solidworks CAD model to the machine center and with a few additional steps get completed parts in minutes. Plus we machine right here at Elite and save clients the task of having to develop fixturing on their own. When our work is done the fixturing and support gear are all here ready for testing. It’s a great time saver and very convenient for customers.” 

Todd: “We also have manually operated machines such as our Induma knee mill, a Clausing gap bed lathe, and Cincinnati radial arm drill press for quick turn machined parts when the CNC machine is not necessary. These are standard machine shop systems, but they’re here to offer quick response metal working to customer needs.”   

Todd: “Our Flexarm pneumatic tapping rig gives us the ability to quickly tap holes on the fly. We use this tool often to fit custom-tapped holes to vibration and shock fixtures”.

Todd: “Our 3D printer is just awesome. It’s used nearly every day to create the small and intricate shapes that we need to adapt our test gear to customers’ test items. It also frees up time on our CNC machines to perform large-scale metalworking tasks”.

Todd is also skilled at developing controls and automation for unique tests that require mechanical cycling of switches, levers, buttons, and just about any other product that needs kinematic or dynamic motion. Using electric actuators, pneumatic, or hydraulics, Todd and his team can create a full range of forces, torques, speeds, and other conditions for cyclic or production validation testing.  

Todd: “We start with customer requirements and test item specs to come up with an automation concept. From there we bring it to a finished installed system in a reasonably quick turnaround time. We have all the expertise, great control suppliers, along with an in-house machining center. All the key parts are right here at Elite to streamline our automation development and get final test results to clients in the shortest time possible. For sure, test automation systems are demanding engineering projects, but as engineers, we love the technical challenge and feed on the pride of seeing our hard work delivered on time, on-test, and performing per spec.” 

Do you have a manufacturing or testing process that would benefit from automation? Send us your requirements and our MAC team will collaborate with you to design and build a solution.

For more information about Elite’s MAC services, contact Todd Bruhl or Mike Cosentino.


3 Advantages of 3D Printed Fixtures

Elite’s Machining, Automation, and Controls team have been experimenting with 3D printing as an alternative to machined aluminum fixtures. “3D printing” is a type of additive manufacturing that precisely layers plastics, composites, or polymers into a final object, and it is most widely used for rapid prototyping. While aluminum remains the best material choice for most testing applications, it certainly has limitations when complex shapes are involved.

What advantages does 3D printing offer for test and automation systems?

Todd Bruhl, Elite’s lead mechanical designer, set out to answer that question. He has been designing and fabricating aluminum parts and automation systems for more than 10 years and wanted to determine how 3D printed parts matched up. After researching several types of 3D printers, Todd found a desktop system that could produce parts with high-strength materials to withstand harsh test environments and repetitive motion.

As part of a recent Electrical Connector Testing project, Todd investigated both aluminum and 3D-printed holding fixtures for insertion force and torque testing. The results were clear – and they demonstrated the three key advantages of 3D printing:

1. Lower cost to produce

Material and labor are the main costs for traditional machining and 3D printing reduces both. Todd noted that “unlike traditional machining, you only pay for the material you use with 3D printing – none of it ends up as scraps on the floor.” Moreover, the 3D printer uses fewer resources and can operate unattended. For our sample project, the manufacturing cost of the 3D-printed fixture was 97% less than its aluminum counterpart and it weighed 93% less. Most importantly, the 3D-printed fixture demonstrated equivalent performance for our application.

2. Faster delivery

“Creating a solid model in CAD is typically the first step to design a fixture – with 3D printing, that is the only step,” according to Todd. Once created, the solid model is uploaded directly to the 3D printer eliminating the detailed drawings, print reviews, and CNC programming that are necessary for aluminum machining. The 3D printer can also run unattended once it is started to deliver new parts overnight.

3. Tighter tolerances without special tooling or processes

“What made this project unique was the small radius on the inside corner of the through-hole, which required Laser or Waterjet cutting,” Todd explained. Intricate features require specialized tooling and processes to achieve with aluminum – adding significant cost and machining time. Depending on the material, our 3D printer produces precise small-radius corners without any special considerations. Todd also noted that the additive process allows “blind” internal features that would be impossible using traditional machine methods.

3D printing is quickly proving its value at Elite by reducing fixture costs and delivery times for our customers. We are continuing to discover other applications throughout the lab, including low dielectric constant fixtures for EMC testing, low-mass fixtures to facilitate rapid temperature transitions, and complex part interfaces for shock and vibration testing.

This is the latest example of Elite’s drive to apply new technology to help our customers succeed. Our goal is to meet all of our customer’s needs in one location to shorten test schedules, streamline their supply chains, and deliver dependable test results that get their products to market quickly.

When you are ready to experience the Elite advantage and put our comprehensive capabilities and proven experts to work for you, please contact us to schedule a tour or request a quote.


Can Reliability Be Tested and Measured?

At Elite, we’re often asked this reliability question and the answer, of course, is “yes… but it depends”. It depends on the complexity of the product, the design and manufacturing robustness of prototypes, the availability of samples, and many other related factors.

Reliability metrics are widely used in the electric power industry, railroads, and airlines where operators collect information on their equipment for usage, uptime, and performance. They use this information to develop statistics that can help them anticipate product lifetimes and plan for maintenance and replacement of parts and critical systems. The reliability statistics are used for systems already operating in the field and whose conditions can be tracked. But it’s a bit more challenging to generate reliability metrics when the information is based solely on testing prototypes in a lab and especially on complicated electronic products.

At Elite, the more common reliability programs are success-run tests on electronic modules, test-to-failure for simple components, and accelerated test-to-failure for mechanical parts. These test programs are performed to determine life-on-test. Then, based on this information, metrics are calculated that express expected reliability over time. The reliability performance is generally stated in terms of parameters such as “parts per million,” FITs, or MTTF, or R(t) connected to a relevant life distribution.

In the automotive industry, the design validation phase for electronic modules includes over-stress testing, time-based endurance tests, and fatigue tests. The overstress tests are mechanical shockwater sprayESD, along with others. These tests are applied to simulate field conditions or high, short duration stresses which confirm that the products are capable of handling occasional extreme environments. Cumulative damage tests such as those associated with temperature and vibration stresses are run at levels below the over-stress amplitudes but above endurance limits. These temp and vibe tests accelerate failure mechanisms that degrade product performance over time. When an electronic module completes an automotive success-run program it will have demonstrated reliability metric “R” with an associated confidence interval (C) – for example, reliability 97% (R97) with a confidence interval of 50% (C50).

Mechanical components such as motor-driven actuators, levers, doors, knobs, or push buttons can accumulate years of operation and many cycles of repetitive stress. These components may be exposed to rotational motions or linear displacements that apply wear, fatigue, or other time-based degradation conditions. Accelerated testing for mechanical products involves applying stresses at one or more high levels until failure occurs. Based on failures from accelerated testing, a stress-life curve can be drawn and analytical tools such as Weibull analysis can be used to extrapolate the life of the product under test to live at normal conditions.

What can Elite do to support clients with reliability testing?

We work with clients from start-to-finish to quantify reliability using accelerated testing and we help clients generate a metric that will predict life with statistical confidence.

For mechanical reliability evaluations the Elite process begins with analyzing the product, its environment, and the anticipated life stresses including those applied in shipping, handling, and operational use. From there a Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) is prepared to define the failure conditions, failure mechanism, and relevant stresses to be applied. Next a reliability test plan is created to identify the sample size, applied stresses, and test duration. The reliability test plan also provides instructions for dealing with minor faults and end-of-life failures.

Next, Elite’s Machining, Automation, and Controls team creates the mechanical or electrical cycling rig that will produce the motions and stresses that the product will experience throughout its life. Elite test engineers work alongside our Machining, Automation, and Controls team to ensure the life stresses are applied properly and that the automation equipment operates reliably throughout the entire duration of the program.

The results from our life testing are captured by Elite test engineers and the test items are evaluated by our failure analysis partners. The analytical results confirm the failure modes and mechanisms. These data, along with test duration for each part, are entered into calculations that establish the life distribution.

At the conclusion of testing, the output from the reliability tools (i.e. Weibull analysis) along with the failure analysis findings provide manufacturers a comprehensive assessment of reliability and a meaningful metric to support contractual requirements for reliability demonstration. The information can be used to validate designs, or to target design modifications that will improve life in the field and ultimately reduce warranty returns and manufacturing costs.

If you are an equipment manufacturer and your contractual requirements or corporate quality system specifies a quantifiable reliability metric, then contact Elite today. Our engineers can provide turn-key solutions for test planning, automation, test execution, and analysis. 


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New Fixture Fabrication Shop Open for Business

Elite’s new North Annex houses a complete machining and fabrication shop to deliver high-quality, customized fixtures and automation solutions with shorter lead times. This new addition builds upon Elite’s proven Fixture, Automation, and Life-Cycling capabilities by bringing the entire process on-site and fully integrating it with our testing services. The shop includes two CNC mills that accommodate plates up to 4 feet wide and is staffed by an experienced mechanical designer and a full-time machinist ready to serve you.

Fixtures are an integral part of the Environmental Stress Testing that we perform every day at Elite. Well-designed fixtures seamlessly transmit vibration and shock forces to products under test and accurately simulate their installed configuration. They also add efficiency to the testing process by accommodating multiple samples for simultaneous testing and easing the transition between axis orientations.

In addition to fixtures, Elite can engineer systems that automate repetitive motion or mechanical manipulation to support life-cycling and fatigue testing. Automation improves efficiency to accelerate test schedules and reduces uncertainty through repeatability.

Why trust Elite for your Fixturing and Automation Solutions?

  1. Elite’s decades of testing experience combined with material selection, mechanical design, and analysis ensure dependable solutions that are tailored to your technical and schedule requirements.
  2. Stay on schedule knowing that your fixtures will be completed and available on your start date. We can also quickly modify fixtures as necessary throughout testing.
  3. Guarantee compatibility with Elite’s test equipment and data acquisition systems and reuse for future testing projects. Even if you are not planning to test with Elite, we can also create solutions for your internal use.
  4. Streamline your supply chain with a single point of contact for design, fabrication, and testing.

Elite’s fabrication shop is now open for business, so contact us today to find out how we can deliver custom fixtures and automation solutions on time and within budget. Stay tuned next month for more on our new Photometric Testing capabilities that provide complete qualification testing services for your automotive and aerospace lighting products in one location.


Elite Expands its Downers Grove Lab Campus to Improve Schedule Lead Times and Add Services

Construction crews are busy preparing 15,000sq.ft. of new laboratory space at our recently acquired North Annex test facility.  This addition to Elite’s growing Downers Grove campus will house more environmental chambers for temperature testing, humidity, altitude, and others. It’s also being designed to meet the growing demand for testing cabling, connectors, and materials.

New services will include a fully provisioned machine shop where tooling, fixtures, and automation will be designed and manufactured to provide one-stop services for clients. With this in-house capability, Elite customers will have priority access and quick turn-around for custom-built test support equipment of all types.   

As part of the expansion, Elite will also rearrange existing equipment at its main building and repurpose space for other uses.  In this reassigned space new EMC chambers will be built to meet the growing demand for EMC test services and to shorten schedule lead times.

Testing at the new annex will begin in late March so stay tuned for news and updates on the expansion and new services to follow.   


Improving Ease of Automation and Fixture Services

With our new fixture expert on board, we not only have the experience and expertise to build out custom fixtures, automation, and material test capabilities in-house, but customers can also talk to Todd directly.  So even if you are not testing at Elite at the time, we can offer additional design and automation services. Here are a few ways that our expanded skill set will streamline your testing experience and help solve your fixture headaches:

  • When products have complex shapes and tight tolerances, customized fixtures are required to accurately simulate the installed conditions without interfering with operation.
  • Automation improves test repeatability and minimizes completion time.
  • Applications: vibration fixtures, life-cycle testing, mechanical or electrical cycling, troubleshooting operational failures, automated operational profiles, and many more.
  • As part of our continuing investment in test automation and specialized support services, Elite recently welcomed Todd Bruhl to the Environmental Test team. Todd joins Elite with a Bachelor of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University and more than 20 years of experience as a mechanical designer, machinist, and PLC programmer. He brings a unique skill set to design, fabricate, and operate custom fixtures and automation systems to meet our client’s most challenging needs.

Contact us today about how our Project Management Services and Fixture Capabilities can help your product get into the marketplace faster.


Employee Spotlight: Todd Bruhl

Here’s a little bit about a new official member of Elite’s environmental testing department, Todd Bruhl:

Title: Sr. Mechanical Engineer

Year Started at Elite: 2016 

Areas of Expertise/Interest: Fixture Design and Testing Automation

Education: BSME Purdue University 1995

Any unique hobbies, talents, skills, experiences, etc.: Triathlon Coach, Finished 2 Ironman Triathlons

Proudest moment in life so far: Training over 200 Fundraising Athletes for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society

What would you consider to be your passion outside of work? How did you get started in it? Any advice for anyone looking to try this activity? Starting at Elite is finally going to allow me the time to develop a passion outside of work

How did you get involved with EMC/ENV testing? How did you start designing fixtures?: 8 years ago Elite approached me to design and build a fixture for testing groups of Eaton Truck shifters. 8 years later, here we are.

If you had a personal motto, what would it be? How do you eat an elephant?: One bite at a time!

If you could be paid something other than money, what would you choose?  Bicycles. I have a tiny issue with collecting bikes.