The small town of Rugles is approximately 130km north of Le Mans, venue of the world’s greatest 24hr motor race. If you were born in Rugles and you had even the slightest interest in anything mechanical, chances are that you’d pay attention for one week of every year when race teams from around the planet pass the front door of your family home on their way to what enthusiasts regard a hallowed and magical place.
Jean Michel Vallet did. In fact, like many of his contemporaries, Vallet was smitten by the sights and sounds of Le Mans and decided at an early age that one day he’d own and race his own sports car.
In the intervening 40 years or so, Monsieur Vallet has built his eponymous engineering workshop by making precision components for mostly local companies, but always with one eye on his long-held dream of building a race car and one day, perhaps, driving it at Le Mans.
In the long interval, Vallet has honed his knowledge and skills as a manufacturing engineer. In the early 1970’s he was quick to realise the potential of CNC, investing in the first of many numerically controlled machines. Within 20 years, his collection of machine tools was, he says, eclectic. Then, in the late 1990’s the time came to move to new premises; it was the ideal opportunity to streamline the company’s workshop.
“When we built this new factory, we had something like 7 different makes of CNC machine tools,” he says. “Running the factory was complicated and inefficient. For the sake of productivity, we had to standardise.”
In 1998, Vallet took a trip to the Paris machine tool show where, for the first time, he came across Haas CNC machine tools.
“We found the best machines for our growing company,” he says. “For a start, all Haas machines have the same control, which means if you can program one, you can program all of them. Plus, they’re powerful with lots of torque, which is ideal because we often use large diameter end mills on stainless steel.”
He was also impressed with the Haas’ 4th axis capabilities: All Haas milling machines have 4th axis software as standard and can be quickly and easily fitted with a Haas rotary table.
“It’s as simple as plug and play,” says Vallet.
A few years down the line and the company boasts an armoury of Haas machines, including a VF-9 vertical machining centre.
Vallet began by supplying a local company making machines for bottling plants. Today, the company’s bread-and-butter work, the work which will pay for M. Vallet to pursue his motor racing dream, is mainly making parts for companies building food packaging and processing machines, plus some special and secretive aerospace projects, which he’s reluctant to discuss in detail, accept to reveal that customers include big names such as EADS and Dassault.
‘We make scale models of new and also prototype aircraft, which are used for wind tunnel testing and are full of sensors measuring airflow and aerodynamic forces. We also make five axis parts for our aerospace customers, which are actually comparatively straight forward to machine. The trickiest parts we make are for the food processing industry, machined from special stainless steels. These parts often have very tight tolerances, which is a challenge because we have to find ways of making them at the price the customer wants to pay. It’s demanding work, which we’re able to do because we use accurate but relatively low-cost machine tools.”
In Vallet’s busy workshop is a line of Haas machines including eight CNC vertical machining centres and five CNC turning centres. One, a Haas VF-1, runs 24 hours a day using a Kuka robot arm to change parts. An adjacent PC, using software designed personally by M. Vallet, controls the robot separately. PC’s interconnect all the machining stations, allowing managers to keep tight control of planning and scheduling. The factory runs 3 shifts and 24 hours a day; 10 Haas machines running through the night with just 5 operators on duty.
Seeing the Future
Whatever your art, part of the genius in creativity is vision. Michelangelo looked at a lump of marble and saw the shape of David, Goliath’s nemesis. All he had to do was chip away the excess stone. There are more than 75,000 Haas CNC machine tools installed around the world, a great many being used by people with undeniable vision and creativity. But, who amongst them could stand in front of a Haas VF-9 and see a racing car? That’s creativity of a different order. Engineering genius!
“My aim,” says Vallet, with a flickering smile, “is to create an entire racing car from just six solid blocks of Aluminium, in 70 hours, using only four tools.”
Big blocks of Aluminium, he admits, but just six, from which he intends to machine all of the major and supporting structural components, including the chassis, suspension, mounting brackets, etc. No castings, no extrusions, just solid parts.
“We’ll buy-in brakes, glass, wheels, that sort of thing,” he says, “we’ll make the body from glass fibre and we’ll use an Alfa Romeo V6 engine, giving 340hp. But otherwise, we’ll make it here, on one Haas machine, in less than a week of running two shifts a day.”
When M. Vallet says it, it sounds so simple. One of those ‘why didn’t I think of that’ moments. If he succeeds, and the serious look in his eye says he intends to, he could be racing the car in a year or two. Expected cost? €100,000 for a road going version: considerably more for something capable of putting up a good fight at the famous 24 heures du Mans.
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