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JV Manufacturing, PEM Technologies to use new technology for rocket project

| Monday, June 30, 2014, 12:16 a.m.
Dan Speicher | For the Valley News Dispatch
Thomas Ravotti, front, inspects newly machined parts with Tom Sherer, both of J.V. Manufacturing and PEM Technologies in Harrison, as they make parts for a medical device on the PEM Mechanic 600 machine, on Friday June 20, 2014. The new process uses an electrical charge to pull away the metal (rather than cutting it) by electronically charging the atoms and breaking the atomic bonds of the metal. This results in a 'cool' process with very little wear to the machine, and no stress or burrs on the machined parts.

Harrison-based J.V. Manufacturing and PEM Technologies produce parts used in everyday products such as batteries and light bulbs, but their parts may soon be somewhere not so common — space.

NASA and rocket manufacturer Aerojet Rocketdyne have picked PEM Technologies to develop a final machining and finishing process for ball valve components for the space agency's next generation of rockets.

Using new technology known as precision electrolytic machining (PEM), the company is making parts for the main fuel control valve for the J-2X engine of the Space Launch System (SLS).

“They brought the project to us — we met them at an industrial show — and we explained to them what we would be able to do,” said Don Risko, vice president of PEM Technologies. “As a result, they gave us a contract to do a demonstration.”

The material used to make the valve is a unique nickel alloy that requires an extremely smooth surface finish to provide sealing for the fuel control.

Precision electrolytic machining is an electrical-chemical reaction process that uses an electrical charge to dissolve excess metal — atom by atom — for the part being tooled. A saltwater solution provides the conductive path that leads to the breakdown of the atomic bonds of the metal. Chemicals are used to control the conductivity and pH.

This process allows for a precise finish and complete metal removal without causing wear on the machine and its parts.

Conventional machining typically leaves machining marks on the work piece, requiring the small burrs (extra metal) that form to be removed and the surface marks to be polished away.

“With this process, in 90 percent of the cases, as the part comes off the machine it can be used in the product,” Risko said. It's also faster to complete the job than regular machining.

Cost, accuracy and speed are areas Aerojet Rocketdyne were hoping to address by working with PEM Technologies.

“PEM has been integral to the reduction of variability and the elimination of expensive machining resulting in cost and schedule savings for the SLS program's future,” said Brent Kearny, engineer with Aerojet Rocketdyne. Kearny has been pleased with the results so far.

“PEM has been a key supplier working with Aerojet Rocketdyne in developing innovative manufacturing solutions to improve the affordability and quality of critical engine valve components,” he said.

Demonstration facility

PEM Technologies has presented two demonstrations of the process to Aerojet Rocketdyne and will present a final one this summer. The date has not been set.

“As a result, they've been very appreciative of our effort and the ability of our technology to meet their target,” Risko said. “Eventually, when NASA gets up to speed with their next rocket engine, they will probably acquire a machine to do it themselves.”

According to information provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the rocket's first test launch is scheduled for 2017.

Risko said PEM Technologies and J.V. Manufacturing serve as a development and demonstration facility for companies interested in the technology.

“When we get a project in, what we'll do is sit down first and look at the material that we're trying to dissolve,” said Thomas Ravotti, technical supervisor for PEM Technologies and J.V. Manufacturing.

From there, PEM develops a tool for use with the material. Once the tool is in the machine, testing begins.

From there it's a process of trial and error to get the part down to the requirements requested by the company.

Once PEM Technologies does its testing and provides the materials, the company can buy a machine and do the work itself.

How it started

PEM Technologies was formed as an American company to market the precision electrolytic machining device, which is manufactured by a German company, PEM Tec.

PEM Technologies then sought out J.V. Manufacturing because of its tool-and-die capabilities.

“They sought out J.V. to partner with for our ability to technically support this new technology,” said Alan Vecchi, president of J.V. Manufacturing. “We have the capabilities to design and manufacture the fixtures and support equipment that their machines and technology require.”

After forming the partnership, PEM Technologies moved in to J.V. Manufacturing's facility on Burtner Road.

“We're just very proud to be part of it,” Vecchi said.

Being able to produce and adapt the tools to fit the PEM machine is something that makes the partnership work well.

“We have a very intelligent workforce making some of the most elaborate tooling that's made in the world,” Ravotti said.

Part of that workforce is Tom Sherer, lead engineer, who is thrilled by the technology.

“It's a very exciting place to be for a young engineer,” he said.

Sherer works closely with Ravotti and Risko on all of the PEM projects.

“Companies that are huge-scope, big international companies come and directly ask just the three of us how they could make something that they couldn't do any other way,” he said. “I get to get my hands in all kinds of new materials.”

Miles Free, director of industry research for the Precision Machined Products Association, believes that this technology can be useful because some projects require the precision it provides without the wear on the machine.

The accuracy of the machine is 50 millionths-of-an-inch. As a comparison, a strand of human hair is three thousandths-of-an-inch.

“I do think that there are applications that this chemical machining process is the one solution to achieve the engineer's intent,” Free said. “It's really a good application for the level of detail that's needed.”

Emily Balser is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-229-7710 or ebalser@tribweb.com.

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