In the early 1990s, Niagara Tools — a small family business in Ontario that was founded in the 1970s and specialised in re-grinding hand-tools and producing HSS cutters — was sold by its ageing owner Dave Milne.
Today, the company has a turnover in excess of $4 million, its transformation having been driven by a number of buy-outs down the years and investment in a variety of machines — including CNC tool and cutter grinders, machining centres and turning centres from a range of suppliers — for manufacturing everything from solid-carbide and PCD cutting tools to steel tool bodies and indexable inserts.
About five years ago, when long-term owner Paul Brodeur was looking for an investor to take the business forward, the Apex Tool Group (ATG) bought it and renamed it Apex Cutting Tools. Owned by Bain Capital, ATG is one of the world’s largest manufacturers of industrial hand tools, power tools and drill chucks, plus tool storage and soldering products.
Since the acquisition, it has invested more than CAN$5 million in Apex Cutting Tools, which now employs more than 50 people and has achieved an annual growth in its US trade alone of 10%. However, most of its customers are still in Southern Canada.
As a member of a global group, Apex Cutting Tools has been able to expanded its reach in to the aerospace market; but with automotive Tier One suppliers as well as GM and Chrysler nearby, the automotive industry remains its core focus.
Indeed, the company was recently processing over 1,000 re-grinds a week for a single customer and producing more than 10,000 carbide and PCD tools a month, along with hundreds of steel tool bodies (complete with indexable inserts).
Apex Cuting Tools’ total output has more than doubled in the last 10 years, but it does not have any standard product lines and all tools are manufactured to the specific requirements of the end user.
To achieve the necessary output, 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 company’s Vollmer Vgrind 16 (www.vollmer-group.com
), running up to 24hr a day.Quick turnround
CNC grinding-department supervisor Stephan Rodrigue, said: “Volumes are generally in the range of five to 50 tools, with some runs occasionally reaching a few hundred tools. We have one customer that comes in on a Friday with 1,000 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.”
Referring to the acquisition of the Vollmer Vgrind 160 some two years ago, Mr Rodrigue said: “One of the key features that drew us to the Vgrind 160 was the CNC system’s Numroto Plus software platform. This is now on most of our new grinding machines and allows any program to be swapped between any of them, regardless of machine brand, giving us exceptional flexibility.
“The Numroto and Vollmer interface is seamless and very simple, with its touch-screen and keypad configuration.”
Apex Cutting Tools’ solid-carbide cutters are produced or re-ground on four automated CNC grinding machines and three ageing manually loaded machines.
Mr Rodrigue said: “We produce tools with shank diameters from 3 to 20mm in 1mm increments on the Vgrind 160, and Vollmer kindly gave us the drawings we needed to produce our own auto-load pallets in our machine shop.
As standard, the HP160 pallet magazine can hold 272 tools with 3mm shanks or 54 tools with 20mm shanks. We also have a special collet in the spindle for producing tool shanks up to 25mm; the machine also has a steady rest to support the production of drills over 200mm long.
“The HP160 with its two-pallet system works well, and the tool capacity gives us long periods of automated production.”Automatic wheel changer
Also key to the Vollmer machine’s unmanned running capabilities is the auto-change six-wheel pack, which is stored at the rear of the machine. The wheels are measured in-cycle with a probe, and they are dressed and/or changed depending upon the geometry of each tool, so 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.
Comparing tool production cycle times to other machines in operation at Apex Cutting Tools, Mr Rodrigue said: “As all our machines have different capacities and horsepower levels it is not easy to give a direct comparison, but in most cases the Vollmer gives us cycle-time gains over our other machines.
This is largely due to its vertically aligned spindle configuration, which allows us to rough-grind the flutes on the lower spindle and then do the finishing cycle on the top spindle; this arrangement removes the constant wheel changes that are required by our other machines.
“Also contributing to the Vgrind’s performance is the extremely robust grinding-wheel column, which maximises rigidity and vibration damping. It is this rigidity that contributes to minimising flute-roughing times.
“We produce a lot of form tools on the Vollmer, and we are holding tolerances of less than 5µm; and when it comes to surface finish, this machine is in a class of its own. Indeed, I put our high-surface-finish jobs on the Vollmer every time.”