Cutting Tool industry insiders discuss the innovations and necessary adjustments needed to overcome current and future challenges
There is no shortage of obstacles in the path of cutting tool manufacturers. New materials are proving to be difficult to machine, and the country seems to be churning out less and less qualified talent to meet the challenges. But that doesn't stop the industry's top players from enthusiastically discussing how they plan to overcome these challenges and thrive in their business.
Sponsored by Mori Seiki, the WESTEC Cutting Tool Roundtable event took place on March 26 in Los Angeles. Editor-in-Chief Tom Grasson sat down with 12 representatives from cutting tool manufacturing companies to find out what's on their minds.
AMD: How has the cutting tool industry changed over the last five years?
Jack Burley: Coming out of the 2001 recession, I think everyone was just in recovery mode. Everyone was thinking, "How can we sell more of our products?" As far as the technical aspect, more and more companies are trying to address the needs of nickel-based alloys. As a boring-tool manufacturer, we're under constant demands to give more process and repeatability with the high-nickel alloys.
Gary Vanderpol: What we're trying to do on the boring tool side is to create a stable platform for the inserts to run at higher speeds and feeds.
AMD: What is the single most important issue facing the industry today?
Dennis Dewey: We've got to continue to increase our technology knowledge and implement our findings. Cutting tool manufacturers need to spend as much as possible on R&D. Manufacturers need to keep an eye trained toward the future - try to compete before we get behind. Have a vision of what is coming and don't wait to be reactive; be proactive.
Trace Jacobs: Much of what we're dealing with right now emphasizes on stopping the flow of manufacturing that is leaving the country. We are working to be more proactive in developing new tools, niche products, things that will help our customers find a faster productivity gain in their facility, to help them keep their work in the U.S. Niche products seem to be the big focus.
Mike Parker: It's the best educated that can actually use the new techniques and developments that are available. Custom education can gain the productivity that you were talking about. Then we can really improve productivity utilizing the potential of the latest carbide and coatings.
Francois Gau: The thing we find out most when we go to our customers is actually the lack of available resources, so we've got to fix that as an industry. The imbalance of mechanical engineering graduates out of the U.S. vs. the rest of the world is growing. So this is one of the things we face as a cutting tool vendor in the industry right now: helping our customers substitute for talent when and where it makes sense.
Steve Swift: Society has driven the workforce that we need out of the sciences and into communication and liberal arts. Starting from kindergarten, we've got to change that trend. If we're going to be a manufacturing nation, we've got to raise our kids to do those jobs that we expect to get done.
AMD: Do you think it's just here in the United States, or do you think this is a world-wide problem in Europe, Asia and South America?
Gau: This is not the same everywhere, compared to the United States. If you go to Europe, and Germany in particular, it's a fairly natural route for people to go into manufacturing. It's a good thing. We need to attract these kids to come to work in the industry, and we don't do a good enough job of this. This is going to be the biggest impact in the industry in the long run.
Dave Watson: If we go back ten years, we'd probably be saying the same thing about education. I remember a lot of people saying ten years ago we had the same problem with manufacturing. But at least today, the economy's better. There's more investment in the United States and there's more machine tools being purchased in the United States. It needs to be improved, but I think there's at least progress in that respect.
Parker: Programs such as apprenticeships are a very good base education for engineers - three or four years training where students can experience each area.
Jacobs: The apprenticeship programs at the shop level and at the customer level have gone away completely. We're seeing them start to come back - in a limited manner. Many people are getting to the point where they're realizing "we have to do something, we have to train our people," and the education is a great place to start, but it has to evolve into a place where they can get reallife experience as well.
AMD: Looking at the challenge of new materials, is the cutting tool industry prepared to effectively cut materials such as 5553 Titanium, composites, CGI?
Gau: You can cut those materials; there's little magic to it. Titanium 5553, for example, is still titanium and you can cut it. It is not an impossible task. Can you effectively cut those materials would be my preferred question. And my answer to this is, not yet as a standard product off the shelf. We are working together with our customers there to fine tune our products to the application at hand. The way we do this is through a joint partnership for development of these new technologies with our customers.
Bill Sebring: Materials such as Titanium 5553 are increasing in applications. Expectations need to be clearly defined when developing milling applications for materials such as Ti 5553 and composites. Ti 5553 can be effectively machined through proper testing, development and documentation.
AMD: As materials get harder to cut, do you view grinding as a threat to the cutting tool industry? Why or why not?
Carsten Lehmann: For certain applications, grinding can be an option. However, this can be costly, when compared to cutting tools, because grinding typically requires a special dedicated machine and an additional setup if other operations are required. Cutting tools can be interchangeable among a variety of mills, lathes and machining centers. Grinding can be appropriate for applications like facing and turning, but for other applications, such as holemaking, cutting tools provide probably the only viable solution.
AMD: As machine tools become capable of supporting grinding, milling and turning, do you anticipate migration from one type of tooling to another? In what direction and at what rate?
Greg Hyatt: As the machine tool becomes more flexible, more agile and can support grinding as well as turning or milling, cutting tool manufacturers will not only be competing with one another, but competing with manufacturers of grinding tools, if the customer is capable at any point in the life of that machine of taking the hard turning operation from CBN or ceramic to a grinding tool, or vise versa. The customer is going to have the ability to move back and forth between grinding, milling and turning. My speculation is that it will create opportunities both for the cutting tool manufacturers and for the grinding wheel manufactures.
Burley: The problem that you have is the wheel needs one type of interface and the dresser needs a different type. So we work with the builders to try to find that ideal, stable environment for grinding and for process dressing at the same time. I think it's going to help us grow, because it is an opportunity that we were never involved with before; grinding on machines.
AMD: Is there anything new on the horizon to replace carbide cutting tools?
Bob Troller: I think coatings are still the area that we have a lot of room to play with, and we can still get a lot of productivity out of existing carbide tools.
Sebring: The transition from HSS/ HSCO substrates has taken many years, and continues to evolve. In some applications HSS/HSCO continues to be the best solution. We do not see anything at the moment that will replace cemented carbide for a given application. Cemented carbide will continue to be the predominant substrate material for solid endmills. Some of the advancements that we are developing to improve the performance of solid carbide endmills are pre-coating cutting edge treatments, as well as post-coating surface treatments. Both have proven to add significant value through increased performance, reliability and predictability.
AMD: What are your views on coated tools; will they continue to grow in popularity?
Sebring: Absolutely. Thin film coatings are absolutely important in being able to machine these titanium-based materials and nickel-based alloys.
Vanderpol: When you look at sales of the high-speed tools and the carbide tools, and the percentage of cutting tools that are high-speed vs. carbide, high-speed percentage is going down. Over time, there will definitely be a place for high-speed in certain applications, but carbide tools - whether it's a solid, round or insert - are definitely going to continue from what we see in our forecasting, compared to high-speed.
Watson: I think with the nickel-based alloys, the titaniums and the high-temperature materials, you'll see changes in the coatings and the substrates to deal with these high temperatures and the propagation of thermal cracking; you'll start to see innovations. I think that's going to come next for the high-temperature materials.
AMD: How far are we from that?
Watson: I would say we're pretty close. But it's a combination of things; finding the right combination of substrates. A lot of people focus on the coatings. As a metals company, we concentrate on altering the combination of substrate materials to deal with it.
AMD: As cutting tool manufacturers, why is it important to build and maintain a relationship with machine tool manufacturers?
Burley: It's always in our best interest to treat each opportunity with customers with our machine tool builder, together. We've partnered up with various builders through the spindle interface that we offer, and we're trying to look at new avenues that we can make their equipment better, as well as provide customers better solutions for getting the cutting tool to the point of cut.
Hyatt: Sometimes the more creative breakthroughs require joint work between the machine tool builders and the cutting tool manufacturers. Machine tools as we know them may not enable the cutting tool developments, and new features or capabilities of machine tools may not be enabled and supported by existing state-of-the-art cutting tools. Only by working together can we jointly bring the solution to the custom er, rather than each of us bringing perhaps half the solution, and hoping the other half will show up somewhere.
Troller: In retrofitting, trying to do it behind the scenes is much more difficult than trying to do it up front.
AMD: How receptive are end users to allowing cutting tool trials on the manufacturing floor? What types of problems are most often encountered?
Dewey: We have shops that will call us and want us to come in to try to help them, and we're more than willing to do it, but often if it's a matter of production, they can't get enough production out to meet the current high demand, and therefore it is difficult to stop production, break the setup, tear down and see if our tools are going to do any better. It can be a doubleedged sword, they need the trial to see if it can help them, but they also have goals that they have to achieve.
Jacobs: When people call, they usually try to find time to get it going, but a project on a large scale application can take a year to get into place. But once they get into place and you find that one opportunity to reduce the machine time, it's great. It's just finding that time, so scheduling becomes the challenge. Many companies that we deal with today have already addressed this with an R&D lab on site, which gets you 50% there, because it's not the same machine, but they can at least identify what they're dealing with.
Burley: What I've seen with trials is that customers have lost a lot of their manufac turing engineering base. So, they are will ing to test as long as you can provide the platform to do it for them. You can come in and maybe even reprogram their machine, if necessary, with the skilled sales engineers. They want you to be their manufacturing engineering department, to do all the test ing and get it onto the floor. Losing all that manufacturing engineering is really pulling back the amount of testing that companies are willing to do now.
Swift: If they trust you, even when they are busy, if you can cut their time enough, it's worth it for them to run that test. It's that element of trust - you can't go in and fail.
AMD: Do you still see cost as a major factor in purchasing that tool, or are manufacturers more willing to look at the productivity issues rather than the cost factors?
Watson: I think different segments in the industry have different cost drivers. If you look at the automotive industry, maybe they're more concerned about cost, vs. people who are looking for solutions, such as the aerospace companies, who are looking for value and a valued proposition where they can actually reduce cycle time and improve their manufacturing efficiencies. So, I think it depends on the application.
AMD: What manufacturing sectors will have a big impact on the cutting tool industry?
Troller: I think there are certain related industries that have similar materials as aerospace, like medical, so there are a lot of other industries in which we can use the technologies that we're developing for aerospace now. I certainly think there's a lot to expand.
Sebring: The aerospace and medical industries have had and will continue to have a positive impact in the development of application-specific, high-performance cutting tool geometries and coatings. We also see die/mold applications where high performance geometries have proven to add value.
Gau: We see also the rail industry booming in certain parts of the world. There is a need for mass transportation. Again, a lot of very difficult operations to perform, but a huge amount of specific cutting tools and machines need to be delivered to that market. Energy, definitely, is also an area that we watch very carefully. It's still pulling significant global demand.
Watson: Right now the aerospace industry is taking up all the demand for titanium, but there are other applications for titanium that are going to be prevalent, too, in the future. So as soon as there's enough capacity for titanium, we'll see this material go into other industry segments.
AMD: Will manufacturers see new activity in terms of new tools over and above what they currently see? If so, will it be on the specialty or commodity side of the market?
Sebring: In endmill applications, requests for new or application specific cutting tool designs occur on a daily basis. The specialty or high-performance market will drive the development of these cutting tool designs. Application specific cutting tools are where true value is added by allowing the highest level of performance. They have proven to reduce cycle times, increase efficiencies, and improve workpiece surface finishes.
Burley: We as cutting tool manufacturers have to coordinate ourselves with the machine tool builders and the customers to bring the system together. I think you're going to see more of that team building in the future.
AMD: Within the cutting tool industry, what changes can we be expecting to see in the next 3 to 5 years?
Vanderpol: I think you're going to see a greater change on the technology side, developing new cutting tools and things like that. There are obviously markets in Asia that will be expanding greater than maybe in Europe, and so that's where the focus will be.
Dewey: I think manufacturers need to be able to respond to our end users. There are not as many technical people coming into the business, and I think manufacturers are going to have to pick up some of the "slack". We're going to have to be there for the customer and help them through these times by offering technical tooling advice and direction.vParker: The production of fuselage is going to be important in the future; we'll go to dry machining and there will be cost-saving there. High-pressure coolant will also come into play.
AMD: From your individual perspectives, is there anyone who would like to make a final comment? Something you would really like our readership to know?
Jacobs: The tooling cost, when reduced, is not a direct savings in total manufacturing cost. For example, if you have a 20% cost reduction on the tool itself, it's an end-result 3% savings to the bottom line, as compared to a 20% increase in productivity, being realistically a 15% savings in cost to the bottom line. The customers need to open up their doors and be responsive to the fact that we are basically creating engineering resources that bring deliverables to their door that can make them more money. This is what we do. If we don't make them more money, they won't buy from us, and we all understand this very, very well.
Watson: I think the customers, as they start to work with these materials, have to realize that they can't do things the same way that they used to. They have to understand that they have to try something new. Cutting tool manufacturers are here to help them try something new and solve those problems.