Wills Wing

Manufacturer of World-Class Hang Gliders stands the test of time and offers their take on why HSMWorks makes it possible for companies to redefine themselves for competitiveness and profitability.

One of the biggest rewards for us at HSMWorks is when we are contacted by an  individual who, as they begin to describe their situation to us, describes the exact scenario we design our software to address. Wills Wing is one of those customers.

Whether it's a seasoned mold and die maker seeking a solution that utilizes the latest in computing power or an engineer purchasing their first CNC machine who considers the prospect of learning an antiquated CAM system painfully counterproductive, it is these individuals we are in business to help. This interview offers insight into just how different HSMWorks aims to be, and is.

Steve Pearson is Partner and Lead Engineer at Will's Wing, one of the oldest and most respected manufacturers of hand gliders in the world. In 2010, Steve began searching for a new programming solution for his HAAS CNC and what he found with HSMWorks revolutionized his business. The following is an interview with Steve conducted by Anthony Graves, HSMWorks Marketing Director. Anthony's questions/comments in bold -

Steve, thanks for agreeing to the interview.

Steve - No problem. Glad to.

How did you guys get your start?

Steve - Wills Wing was started back in the early days when hang gliding was first taking off by two brothers, Chris and Bob Wills. Chris Wills was the first National Champion hang glider pilot. Bob, not to be outdone, took first the very next year becoming the second National Champion. So, from those humble Cottage Industry beginnings that started with gliders made from bamboo and plastic a business was born and quickly began supplying participants around the globe with recreational and competition hang gliders.

How did you get your start in the business?

Steve - My very first exposure to hang gliding was when I was sixteen and I saw plans for a hang glider in Popular Mechanics. Although I completed the build I never got up the nerve to try to fly it. But it was a cool experience. In the early seventies, around 73'-74', about the same time hang gliding really started to grow in popularity, I took a summer trip to California to visit my uncle.

I think everyone has an uncle in California!

Steve - Right, I think you're probably right. (laughing) I was an engineering student at the time and needed a break so I went to California. When I was there I discovered I could take hang gliding lessons so that's what I did. I learned to hang glide. After returning to New England I started to build another hang glider. By the time I finished school I realized that if I wanted to persue hang gliding I should probably head back to the West Coast. So I moved to Southern California, took up hang gliding, and became friends with Chris and Bob Wills, who at the time had established Wills Wing as a respected company in the hang gliding scene.

How many manufacturers or "builders" were there at that time?

Steve - At that time there were over 50 buiders in the US with around ten who were larger than Wills Wing. At the height of the sport there were over 100 builders in the US alone. And, over the past thirty years, with the exception of a small start-up in Colorado launched within the past five years, every one of those companies disappeared. There are a few builders in Europe, but for the most part the industry has really consolidated. Now competition isn't other other hang glider manufacturers but, other sports like paragliding, parasailing, and other forms of flying.

Wow, so when did you actually get into the business...

Steve - Right, so by the late 70's I was working at Wills Wing for Bob and Chris and, because we were a small company, we all did a little bit of everything from design to manufacturing to testing, etc. In 77' Bob was killed while filming a Jeep commercial. I had the opportunity to buy into the business and have been here ever since. Of course, I'm still responsible for design and engineering but now I also help program and machine parts when I'm not busy running the company.

Before I get into machining and programming let me ask you about the parts you have that are machined. What parts make up your hang glilders.

Steve - In addition to the actual sail material that is very specialized and hand made for each glider, there are a lot of different components and materials use in the manufacture of a modern hang glider. We use a lot of 7075 thin wall tubing that is made specifically for our application in Switzerland, Italy, and France. The tubing makes up the largest portion of the airframe. The sail, as I mentioned, is made from high precision sail cloth and produced specifically for us. Other parts include carbon fiber and plastic molded parts for structural components. There are also btons made in-house and a lot of free form machiend parts. Most competitors cast their parts but all of our aluminum parts are machined from billet.

Where does SolidWorks fit into the Wills Wing story?

Steve - I've been using SolidWorks since 94'-95'. I'm sure we were one of their earliest customers. But going all the way back it I had to rely on my first "computer" which happened to be a TI59 [Texas Instruments] calculator with 50 keystroke memory on magnetic tape that I used to compute airframe data. In the early 80's I graduated to the PC and started using CAD with AutoCad, starting with Version 2.03. From there I moved to Mechnical Desktop and then started working with solids and parametric solids. Over time I became really frustrated because the only thing worse than not having parametrics was having parametrics that didn't work. So, by 94'-95' I had given up on Mechanical Desktop and my choices were Pro-E or SolidWorks. I selected SolidWorks because the learning curve was very short, the capabilties for what I needed were present and, most importantly, SolidWorks understood that it doesn't matter how innovative the technology is if you can't afford it. So, since making the switch, every part for our hang gliders is designed in SolidWorks. We also use NEi Works (Nastran for SolidWorks) for FEA. In fact, we even use SolidWorks to create images for marketing and promotional materials.

So when did you get into machining, and why?

Steve - Prior to 03'-04' we farmed out 100% of our machining. For years machining was something we didn't think we could do in-house affordably. And, to be honest, CNC technology, from the machines themselves to the CAM programs used to generate the CNC programs required a lot of hand-holding; we just didn't have time to mess with it. But, by 03'-04' we realized that we had to do something because we were running into issues that were negatively impacting our ability to be responsive to market demand. Let me explain.

We used three suppliers for all of our machining. They were all capable of doing our work, but each specialized in one area or another. One was great with manual setups. Another was great with 3D but we had to wait to be fit into their busy schedule and they were more expensive. The third was great at turning and other processes the other two couldn't provide. What happened, with every project, was I would design a part for one of the suppliers only to find out that their schedule had changed, so I would find myself making changes to accomodate the supplier. These changes not only cost us valuable time in the manufacturing process they didn't add a single benefit to the design of the component. Needless to say it was very frustrating. So, but 03' we had come to the decision that we would purchase a CNC and see if we could starting brining some of the machining in-house.

We purchased a HAAS VF2 that was capable of machining all of our components and would accomodate three vices so we could machine three, four, and five setups that were typical for a lot of our parts. The next step was selecting a CAM system.

Ok. You get your machine and you are ready to start making parts. Did you start off with an integrated CAM solution?

Steve - When we first purchased our HAAS I looked at all the popular or well-known CAM systems. Most were not integrated with SolidWorks and those that were didn't impress me.  I couldn't wrap my head around paying a lot of money for an application that wasn't integrated with SolidWorks so I tried a low-cost CAM system to see if I could make it work for my needs. After a few years and more than a few disappointing experiences I decided to re-evaluate what was available and that's when I found HSMWorks.

Ok, before you talk about HSMWorks please talk about the process you went through when selecting your new CAM solution?

Steve - I had started to evaluate the available integrated CAM systems and was seriously looking at purchasing one. I had evaluated the product back in around 03' or 04' and knew the product had been around for a while. Their marketing materials pointed to strong growth over the past five or more years so I figured that would be a good place to start. I also looked at another well known CAM product for Solidworks but I was still leaning towards the first. In fact, I was ready to send them a purchase order when I read a few posts about HSMWorks online. I figured I didn't have anything to lose so I requested a trial version. The only way to describe my initial impression with HSMWorks is to relate it to my first experience with SolidWorks. The very first time I used SolidWorks I was amazed that I could do so much without a command line! It was almost too easy. Well, that is the exact sense or feeling I got when I started to use HSMWorks. Charles [Refers to Charles Davis, one of our Resellers] told me to install the software and see how far I could get without running through the tutorials. In a few minutes I was generating toolpaths and, honestly, I couldn't believe it was so easy. I thought I had to be doing something wrong.

So you bought the software?

Steve - No. Actually, I completed that job and before I knew it the CAM purchase got pushed to the back-burner. By the time I got around to needing CAM again I have to admit that I fired up the other system [another CAM product] first. And I'm glad that I did; because within five minutes of using it I knew I wanted HSMWorks.

Wow. What was it that made the decision so easy for you?

Steve - There were two things. One, HSMWorks is heads-and-shoulders above everyone that I ever evaluated when it comes to easy of use. There other integrated solutions but none of them feel as intuitive or natural as HSMWorks. That might sound strange...

That was our goal...

Steve - Well, that's how I have to describe it. The software just works the way you would expect it to. I would describe HSMWorks as the most integrated or best integrated of all the CAM solutions I have seen. At any rate, I could accomplish everything I needed to do without struggling to find what button to click or where to input values for tools or offsets or selecting features or boundries, etc. The toolpaths are great too, of course. That is really one of the software's strengths, that you get these great toolpaths without having to do a lot of work on the front end. It is hard to describe, I guess, unless you use it you really won't understand fully what I'm talking about.

I think your story here is probably going to convince a lot of people to give the software a test drive.

Steve - They should. I mean, if someone is an experienced SolidWorks user looking for a CAM solution I can't see how they would use anything else.

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