21st century tools

For those tool and die departments stuck in the 1970s, here are some upgrade options to make them run smoother


Hand-sharpened, high-speed steel tool bits and drills. Vises and toolholders bought some time during the Reagan era. Machine tools that were paid off when office printers sported dot matrix heads, and produced amortization schedules on green and white lined paper.

Some might argue that the toolroom shouldn’t be a profit center, so why invest in better equipment or tooling? Its sole purpose is to serve the company’s real moneymakers, the stampers and press brakes and turret punches; as long as the miracle workers back there can keep doing their jobs, the financial focus should be on the production area. 

And while a certain amount of that statement is true, it’s equally true that toolrooms should be every bit as efficient as the rest of the shop. After all, the journeymen working there are some of the highest paid employees on the shop floor – increasing their output is good for the bottom line. And don’t forget, a bottleneck or quality problem in the toolroom can send on-time delivery shockwaves rippling from the front office all the way to the shipping door.

Cutting tools

You can start with the cutting tools. Yes, high-speed steel (HSS) turning tools and milling cutters are inexpensive. They’re also tough, able to take abuse that would send their carbide equivalents to the recycling bin.

Unfortunately, they’re far slower than carbide. That means a core pin or gear shaft that takes an hour to turn with HSS can easily be completed in 15 min. or less with a carbide insert, with no need to stop for resharpening. 

“I get calls all the time from people looking for 1/2-in. or 5/8-in.-sq. HSS tool blanks for their engine lathes and toolroom lathes,” says Rodrigo Valdes-Moreno, machine tool accessory and knurling technical support engineer at tooling provider Dorian Tool International. “They have it in their head that carbide inserts and drills are only for high-production work, so they keep to their trusty old hand-ground tool bits. They just want to stick with what they know.”

Valdes-Moreno says carbide cutting tool technology is “getting better all the time, with prices dropping to the point that there’s simply no reason to use anything else.” Examples include a wide assortment of indexable turning and milling tools as well as options for anti-vibration boring tools, grooving tools and taps, and coolant-fed toolholders for improved tool life, many of them available in cartridge-style configurations for fast changeover and increased flexibility.

There’s also no reason to use an old-fashioned tool post on your lathe, not when quick-change options are available. “Our Quadra tool post is similar to the wedge-style posts that most shops are familiar with, but offers 15-degree indexing and a positive locking mechanism for better repeatability,” Valdes-Moreno adds.


Chuck it up

The same can be said for milling holders. Many shops still rely on R8 collets for all of their manual knee mill toolholding needs; if they’re lucky, the machine is equipped with a power drawbar, but even so, tool changes can take several minutes and leave the tool at a different length each time it’s changed.

Tom Sheridan, vice president of marketing at Royal Products, suggests one of the company’s Easychange R8 quick-change tool systems will greatly reduce this wasted time and provide consistent tool lengths on top of that.

“The Easychange is accurate, rigid and has a relatively short overhang,” he says. “There’s a brass button on the side that you press in with your thumb and then rotate a clamping collar around 15 degrees. The tool and its holder simply drop into your hand. It literally takes seconds.”

Another big timesaver is an Albrecht keyless drill chuck, which is available with integral R8 shanks, explains Sheridan. These chucks are more accurate than traditional drill chucks and eliminate having to search for a chuck key whenever you make a tool change.

Yet, Sheridan notes that the days of accessorizing manual machine tools are slowly going the way of 8-track tapes.

“Even in our own toolroom here at Royal, we still have some manual equipment, but like many shops, we’ve installed combo machines that can be operated in CNC mode,” he says.


Half the time

For not much more than the price of a good engine lathe or knee mill, it’s possible to buy a so-called combo machine. As the name implies, these can be operated as fully automatic CNCs, by cranking the handles as you would a piece of manual equipment, or whatever combination of the two you desire.

Larry Fryer, president of Fryer Machine Systems Inc., says combo machines offer a best-of-both-worlds solution to those that need to whip up a simple prototype one day and run a small production run the next. Programming is accomplished by “teaching” the machine or via a CAM system and G-code like any other CNC machine tool.

Thanks to sophisticated CNC software, combo machines also make difficult tasks like single-point threading or hogging out a large pocket as easy as answering a few questions, but they also allow the operator to machine the rest of the part manually, if desired.

“I need the ability to run this machine tool manually, but I also want the computer there in case I need to perform a complex operation,” Fryer says. “The result of all this increased flexibility is that I should be able make the first part in half the time. If I’m producing more than one, the rest of them are basically free, but it’s that first part that counts. Anyone looking to improve their toolroom operations by buying a combo machine needs to use this as their benchmark.”


Hum along

Combo machines should also be easy to use. Most tool makers don’t want to be bothered with G-code or CAM software, so if they can’t get the simpler tasks done as they always have, then they won’t bother using it, Fryer says.

“This is accomplished through a simple to use, conversational programming system that allows a skilled machinist to stand in front of the machine, understand the screens, and enter data quickly and efficiently,” he says. “And again, if anyone wants to use the machine as a conventional mill or lathe, have at it. Just remember, the goal behind any combo machine should be to make the first part in half the time.”

There’s far more to most toolrooms than the chipmaking equipment described here. Wire and sinker EDMs, surface grinders, hole poppers and honing machines – these and other machine tools (and the people who run them) are responsible for keeping the rest of the shop humming.

As with the mills and lathes just discussed, it’s important to stay current on technology, and provide the wizards in the tool and die room with whatever accessories are needed to get the job done. That includes high-quality toolholders, cutting tools and workholding, preferably with an eye toward efficient machining.

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