Rocker Science – and the Art of Automation

Step out of the South Florida sunshine into a cool white building. Pass a display of newly manufactured medical instruments in the lobby, and continue down a spotless glass-walled corridor toward a doorway marked “R&D Lab.” You might assume you’ve entered one of the region’s top medical research facilities. And then you’re startled by the bark of a 500-horsepower engine roaring to life on a dynamometer beyond the portal. This is not your typical manufacturing shop.

Scorpion Performance of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, manufactures aftermarket automotive parts for the performance racing industry – and they produce them with a passion. They have to; there’s a world of competition out there. There’s also a serious sense of conviction in founder Robert Stopanio’s voice when he emphasizes: “We face manufacturing competition from everywhere today, especially from Asia.” Then he smiles and says, “The good news is, we’re winning!”

It’s a familiar story. As more manufacturing work goes overseas in search of cheaper labor, companies throughout North America are feeling the competition – including Scorpion. After thoroughly analyzing his situation, Stopanio set a clear, head-on course of action for the company. “Equipment is available the world over, and aluminum is the same commodity everywhere,” he explains, “but Asian manufacturers have that one enormous advantage over us: inexpensive labor. We decided to fight that advantage with our own ‘strong suit’: automation.”

Scorpion’s signature products are high-performance rocker arms – bolt-on replacements for the pivoting levers that sit in the cylinder heads atop most internal combustion engines, opening and closing the valves. Speed enthusiasts know that one of the easiest and least expensive ways to get more power from an engine is to swap out the standard OEM rockers with higher-performance sets, which often retail for less than $300. Scorpion’s products are well designed, well made and expertly marketed. Business is great.

Scorpion has been steadily increasing its production for years. And in 2007, the 45-worker, 3-shift shop manufactured nearly a half-million rocker arms, which sold through a network of approximately 100 distributors and private labels. The growing company is now poised at a productivity “tipping point,” and Stopanio is determined to shake up the industry. It won’t be the first time this clever entrepreneur has made waves.

In the Beginning

Stopanio first developed a passion for engines and speed in his teens, while working at the local Miami-Hollywood Speedway. He soon began moonlighting as a custom builder, souping up big marine engines for offshore racing enthusiasts. He became known for doing things right, and exceeding the expectations of his customers. Stopanio and Blue Thunder Engines, the cutting-edge company he established, quickly gained fame in offshore racing circles around the world.

That marine racing environment, where millisecond success was often the result of both scientific analysis and mechanical tinkering, is what shaped Stopanio’s future. It also proved the value of analytical research and development. “In racing, if you follow the leaders, you’ll always be behind them,” Stopanio observes. “You have to do research and development in order to stay ahead.” It’s a firm belief that he’s carried over into manufacturing.

Stopanio’s in-house manufacturing began when he discovered there were very few reliable sources for the rocker arms his demanding engines required, so he researched the problem and developed a way to make his own. Recognizing this as yet another unique opportunity, Stopanio launched Scorpion Performance in 1999. He brought over the team of engine builders and engineers he’d groomed at Blue Thunder, and began another determined race to contribute to the automotive performance industry with products “Made in America, and Proud of it.”


Smart Machine Details

Scorpion’s rocker arms start out as cut-to-length extrusions of 7000-series aluminum. They’re milled on six sides, drilled in two axes, CMM inspected, de-burred, mirror-polished, anodized and laser-etched before going to the assembly area. There, steel trunnion seats, pins and rollers are pressed in automatically. It’s work that’s either labor-intensive or machine-intensive, depending on how you approach it. Stopanio uses automated machines to do as much of the work as possible.
On the shop floor, Scorpion engineer Billy Allen shows how they do it. He points to a large, wire safety-cage containing three 5-axis Haas VF-2SS Super Speed vertical machining centers flanked by various tooling stations he designed and integrated. A bright yellow FANUC M-16 robotic arm, floor-mounted in the center, serves the entire cell. Allen says the integration between the FANUC arm and the Haas controls was quite straightforward. “We do all the engineering in-house,” he explains, noting that the robots arrive as bare arms with actuators. “The interface electronics, the solenoid valves, the special tooling, and all the stuff on top, we design ourselves.” It’s a reliable production system that works around the clock.

A lot happens during each of the machines’ 3-minute cycles. First, extruded aluminum bars, loaded in quantity through a wide slot in the cage, are cut to length by a gravity-fed, servo-controlled chop saw. Next, the robot grabs the freshly cut piece and loads it into the first VF-2SS. Blurring through a full 340-degree arc, the yellow arm dives into one machine, and then another, transferring the evolving rocker arm through a range of shaping, boring and probing operations. Finally, the robot holds each machined part over a de-burring polisher, before dropping it onto a conveyor that carries the completed piece to a collection station outside the cage.
If done manually, the eight-step process would require the same five pieces of equipment, but an additional four operators – and a lot more time. “We still have earlier hand-loaded configurations in operation,” notes Allen. “They work well, and add to our production. You can actually see our evolution throughout the shop. We started out with Haas VF-4s fitted with simple, efficient, multi-part fixtures. We then moved to 4-axis Super Speed VF-4s with high-speed tool changers, and used more complex pin-indexed fixturing. Now, with the latest automated cells, we’re running three generations of production on the floor. Every time we come up with a new idea,” he adds, “things just get faster!”

The newest robotic cell produces one complete rocker every minute. “Speed is important,” Allen contends, “but the really creative part is designing a cell that will work flawlessly – 24 hours a day.”


Their Own Destiny

Robotic technologies are obviously the key element in Scorpion’s battle to compete with low-wage factories. “But it comes down to more than just integrating a robot,” says Stopanio. “Through our R&D efforts, we’ve perfected good product designs, and developed a lot of smart tooling and fixtures for these fast Haas machines. And, of course, we control our own destiny by doing as much as possible in-house.”

When Scorpion was first getting started, the shop batched 100 parts at a time, and sent them out for anodizing. But they soon became frustrated with the inevitable variations in the returned units. More than just appearance was at stake – parts left too long in the acid bath would develop blown-out holes. Later, during assembly, press-fit bearings would fall right through the oversized IDs, and an entire week’s work would have to be scrapped.

As a result, the shop was forced to develop in-house finishing and anodizing capabilities to hold the tolerances they demanded. “When you’re making small, precision parts, the number-one thing you have to focus on is quality,” says Stopanio. The episode marks the beginning of a “control your own destiny” creed that has since become a major part of Scorpion’s business philosophy.

Today, the company anodizes all their own products, as well as a wide variety of precision parts for other manufacturers – including the demanding optical- and medical-instrument industries. Scorpion is preparing to automate the critical chemical processes with robotic installations similar to their successful machining cells. Again, instead of depending on the robot manufacturers to integrate their equipment into Scorpion’s existing production lines, Stopanio has put his street-smart engineers to work designing complete, self-contained robotic cells around Haas machines. “Once again,” he stresses, “it’s a matter of controlling our own destiny.

“When a private-label client calls us at nine in the morning and says he needs a set of specific-ratio rockers with a custom color and logo on them, it’s no problem for us. By 4:30 that afternoon, we’re shipping it out in a custom-designed box,” Stopanio notes.

No Limiting Factors

“Our only limitation here is space,” says Stopanio. “We have 30,000 square feet, but our machines are installed out to the back door, and there’s just no more room.” To solve the problem, Stopanio is having an additional 80,000-sq-ft manufacturing facility, comprising three buildings, built in Ocala, Florida. He already has machines and robotic equipment in storage, anticipating the big move-in, and he’s planning for ISO certification to further enhance Scorpion’s production capability. As you might expect, the new facility will be fully automated, using Scorpion’s latest generation of ideas.

“We’ve got the system down so well that we can make a product, turn it around quickly and fully compete with companies in Asia,” Stopanio states. “Now comes the expansion; there’s no limits. We’ll probably have 90 Haas machines in our second location.”
“Everybody thought Rob was crazy when he started this venture,” remembers Scorpion’s Vice President of Marketing, Moe Rustam. “They said: ‘The Asian manufactures are going to kill you!’ But Rob’s vision was greater than all that.

“I suppose that’s a lot like Haas making machines in California and selling them in China. People just find it hard to believe. But when you’ve got a good quality product, and you do a good job with automated manufacturing – and you stand behind your name – you’re going to be successful.”

Story and photos by Richard Berry