Custom collaboration: A custom-made sawing, tapping and drilling solution spurs dramatic growth for user, by Jimmy Myers, senior editor

As of 2022, the Solar Energy Industries Association estimates that the solar industry has roughly 263,000 employed in more than 10,000 companies. It’s also estimated that 2022 the sector generated more than $36 billion in private investments in the American economy. The growth pattern has been dramatic. Don Whitmire, a retired defense contractor, saw an opportunity around 2017 when he joined his friends at Productive Tool as chief operating officer.

Productive Tool, a Dallas, N.C.-based machine shop, had dabbled in defense contracts, which is how Whitmire struck up a professional friendship with Chris Brooks, owner, and Amy Prince, vice president. With roughly $1 million in annual revenues when Whitmire began, he set out to identify growth opportunities, and he knew solar could be incredibly lucrative for the company.

The research paid off, as the 7,000-square-foot shop has grown into a 36,000-square-foot facility that produces aluminum framing upon which solar panels are affixed. Whitmire says the growth, culminating in the company processing around a million pounds of raw goods per month and annual revenues of $20 million plus, wouldn’t have been possible without implementing automated sawing, tapping, and drilling solutions custom-made by Pat Mooney Saws.

Right now,” Whitmire says, “in our production space, solar occupies 100 percent of our total capacity. The industry is growing, and I don’t see that ending in the next 36 months. Solar is an effective way to collect energy, and it’s moving its way across the country.”

Initial investments

There is a lot of pride associated with buying American-made products, but because of international competition, many challenges must be overcome to be profitable. Whitmire knew that for his company to compete against China, India, and Vietnam, among others, automation would be the key.

That was the only way we could do this work,” he says. “We can’t compete dollar to dollar with labor, but we can compete with technology. We knew we would have to make an investment on the front end to allow us to do this.”

In the beginning, Whitmire attended trade shows, researching technology that would give them a fighting chance to produce parts at volume and be profitable. Eventually, he developed a vision where an automated process involving as few touchpoints as possible would efficiently turn out a high-quality product. His research led him to Patrick Thornton, Vice-President at Pat Mooney Saws. During that first conversation, Whitmire told Thornton he needed a machine to tap, drill, and saw.

He said, ‘We don’t have that, but I can tell you – 100 percent we can do it,’” Whitmire says. “About 8 months later, two showed up at the shop, and we got started.”

Pat Mooney Saws machines

The initial two PMI-18 DTS upcut saws with drilling and tapping capabilities quickly turned into four as Productive Tool ramped up production. The machines had plenty to offer, including 7.5 horsepower motors for maximum cutting force and chip removal, which also helps to extend blade life between regrinds. The 5.7-in. touchscreens are easy to read and use, and the numeric control technology can store up to 100 different cutoff programs.

Their touch screen and logic are the machine's best part,” Whitmire says. “It’s the most intuitive and user-friendly setup you can have.”

Whitmire was particularly pleased with the touchscreens’ visual aids that assist operators in configuring efficient part cutting based on the raw material's overall length and configuring exactly where tapping or drilling needed to occur on specific pieces.

It is very intuitive,” he says, “it just makes a lot of sense.”

Adding to the automation Whitmire requested, the machines feature material feed systems capable of moving up to 110 lbs. of material and pushing positioning speeds that range from 65 to 165 ft. per minute.

Blade basics

A lot of the overall effectiveness of a sawing solution relies on the quality of the blade. Pat Mooney uses Kanefusa carbide-tipped blades, and Whitmire couldn’t be happier.

Their blade and tooth geometry are the most efficient we’ve ever cut with,” he says of the Japanese blade. “We’ve tried location solutions, but these blades are hands down the best.”

The saw blade, housed under the worktable, enters the material from the bottom, traveling up through the workpiece. Aside from adding cut quality and blade life advantages, this configuration also offers safety advantages, which Whitmire says is vital in any manufacturing environment. And since that initial four-saw acquisition from Pat Mooney Saws. Productive Tool has added even more saws from the company, including three PMI-Auto24 DTS saws that are equally as dedicated to safety with multiple sensors and kill switches.

Safety is the number one thing,” he says. “We love the fact that the first these guys think about are these really large doors, large viewing windows, lots of good light inside the cabinets. The emergency safety stop kill switches are on all the access doors, not just the service doors on the top, but even the storage doors down below, and the blade and belt access boxes.”

Further growth potential

Whitmire says he frequently communicates with Thornton about developing more production solutions that will keep Productive Tool true to their name.

We have massive advantages over our competitors that have to touch their parts two, three, four or five times,” Whitmire says. “We end up honestly touching our material from start to finish twice. We load the material and unload the parts washer – everything else in between there has become very automated.”

Whitmire says he’s got four more PMI-Auto24 DTS machines on the way to his facility and plans for future growth, which includes frequently communicating with Thornton about new ideas for technology that can boost production.

We are constantly growing,” he says. “We’re expanding right now at our site in Dallas, N.C., and we have plans to open another location in Texas or New Mexico at some point in the next 24 months. This is only possible with the machines and support that Pat Mooney Saws provides. The equipment has given us the ability to be competitive in a landscape that is difficult to be profitable in.”

Pat Mooney Saws

Productive Tool