Typically in our Featured Customer posts, we focus on a business as a whole and talk to someone on the manufacturing team about their day-to-day operations. When we started talking with Alex Madsen, we knew that this post was going to be a bit different.
Alex Madsen has been in manufacturing for more than 11 years, and is currently a full-time employee/part owner at M5 Micro in Minnesota. Other than that, Alex is also a part owner of Wold Fabrication, and owns his own job shop, Madsen Machine and Design. Alex has seen a little bit of everything in his career His daily work could have him machining diesel engine accessories with large diameter tooling on a Haas VF3 in the morning, and making tiny medical device parts with a 50k spindle and a .004” end mill in the afternoon. His unique experiences and insight in the world of micro-machining in particular have gained him many followers online, where his videos often amaze even the most experienced machinists.
We were happy to talk with Alex about his unique work situation, his advice for others on how to approach using miniature tooling, and much more.
Can you tell us a little more about your backstory and how you got to where you are today?
I got my start in manufacturing back in high school. The school I was attending had a pretty decent machine shop and a great instructor named Gary Hein. Gary was great on picking up on what people were good at and pushing them to explore that in his classes. He was the first one to introduce me to both machining and welding, which immediately sparked my interest in manufacturing. I had originally planned on getting into diesel engine repair, but Gary changed my mind and got me into manufacturing.
I got my first job working for a friend from church who had a small machine shop with a Bridgeport, equipped with a Prototrak. He was making RC car parts and selling them on eBay. I started working there a couple of nights a week. He really showed me a lot in that shop.
Eventually, I graduated from high school and ended up at Ridgewater College in Hutchinson, Minnesota. Ridgewater is a community and technical college that had a two year program in machining. Around the same time I started college, I found a new job at Baklund R&D, now called M5 Micro. Baklund was a small scale production shop primarily focused on medical device parts. I ended up learning so much on the job that I decided it wasn’t worth going back to finish school, and so I joined the workforce and went full-time. I am still there to this day, and they have allowed me to expand and grow within the company, which is great.
So how did the other two businesses, Wold Fabrication and Madsen Machine, get their start?
I had always had the drive to start my own business, and so that seemed like a natural next step for me. I ended up getting a few machines with my friend, Tom Wold, and we started making aftermarket parts for diesel pickup trucks. We started to get into more customization and fabrication, and that business turned into Wold Fabrication. I really grew my knowledge on the job with that business, as well. As challenging parts or custom ideas come in, you have to figure out how to work around them to keep the customer happy.
Eventually, we started to get a lot more requests outside of the aftermarket diesel parts area, but Wold Fab really wanted to stay within that niche. I created another business, Madsen Machine, to handle those requests that were outside the scope of Wold Fab, and that is where we are today!
You are in the unique position of working for three different manufacturing businesses. How would you describe each of them?
M5 Micro is 100% in the medical field. We have the machining portion of the business where we make medical fixtures, parts for medical devices, and specialized tooling. Specifically in micro-machining, we do a lot of small mold cavities, and implantable parts. The other half of the business is micro molding. We have our own desktop platform micro molding machine that is made specifically for molding very small parts in a variety of materials.
Wold Fabrication focuses entirely on high performance diesel pickup truck accessories. We build turbos, engine components, brackets, and much more. We do machine a fair amount of parts, but we also have a full fabrication shop with a CNC plasma table and multiple welding stations.
Madsen Machine (my own business) gets the chance to dance in both worlds. I pick up whatever I can for work. One day I could be making a part for a medical device company, while the next I am cutting wheel centers for a car, or designing a set of tracks for a pickup. Basically, Madsen Machine is your typical job shop, but with the unique ability to tackle micro-machining projects, as well as design, milling, turning, fabricating, and automation services. I am able to use my diversity in the manufacturing field and creatively approach new and challenging projects.
What sort of machines and software do you have in the shops?
On a day-to-day basis, I have quite a few options. The most popular machines at M5 Micro are probably the two Mitsubishi Wire EDMs. For CNC machines, we have a new Fanuc Robodrill with a 55k RPM spindle and a custom 175k RPM air spindle. That machine is super accurate and fast enough for high speed applications.
We also have a Microlution 363 with a 50k RPM spindle. That machine can only take tools with a 1/8” shank, and it has no ball screws – only linear motors. That means that there is no backlash and you can really control how that tool is in the cut, which is super important for micromachining applications. That machine can also hold a positional accuracy of ±0.00004”, so it really is perfect for precise machining. In fact, the majority of micromachining videos on Instagram come from the Microlution Machine.
As far as Madsen Machine and Wold Fab goes, we share a machine shop. We have a KIA KT15 lathe, Haas VF3 mill, South Bend Chipmaster, a couple of knee mills, Kent surface grinder, manual lathe, and a 4X8 plasma table.
For software, I use Fusion 360 for CAM and CAD. I still use SolidWorks from time to time for some CAD, but I have really grown to like Fusion 360’s CAD environment.
What made you decide to choose Harvey Tool and Helical Solutions for your tooling needs?
For tooling, when I was low man, you sort of used what was in the shop. When I started, we were using 8 different companies to source tooling. We had 3 different brands for steel, 3 more for aluminum, 2 for drills; it was confusing. Now, we are 100% Helical or Harvey Tool for everything at all 3 companies.
The reasoning for this is simple: It is not just the tooling – the tooling is fantastic – but in my opinion, the Machining Advisor Pro (MAP) is what sets you apart from the competition. It is really nice to have that software available, and since I am in a job shop atmosphere, I need to get parts done quickly and efficiently. The parameters from MAP are fantastic, and allow me to really push the tools while still maintaining great tool life and consistent quality. Your 6 Flute End Mills for Stainless Steel have been particularly great using MAP parameters.
Having speeds and feeds charts on your website for all of the different Harvey Tool products is huge, too. You need a good base to work from with miniature tooling, and you guys provide that to me for any tool I want to try.
Have you been using the Harvey Tool and Helical Solutions tool libraries for Fusion 360?
I do have the tool libraries and I do use them for both Harvey Tool and Helical. Where I find it the most useful is for chamfer tools and cutters with more unique geometries. I know that what my CAM spits out is going to be accurate because I am using the data right from you guys.
When it comes to micromachining, I always want to use the biggest tools for the reach I want, so knowing the taper angle dimension is critical. Using the tool libraries, I get that dimension pre-populated so I know where a tool would collide without needing to throw the tool on the comparator first. Eliminating that small step saves so much time and energy.
What is your favorite material to work with, and which has been the most challenging for you?
My favorite material to cut is Uddeholm RoyAlloy. It is a proprietary pre-hardened stainless steel that sits right around 35 Rc. We use it for a lot of our medical device work. We like it so much that if the customer called for using hardened 420 stainless, we often talk them into changing it to the RoyAlloy steel. With that material, it doesn’t matter if you have a half inch or .010” end mill, it cuts very well and makes great chips.
The most challenging material for me is hardened 440-C stainless steel, which we get a lot of working in the medical field. I do have some trouble with Titanium, as well, but I don’t often get a lot of that. 440-C stainless is extremely difficult to cut in its hardened state, so staying accurate and getting good finishes is always a challenge!
You have a lot of experience using very small diameter (<.020”) end mills, drills, and threadmills from Harvey Tool. What tips do you have for other machinists who may be using miniature cutting tools?
It is certainly challenging to use little tools, but the key is to not get discouraged. You should plan on lots of trial and error; breaking tools is just a part of the game. You may buy 10 end mills and break 6, but once you dial one in it will last the rest of the job.
You should also make sure to put extra time and effort into understanding your machine when working on micromachining jobs. You need to know where there is any backlash or issues with the machine because with a tiny tool, even an extra .0003” cut can mean the end of your tool. When a difference of one tenth can make or break your job, you need to take your time and be extra careful with your machine, tool inspection, and programming before you hit “run.” Setup is everything.
In terms of actually running the tools, a lot of RPM goes a long way. You absolutely need to have the right spindle and machine, or the smaller tools just won’t run the way you want them to. For us, we typically start with the Harvey Tool speeds and feeds as a base point, and then I adjust from there, often relying on sound since the tools are so small. The toolpaths in Fusion 360 have also worked very well for us when programming micromachining jobs, so I would recommend checking them out and playing around with that software if you are new to the micro world.
Can you talk a little bit about the unique tool holder setup we see in a lot of your Instagram videos?
Most of those Instagram videos you see are shot on the Microlution machine. The Microlution actually doesn’t use a tool holder at all, so that white collar you see in my videos is actually just how the tool changer grabs the tool. Many people have asked me if that is a custom tool holder, but it is actually a unique part of the Microlution. The machine simply grabs the tool from the tool changer with that device, and then the shank goes right into the spindle.
That being said, I do design my own workholding vices for that machine. As you can imagine, there isn’t much available on the market for micromachining, so those are all a custom job.
What are some of your favorite machining accessories you use in the shop?
What is interesting is that a lot of our tooling accessories are customs, much like the workholding. We actually designed and built all of our own tooling accessories to help aid with the specific applications we are doing, so we don’t buy much of what you would see in a typical shop.
Obviously for my work, a good microscope is absolutely necessary for miniature tooling and part inspections. For my main workholding on the larger machines, I use a Kurt 6 inch vise. I have also had my eyes on Orange vises, but haven’t pulled the trigger yet.
One of the items we use the most is a granite surface plate for inspection, and Herman Schmidt height stands with indicators down to 50 millionths of an inch.
Can you remember a key moment when a Harvey Performance Company product helped you “Machine the Impossible”?
As a job shop, a lot of stuff is quick turn, as you can imagine. Being able to get a tool overnight and have it show up the next day is incredibly useful for a shop like mine, and the tool selection in the Harvey Tool catalog is unmatched.
When I get a job in and have to figure out how to approach it, I program around what kind of tools I can get. A lot of time is spent with up front planning. Having Harvey Tool’s massive product offering makes programming easier. I know that most of the time, even on very odd lengths or reaches, that you guys will have what I need.
Just thinking about using a Harvey Tool .010” end mill with a 12x reach is crazy, but I know that it will work, and I know I can rely on your tools to make that “impossible” feature a reality. Other jobs that come to mind include milling a 2-56 thread in hardened steel, and using a .004” ball end mill for profiling; these types of tools just aren’t available as standards in other catalogs. It makes my life easier for sure!
In terms of Helical Solutions end mills, they are my real workhorse. Just recently, I needed to program a roughing job on a 38 pound block of Aluminum. I ended up using the Adaptive Clearing toolpaths from Fusion 360 and the running parameters from MAP.
I was using a Helical 3 flute ½” tool with a 2” length of cut and a 40 degree helix. By the end of the job, I had removed 28 pounds of material in just 22 minutes. I was also able to use the same tool for finishing and roughing, and I didn’t have to trouble shoot or anything. I plugged in the numbers from MAP, let it run, and it worked great.
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