Exactaform Continues Growth With Machines From Vollmer
Moving into a new manufacturing facility in August, Exactaform Cutting Tools Ltd now occupies one of the UK’s largest cutting tool facilities. The state-of-the-art 44,000sq/ft beacon of modern manufacturing is credit to the innovation and determination of the staff. However, the creative cutting tool designs and production output wouldn’t have been possible without the banks of highly automated Vollmer grinding and erosion machines.
Located near Coventry, the £5.8m facility is home to 12 Vollmer machines that include six Vollmer QWD750H, three QXD200, a QXD250, a QWD760 and now the next generation Vgrind 160. In 2012, Exactaform reported annual growth in the region of 25% as its then seven Vollmer machines were running up to 158 hours out of a possible 168 hours in a week. This level of automation and company growth has continued over the last five years with staff levels rising from 13 to 63 and turnover almost quadrupling from £2m to £7m.
At the frontline of cutting tool technology, Exactaform instantly recognised the benefits of the Vgrind, installing the UK’s first Vgrind. Commenting upon the company growth and reasoning behind the Vgrind purchase, Grandson of the Company Founder and Exactaform Director, Mr Jamie White says: “Exactaform was founded in 1979 by John Inglis with the common start-up story of one man taking out a £1000 loan and installing a single machine in a garage. The company really evolved when we moved from flat insert tools to rotary PCD tooling in the early 2000’s. We recognised an opportunity and essentially gained the lead in the composite machining sector. We installed our first Vollmer machine in 2001 and we haven’t looked back since.”
The company has evolved beyond recognition and the new factory is testament to this evolution. As Mr White continues: “We maintain the ethos of a family business with a fast response, efficient and above all friendly approach to business and consider profit as a resource to aggressively invest in the business to continually enhance customer experience and service.”
Historically, Exactaform has laid 95% of its eggs in the aerospace basket. However, as the benefits of advanced material technology such as CFRP has filtered through the manufacturing industry, the customer base has shifted. Now, the breakdown is 60% aerospace tooling with the remaining 40% absorbed by the automotive and F1 industries.
The Reasoning Behind the Arrival of the Vgrind
Exactaform recently developed its latest line of cutting tools, the Aero-Carb Diamond Coated 2 and 4-fluted end mills for advanced composite machining and also the Aero-Ti line of end mills for titanium and aerospace alloy machining. Aiming to ramp up production volumes, Exactaform wanted to improve its production efficiency.
The answer was the Vgrind 160.
Commenting upon the Vgrind 160 acquisition, Mr White says: “We wanted the Vgrind for grinding pockets on small diameter tools. The combination of the 16,000rpm high frequency spindle and the facility for loading small grinding wheels instantly gave us the ability to pocket grind tools in the 6mm diameter range. This isn’t feasible with typical grinding wheels in the 70mm diameter range and slower spindle speeds. The benefit was instant. We went from eroding tool pockets in 45 minutes to grinding them on the Vgrind in just two minutes. This was an astounding leap forward for our productivity levels, especially in the face of higher production quantities.”
“We could see the Vgrind was a paradigm shift in technology. As existing Vollmer customers, we were struck by the innovative new design, dual spindle configuration, the rotating pallet system and the extremely fast tool and wheel changeovers. We wanted the machine for its ability to complete tools in a single set-up and the facility for processing small pockets, but it has delivered so much more.”
The Benefits of the Vgrind
Whilst Exactaform were fully aware of the new innovations behind the new Vgrind 160 prior to purchase, the company couldn’t fully comprehend the benefits in any quantifiable form until the machine was on the shop floor and running. It has exceeded expectations in every department.
One new feature on the 5-axis Vgrind 160 that appealed to Exactaform is the V-shaped seating pallet loading system. This enables Exactaform to load tools from 6 to 16mm diameter shanks (20mm pallets available) in two pallets that accommodate up to 56 tools. The flexibility means the operator can easily load a complete variety of tool diameters and geometry designations and the Vgrind will process all tools in a single set-up. On alternate machines without this V-shaped pallet seating, the operators would have to process batches of tools with the same shank diameter and then undertake a pallet changeover time of 15 minutes for every tool diameter change.
“As an example, the new pallet system means we can process 5-off 10mm diameter tools, 20-off 6mm tools and 15-off 16mm shank tools in a single set-up. This flexibility is a huge benefit for small batch production with lights-out operation.”
The Ultimate Flexibility
The flexibility of the pallet loader and its huge savings is the epitome of the construction of the new Vgrind 160, something that is also instilled in the vertical column with two grinding stations. The two-wheel configuration instigates fewer wheel changes whilst the kinematics of the CAM driven C-axis head with +15 to -200 degree rotation reduces the distance from the wheel to the tool. Something that Exactaform confirms can reduce cycle times by up to 10% on every tool.
“The flexibility of the two-spindle column means we can flute and pocket our tools in a single set-up. On our other grinding centres, this would be two separate operations taking over one hour with the addition of changeover and set-up times. Now, we can complete a tool on the Vgrind 160 in just 18 minutes with just one set-up. This is a massive cycle time saving of 75%. It also streamlines our workflow,” continues Mr White.
Retaining focus on the groundbreaking vertically configured grinding column, Mr White says: “The grinding wheel changeover is now 5 seconds, on our other machines the changeover time is over 30 seconds. Depending upon tool complexity there can be anything from 3 to 6 grinding wheel changes for each tool, we are shaving minutes off our cycle times just with the fast wheel changeover system. Add these valuable minutes to the 75% saving from single set-up production times and the 10% saving from the kinematics of the grinding head and we are making unprecedented savings.”
The Long Term Cost Savings
The Vgrind 160 also incorporates a HPC system that delivers coolant at 20bar pressure through adjustable copper pipes. The 20bar pressure directed at the wheel and tool through a multitude of pipes creates a ‘break boundary layer’ between the tool and the grinding wheel. The high pressure coolant helps to break through the boundary layer and disrupt this thermodynamic process, enabling better grinding. It also retains wheel sharpness and enables the Vgrind to perform grinding and fluting significantly faster than its predecessors. Exactaform has identified that wheel life has been extended by over 35% when compared to alternate machines.
“It’s not just the extended wheel life that is giving us a quantified return. The Vgrind 160 has a Renishaw LP2 probing system that measures the wheel and the loader to make sure there is no drift. This is automatically done in 20 seconds. Previously, we had to physically remove wheels and measure them, something that takes 3 to 4 minutes a couple of times a day.”
The Numroto software suite incorporated into the Vgrind 160 has been equally impressive for the Midlands manufacturer. “Our operators have vast experience with all software formats and they categorically confirm the Numroto is the best grinding software they have ever used. It’s flexible, provides fast calculations and simulates tools in seconds, software crashes are eliminated and the operators can program the machine whilst it is running an existing batch of tools. It offers features such as spindle load settings, 3D crash protection, 2D and 3D simulations and a profiling editor that far exceeds anything else for ease of use. Our shop-floor confirms that programming times are at least 30% faster with the Vgrind.”
“Overall, the Vgrind 160 has been an astute investment. The productivity savings, the consumable savings, the set-up and changeover reductions and the reduced programming times are all on a scale that are making a massive difference to our business. Vollmer has certainly set the bar high with the Vgrind,” concludes Mr White.