Market Looks Razor Sharp

Great strides continue to be made in the cutting tool/toolholder market that result in reduced benchtime and additional handwork, as well as heavier depths-of-cut—adding up to increased productivity and higher accuracy.

In the past 10 years, the cutting tool/toolholder industry has continually improved in kind with the increased use of high-speed machining (HSM) and high productivity machining (HPM) on shop floors across the country. The tools are more sophisticated and advanced to address the industry’s constant quest to reduce leadtimes while maintaining standards of high quality. Fortunately, cutting tool manufacturers, machine tool builders, CAD/CAM suppliers and other product and equipment suppliers are beginning to work together to benefit the moldmaking industry. Below leading cutting tool and toolholder manufacturers and suppliers revisit the past, discuss present trends, and take a look ahead.

 

Industry Changes

The industry has made impressive strides over the past decade. Brendt Holden, President, Haimer USA (Villa Park, IL), points out that recent advances in toolholder and cutting tool technology have made it possible for the moldmakers of North America to reduce benching time and additional hand work on molds. “The advances in cutting tools were seen in new cutting tool geometries and special coatings,” Holden explains. “The biggest toolholder advancement was the integration of shrink fit toolholders to the industry. These two advances combined to make it possible for moldmakers to hardmill (rather than strictly relying on EDM) and machine closer to net shape right from the get-go. The shrink fit toolholders also made it possible for slim toolholder profiles to be utilized to help eliminate the collision factor in relationship to draft angles in molds. Also, shrink fit extensions solved many difficult problems presented with large deep cavity molds. Finally, the consistency of the setup (balance, run-out, etc.) of shrink fit holders has allowed mold builders to put lights-out machining into practice. This would not have been possible were it not for consistent and reliable toolholding.”

In agreement is Mike MacArthur, National Sales Manager, RobbJack Corp. (Lincoln, CA). “The evolution of cutting tools has been dramatic over the last 10 years,” he notes. “What once was considered impossible is now commonplace. Ten years ago the perception of hard milling was that of a mysterious art with little information and limited anecdotal evidence. Now there is a plethora of information as well as a multitude of choices for cutting tools. Ten years ago you were lucky if you could find a ball end mill to cut 50+ HRc material. Now there are bull nose, ball nose and toroidal tools—to name just a few. The tools have taken on very specific roles depending on the application. Now there are specific carbide grades, coatings and geometries to match the customer’s needs.”

William Fiorenza, Product Manager, Die and Mold, Ingersoll Cutting Tools (Member IMC Group, Rockford, IL), points out that this industry has a reputation of being able to tackle very difficult machining applications, due in part to the very unusual and sometimes seemingly impossible part geometries it is force to deal with/machine. “Over the last 10 or so years the industry as a whole has learned to leverage the advances made in high-speed machining via advanced machine tool, cutting tool and EDM technologies.

“Further back than 10 years ago limitations in the machine tool technologies and cutting tool technologies forced mold and die manufactures to leverage their metal removal processes with heavier depths of cuts and older machines that were built for heavier depths,” Fiorenza continues. “These limitations made for longer lead/delivery times and limited the amount of work they could take on. These older machining practices were many time very manual in nature, relying on a lot on man power and highly skilled labor. Often toolmakers/moldmakers made their own tools when required. Today’s mold and die industry still requires highly skilled individuals, but the industry is benefiting from new technologies that help increase productivity. Some forms of increase are through modern machine tools, modern cutting tool technologies, workholding technologies, advanced CAD/CAM technologies (virtual simulations, analysis, verification, etc.), and concurrent engineering practices/better communication.”

David J. Povich, President, Round Tool Laboratories—A Tool Alliance Co. (Huntington Beach, CA), believes that advanced machinery and programming has enabled cutting tool manufacturers (especially solid carbide rounds) to become more technology driven. “Geometries, substrates and coatings have been improved to run faster and longer—yet be applied to even harder materials,” he notes. “Changes in tooling paths used to cut molds have dictated that the cutting tool, software, and machining center work in a cooperative manner to achieve peak efficiency.”

Peak efficiency also is paramount at Sandvik Coromant (Fair Lawn, NJ). “Today’s mold manufacturers are working smarter, not harder,” points out William Durow, Milling Specialist. “Some of the more recent changes have been high-speed machining in hardened steel. With today’s harder carbide grades, higher spindle speed machines and more accurate and rigid machines and toolholding systems makes life a little easier for the manufacturers, but only if they are willing to make the investments and keep themselves competitive.”

Duane Drape, National Sales Manager, HORN USA, Inc. (Franklin, TN), sees a reluctant change in the last decade. “U.S. industry has seen the mold industry leave the U.S. for other locations with lower labor costs,” he explains. “The U.S. was slow to adapt—for a variety of reasons both micro and macro—to new technology in machinery, tooling, software and fixturing, etc. The change went from a labor-intensive to a capital-intensive industry and we fell short. Those who took the plunge are running well with more than enough business to support the future.”

Expanding on Drape’s sentiments is Bob Goulding, Seco Tools, Inc. (Troy, MI), who adds that the U.S. has been under considerable pressure these past 10 years as the market continues to shrink. “I believe that locally, in Michigan, it should improve slightly with re-tooling of the new vehicles,” he predicts. “Mold and die was very prolific in Portugal for awhile, but now we also see that slowing down and business going much more to the Far East. However, there is a caveat with this offshoring—if a company needs rapid changes or fixes, they have to bring it back to U.S. to get it done.”

Peter Matysiak, President of Emuge Corp. (West Boylston, MA) adds that nearly half of North American moldmakers were decimated due to off-shore competition. “For instance, manufacturing in China became a huge factor because the cost of materials and labor overseas are significantly less than what they are in North America,” Matysiak says. “Manufacturers simply could not ignore their bottom line. As a result, to give an example, many of the moldmaking shops in the Detroit/Windsor area were shuttered.

“However, moldmakers in North America who have embraced new cutting technology and lean manufacturing principles have adapted to this aggressive, global competitiveness and are well poised for success,” he adds. “And as a result, the moldmaking industry is still intact.”

 

Product Line Changes

Seco’s Goulding points out that the main area of change in cutting tool products related to the fact that machine tools can now run at higher data, specifically high table feedrates—in addition to more accurate machines and the improved ability to manufacture components in hardened states and to remove secondary operations like polishing. “That ability (to machine components in hardened states) has reduced our reliance on EDM,” he states. “We can now do similar operations with the smaller tools that are now available—like endmills with tolerances of .004".”

Fiorenza of Ingersoll Cutting Tools agrees, noting that advancements in manufacturing processes have allowed the production of cutting tools to become very efficient. “This efficiency translates into stock standard availability/product that is on the shelf, shorter manufacturing times, and rapid product development and refinement—running changes based on customer and application needs.” He add that additional advancements include coating technologies and the manufacture of those technologies (coating) that have propelled cutting tools to the next level of productivity, which were not as readily available ten years ago. “Modern manufacturing processes have allowed more rapid development and allowed for responsiveness to the end-user,” Fiorenza comments. “The cutting tool industry will always evolve in response to industry needs.”

Weighing in is Povich of Round Tool. “The typical job today—relative to a decade ago—is more specialized, serving a more diverse industrial base, yet provided in smaller lots. Our companies have responded by offering a high degree of customized specialization in tool design, substrates, coatings and edge preparations. Additionally, we’ve allowed our customer base to design application-specific specials online from our Web site, giving them immediate access to pricing and delivery. Leadtimes for coated specials are now measured in days instead of weeks or months.”

Robbjack’s MacArthur adds that the industry has experienced a leap frog effect with regards to machine tool capabilities, cutting tools and programming techniques. “With each advancement, the weakest link has been forced to try to keep up with the others—helping drive the technologies of hard metal machining forward,” he explains. “Ten years ago many tools were specials now most tools are offered as standards. There are greater demands put on mold manufactures to build a mold faster, cheaper, and to tighter tolerances only dreamed of years ago. The quality of tools has had to evolve. We also are seeing an increase of modified standards, where customers will use standard tools modified with specific draft angles to match their molds. It seems the successful mold builders are those who are more agile. Cutting tool manufacturers have to remain agile to keep up with these new demands.”

These new demands have resulted in Horn USA’s improving their manufacturing processes while generally not increasing their prices. “We have installed a very large quantity of new grinders and multi-axis machining centers in this time period to meet the demand and reduce the costs,” Drape states. “Our measuring of complex forms and super accurate tolerances has moved from optical to video. This provides a much more efficient and more accurate measuring.”

Accuracy and efficiency also are paramount at Emuge. “We need to not only offer the best in precision cutting tools including tools that are very application-specific, but also have our tools help accommodate new processes for machining the mold right the first time in order to reduce the number of operations and decrease costs,” Matysiak states. “One important process being utilized is zero stock machining (ZSM). ZSM—also referred to as net shape or negative stock machining—is the practice of producing mold components without leaving excess stock. It requires that several elements, specifically the machine tool, programming and tooling, all be used in harmony to achieve the desired result. ZSM provides several important advantages to moldmakers. Time-consuming EDM and manual operations—such as polishing, fitting, spotting and finishing—can be eliminated. Also, assembly and the overall moldmaking process time can be greatly reduced. And today’s expensive, more exotic material/scrap also is avoided.”

With regards to coatings, Durow of Sandvik Coromant notes that the company has developed stressless coatings and harder carbide grades for hardened steel, which are both wear resistant and tough, and an extremely accurate toolholding system. “We also must consider our relationships with the machine tool builders and work together to help mold manufacturers.”

Over at Haimer Tool, Holden points out that their product line (toolholders for machining centers) has had to become more flexible and application-specific than it was 10 years ago. “This flexibility was needed to help provide solutions to our customers in order that they may machine their molds using new methods to stay competitive,” he says. “Also, our solutions had to be readily available and somewhat standard. Examples of the flexibility can be seen in slim profile holders, anti-vibration holders, and our extension system, which allows for special solutions or longer reach with standard products (in the past, deep reach solutions could only be accommodated through specials—which took time and cost the customer a lot of extra money). In addition, with the introduction and industry acceptance of the HSK taper (due to the increase in high-speed spindles, the HSK taper provides the ability for the taper to move with the spindle at high speeds, and the “Z” axis control that HSK provides moldmakers), we have had to expand our inventory to include many different tapers to accommodate customer needs.”

Jack Burley, Vice President of Engineering and Sales, BIG Kaiser Precision Tooling Inc. (Elk Grove Village, IL), notes that dual-contact tooling is a significant market development. “Complex and high-tolerance molds require toolmakers to have a keen awareness of better-productivity tools that have tighter tolerances, hold tighter tolerances and maintain cutter life longer,” he states. “With dual-contact tooling, when the tool goes into the spindle it doesn’t just locate on the taper but on a face surface, which increases its rigidity and the accuracy of the tool change. “This also eliminates centrifugal force and heat expansion. “Machines can do high-speed cutting, accommodate high-speed feeds and improve process reliability.”

 

Future Challenges

Cutting tool manufacturers predict continued advancements over the next decade. “I see an increased ability to expand into areas that we can machine with cutting tools versus having to rely upon other processes,” notes Seco Tools’ Goulding. “I see an increased ability to expand into areas that we can machine with cutting tools versus having to rely upon other processes. The machine tools will be more interactive for producing dies. New processes, similar in nature to the development of high-feed milling, will certainly evolve. Another process that would revolutionize the industry is rapid prototyping. Currently, tremendous power is needed for rapid prototyping but as it evolves—which it surely will—the whole cutting tool industry will need to take a look at the very essence of their business.”

Emuge’s Matysiak also is optimistic about the future. “Certainly, for the next 10 years, anything can happen; but I think we can look at current developments to get a good indicator of what is to come,” he states. “I see no reason why the current resurgence of manufacturing in North America will abate, as long as we apply the latest technology, establish industry collaboration between moldmakers and cutting tool/machine manufacturers, and also take advantage of economic opportunities whenever they present themselves, such as in our current scenario. The bottom line is the U.S. can compete on any level—anywhere in the world—through our technology prowess, our products, expertise and resourcefulness.”

Haimer’s Holden notes that cutting tool manufacturers are constantly developing new technologies in conjunction with toolholder advances. “In the future, I see the acceptance of shrink fit toolholders as the standard for moldmaking and the HSK taper as a standard continuing,” he explains. “These two advances, combined with software and machine tool developments, allow moldmakers to standardize on cutting to net shape and lights-out machining. These technologies will allow for moldmaking companies to feel comfortable in adopting these practices—allowing them to stay globally competitive and profitable.”

Ingersoll Cutting Tool’s Fiorenza predicts advancements in coating technologies, and adds that design improvements will allow cutters to “run faster via better carbide/substrate, coatings and cutting edge geometries. Cutter body advancements also will offer increased rigidity in short and long reach applications.

“Additionally, I see our customers working more closely with us,” Fiorenza continues. “They are communicating better all of the time, making use of the Internet (data, photos)—which makes the job of tooling design and refinement much quicker than in the past. So essentially, due to advancements in the way we communicate in today’s manufacturing environments, tooling developments should be more fast track; and productivity gains should continue to rise over the next 10 years.”

Drape of Horn USA agrees about the state of the market. “I believe the U.S. and North American marketplace will grow tremendously over the next 10 years, but I also see a drop in employment in the industry,” he comments. “We can produce substantially more product with fewer employees than ever before. Low wage countries will continue to force us to automate processes, which will result in our ability to reign in cost increases. The value of the dollar will gradually increase versus other currencies; however, hopefully by that time we will be in a position with the help of technology advances to maintain the productivity and generation of products—even though our pricing will appear to be slightly higher than it currently sits with the US dollar as cheap as it is.”

Foreign competition will continue to be a challenge, adds Povich of Round Tool. “A market-based pricing scenario for Asian currencies, finally playing out after years of government-led manipulation, will lead to a resurgence in the North American mold and die mold market,” he predicts. “Coupled with new technologies and smaller, leaner market participants, a robust industry will serve the higher value-added demand chain.”

Durow of Sandvik adds that he sees more competition from lower wage countries; less and less skilled workers and more innovations in CAD/CAM; tooling and machine tools; and tougher materials to machine.

Growth also is on MacArthur of Robbjack’s mind. “I believe the market will progress to demand faster delivery times, tighter tolerances and shorter runs,” he concludes. “Material sciences also will improve—bringing its own set of challenges of cutting these exotic materials. The future is bright for those who continue to look ahead and stay at the forefront of technology pushing the limits and never being satisfied with the status quo.”

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