Apex Identifies Growth Through Automated Grinding
In the early 1990’s, a small family owned business called Niagara Tools that was re-grinding hand-tools and producing HSS cutters was sold by an ageing Dave Milne to the next generation of owners; a step that eventually took the company from 3-4 employees in a small rental unit to a business with a turnover above US$4m. Initially founded in the early 1970’s, the company has undergone an unrecognisable transformation that is credit to a number of buy-outs down the years.
Within ten years of the first buy-out, the largely manual machine shop was filled with CNC tool and cutter grinding machines; with Vollmer and its innovative Vgrind160 being among the names added to the company plant list. Niagara Tool grew to a position that multiplied staffing levels and this was credit to the incumbent owners making full utilisation of their automotive industry contacts. Down the years, the company invested in ‘the latest and greatest’ machines in the field. This has included CNC tool and cutter grinders, machining centers and turning centers from a range of suppliers for manufacturing everything from solid carbide and PCD cutting tools as well as steel tool bodies and indexable inserts. When long term owner Paul Brodeur was looking for an investor to take the business forward some five years ago, the Apex Tool Group recognised the robust foundations and consistent growth of the St Catharines business and bought what is now known as Apex Cutting Tools.
Owned by Bain Capital, the Apex Tools Group is recognised as one of the world’s largest manufacturers of industrial hand tools, power tools, tool storage, drill chucks and soldering products. Purchasing the Ontario based cutting tool manufacturer has given the Apex Tools Group a strengthened foothold in the automotive and aerospace sectors. Since the acquisition, Apex Cutting Tools has invested more than CAD$5m with two laser machines, inspection equipment and a series of CNC tool grinders all arriving in the last five years. The company now employs more than 50 staff and the acquisition has seen annual growth in the US of 10% year on year with global growth also part of the agenda. However, the majority of the customer base is still retained in Southern Canada.
The transition to being a member of a global group has seen Apex Cutting Tools expand its reach in to the aerospace market, but with automotive Tier 1 suppliers as well as GM and Chrysler nearby, the automotive industry remains a core focus. The growth of the company located near Niagra Falls now sees it undertake the processing of over 1000 re-grinds a week for a single customer. With an output of more than 10,000 carbide and PCD tools a month, the company also manufactures hundreds of steel tool bodies complete with indexable inserts every month.
Apex Cutting Tools produces more than 2000 new PCD and solid carbide tools each month with more than 8,000 tools on a repeat cycle of re-grind, re-coat and re-supply to clients. This total output has more than doubled in the last 10 years. The output is significant and impressive, but more impressive is the fact that Apex Cutting Tools doesn’t have standard product lines. Each and every tool is a special, manufactured to the specific demands of the end users. This makes production at Apex Cutting Tools far removed from the volume production market. To support this, the company operates two-shifts - and if machines can be loaded with a batch of tools for overnight production at the end of the second shift, they will be. This sees machines like the Vollmer Vgrind 160 running up to 24 hours a day.
Commenting upon this, CNC Grinding Department Supervisor at Apex Cutting Tools, Mr Stephan Rodrigue says: “The breakdown of our production is relatively equal between PCD and indexable tools with solid carbide being the majority of production. Our production volumes are generally in the range of 5 to 50 tools with some runs occasionally reaching a few hundred tools. We have one customer that comes in on a Friday with a 1000 tools that have to be re-ground by the following Monday. We get all the loaders set-up on the machines and the tools are re-ground automatically over the weekend and ready for delivery on Monday.”
The company has a series of manually loaded CNC tool grinders, which are now reaching the end of their service life, something likely to be expedited by poor machine support and the arrival of automated machines like the Vollmer Vgrind160. Referring to the acquisition of the Vollmer Vgrind160 just over two years ago, Stephan Rodrigue continues: “The company invested heavily in DMG Mori and Mazak machine tools for producing tool bodies, Zoller Genius tool measuring machines and a range of CNC tool and cutter grinders. We were invited to look at the Vollmer Vgrind 160 machine and as it was going to be our first Vollmer, we were somewhat apprehensive. Our opinion changed as soon as we looked closer at the Vollmer, we were really impressed. Now, it’s here we’re thoroughly impressed with it and we’re already looking at a Vollmer erosion machine.”
One of the key features that drew Apex Cutting Tools to the Vollmer Vgrind 160 was the CNC control platform, as Stephan continues: “The Vollmer has the Numroto Plus CNC software platform, which is a different control system to our older tool grinding machines. Numroto is now on most of our new machine acquisitions and the Numroto Plus platform is a must for us going forward. This is because it allows any program to be swapped between any of our new machines, regardless of machine brand. This gives us exceptional flexibility.”
Vollmer Provides User Friendly Interface
Two years after the Vollmer machine hit the shop floor, everyone is thoroughly impressed: “Everyone wants to run the Vollmer machine and everyone is fighting to get on the machine because it is easy to use and you can just walk up to it, hit go and you know the tools are going to be perfect. The layout, the set-up and interface are all easy-to-use and the Numroto and Vollmer interface is seamless and very simple with its touch-screen and keypad configuration. It has 6 basic buttons with a speed control and a stop-go function on the control – it couldn’t be any easier. The machine just takes-off, does its thing and tells you if there is a problem – it’s just simple.”
The thousands of solid carbide tools are produced or re-ground on four automated CNC grinding machines and three ageing manually loaded machines. “As we produce tools with shank diameters from 3mm up to 20mm in 1mm increments on the Vollmer, they were kind enough to give us the drawings to produce our own collection of auto-load pallets in our own machine shop. As standard, the HP160 pallet magazine can hold 272 tools with 3mm shanks and for larger tools with 20mm shanks, we can hold 54 tools. We also have a special collet in the spindle for doing tool shanks up to 25mm and the machine has a steady rest to support the production of drills over 200mm long. The HP160 with its 2-pallet system works fantastically well and the tool capacity gives us long periods of automated production.”
Of critical importance to the prolonged periods of unmanned running is the auto-change 6-wheel pack that is stored ergonomically at the rear of the machine. Automatically, the wheels are measured in-cycle with a probe, dressed and/or changed depending upon the geometry of each tool. So, regardless of whether the HP160 is loaded with carbide blanks or re-grind tools, the Vgrind will undertake complete fluting, geometry generation or re-grinding to the exact program specifications.
Configured for Speed
Comparing tool production cycle times to alternate machines in operation at Apex Cutting Tools, Stephan says: “This is a tough question as all our machines have different capacities and horsepower levels, but in most cases the Vollmer gives us cycle time gains over our other machines. This is largely due to the vertically aligned spindle configuration on the Vgrind. For example, we will rough grind the flutes on the lower spindle and then do the finishing cycle on the top spindle – this instantly removes the constant wheel changes that are common on our other machines.”
“The finishing wheel will undertake micron precision grinding with outstanding surface finishes whereas the rough grinding can really rip the material off. We are doing a 24mm diameter tool at present with a 12mm core diameter and the Vgrind will grind the flutes in a single pass. Compared to most of our other machines, this stock removal is well above their rates. The Vgrind is at least 30% faster at roughing than some of our older machines. This is impressive considering the machine has belt driven spindles as opposed to the direct drive spindles on newer Vollmer machines.”
Despite the Vollmer Vgrind 160 being significantly faster than alternate machines, Stephan says it is difficult to draw parallels between the various grinding centres at Apex Cutting Tools. “We have manually loaded grinding machines, machines dedicated to small tools and others dedicated to hob grinding, so like-for-like comparisons are difficult. What we have noted is the kinematic advantages of the vertically aligned 2-spindles that pivot around the C-axis. Firstly, having two wheels in the work envelope reduces wheel changes to improve processing speed. Secondly, the extremely robust grinding wheel column maximises rigidity and vibration damping. It is this rigidity that contributes to massively reducing flute roughing times. The closest comparative machine would be a very high-end machine that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the Vgrind.”
“The extra rail at the top of the C-axis, gives the axis support from the top and bottom and the whole thing can swing around and grind from two positions. The solidity of that whole system and the spindles Vollmer use, that’s just the biggest part. There is no comparing that. Some of our machines have a suspended spindle, so you lose precision, surface finish and the rigidity depends fully on the spindle. Here, you have a massive structure that comes in and really takes out the material,” continues the CNC Grinding Department Supervisor.
From a productivity and precision level, the Vgrind 160 has performance that exceeds some of its shop floor companions at Apex Cutting Tools. As Stephan continues: “We do a lot of form tools on the Vollmer and we are holding tolerances of less than 5 microns. All our machines run with glass scales and we have the Ebbco chiller system that keeps all machines at the optimal temperature with cooling through the spindles also. This keeps all machines very accurate. However, the Vollmer has ‘in-process’ part probing on the C-axis head as well as wheel probing on top of the work head, so the machine never stops. When it comes to surface finish, the Vollmer is definitely at the top of our machines. Depending upon the tool and the finishes required, I would put the high surface finish jobs on the Vollmer every time.”
“The layout of the machine is really nice, the C-axis is right there in front of you. You can clearly see what is going on and the machine isn’t intimidating. You can also easily do the ‘in-processing’ inspection with the Numroto software. We first came across Numroto software about nine years ago when we installed a different machine, it is the most user friendly, capable and flexible software we have. So, when we looked at the Vollmer, the Numroto software was a ‘must-have’ for us. The capabilities of the software are almost endless. The design is nice with a simple design – it’s a very clean, user friendly machine.”
And the future...
“We have just found out that parts for some of our machines that are 15-20 years old are no longer available, so these cutter grinding machines will be replaced in the near future. We certainly need another carbide grinding machine with automation and Vollmer is certainly on our list,” concludes Stephan.