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Automation of Mills and EDMs Reshapes Over Summit Tooling’s Mold Making

Visitors to Summit Tooling in McHenry, Ill., can expect to see 24/7 unattended machining. That’s unusual in mold-making shops but not at Summit, where it’s become routine.

Robots load and unload tooling and workpiece fixtures in three manufacturing cells, feeding nine machines, including a graphite mill, vertical mills, and sinker and wire electrical discharge machines (EDMs). As a direct result, production has doubled, with the same number of employees. The first cell paid for itself in six months.

What’s not so obvious to visitors is the partnership Summit Tooling President Dan Martin has built with Makino as its supplier of the machine tools and engineering services used to implement these complex automation systems.

Among die-mold shop owners, automation has been viewed as expensive, complicated and better suited for higher-volume production of milled parts. Owners visiting Summit Tooling often tell Martin that their traditional, manual processes with an operator in front of every machine are needed to produce the complex shapes and tight tolerances of prototypes, small orders for unique molds, as well as cavity and component repairs. Martin and his team chose another way.

“The reality is that, had we not automated our mold-making operations, we would not be in business,” Martin says. “Automation is hugely instrumental in our profitability and our ability to succeed in the tough times our industry has had during the past several years.”

Compete by Delivering Faster

Summit Tooling, founded by Martin and wife Michelle in 1996, designs and manufactures precision prototypes and production molds for a variety of applications including over-molds, two-shot injection molds, insert molds, spin cavity technology, hydraulic core pull technology and thin wall molds. Customers range from medical, pharmaceutical, consumer packaging, automotive markets and electric utilities.

The company grew from one employee 21 years ago to 30 employees today by investing in the latest machining technologies and continuously adopting processes that enable Summit Tooling to produce the most challenging small to midsize plastic injection molds.

Summit Tooling competes with manufacturers around the world that offer lower labor prices, and the company is also challenged by customer requirements for increasingly complex mold designs with tighter tolerances along with demands for shorter lead-times and reduced costs. To meet customers’ needs and remain profitable, Martin says Summit Tooling must reduce labor and consumables costs, speed up delivery and repeatedly produce precise tolerances and complex mold features.

“Customers today are looking for good quality. That’s No. 1. If you don’t have good quality, you won’t be in business. No. 2, the price is a factor. Obviously, we’re dealing with overseas competition and we need to lower our costs. No. 3 is the biggest factor: How fast can I deliver my product to market?” Martin says. “Automation is the only way you can deliver faster. Time is money. We’ve all heard that saying, but in this instance, even the time that our employees are not here we’re still producing parts. That unattended run time is the obvious reason why we can deliver things much, much faster.”

What matters most to Martin is that the family-owned business stays on the cutting edge of technology to deliver plastic injection molds and mold components faster than its competitors. To accomplish that, Martin began investing in the first of his company’s 11 Makino machines in 2008. Shortly thereafter, in 2011, he enlisted the support of Makino’s automation and engineering services to integrate the company’s first fully automated EDM cell.

“Customers today are looking for good quality. That’s No. 1. If you don’t have good quality, you won’t be in business. No. 2, the price is a factor. Obviously, we’re dealing with overseas competition and we need to lower our costs. No. 3 is the biggest factor: How fast can I deliver my product to market? Automation is the only way you can do deliver faster.”

The company has doubled its sales while continuing to run one shift and keeping the same number of mold shop employees. To accomplish this, Summit integrated its EDMs and horizontal and vertical machining centers with System 3R material-handling systems that robotically load and unload electrodes and workpiece holding fixtures. Summit Tooling has also increased productivity by replacing older commodity machines that required operators’ continual attention. Machinists can now manage several manufacturing cells simultaneously, as well as take on new roles in the company’s growing plastic injection molding operation. Operators set up automated cells and then go operate laser welders and other machines during their shift while the cells run unattended.

Martin researched and met with a variety of mill and EDM suppliers, seeking not just a machine manufacturer but also a partner to play a strategic role in how Summit Tooling would grow. He selected Makino because “they are not just a machine-selling company.”

“They want us to succeed with their products,” Martin says. “Their partnership has been an essential part of our growth strategy, and without their support, I’m not sure that we’d have had such immediate success.”

Complete More Jobs Without Increasing Labor

To win new business, Martin chose to update machining capabilities and to automate mold-making processes. Beginning in 2008, Summit Tooling purchased an a61 horizontal machining center and two S33 vertical machining centers from Makino. Martin did not invest in full automation of loading and unloading of tooling, parts and fixtures at this point “because I’m a conservative person, so I tend to move cautiously.” Nevertheless, Summit Tooling replaced 12 commodity milling machines with the three new Makino machines because of a host of tool monitoring and control capabilities, all equipped as standard features that enable users to achieve extended machining hours with no labor costs.

The a61, for example, came with a ring-type 60-tool magazine and has an automatic pallet changer and two pallets, for a fast pallet-change time of 7 seconds. In addition, it offers a tool-to-tool change time of 0.9 seconds with a chip-to-chip time of 2.5 seconds.

To reduce setups and maximize machine utilization, the S33s came equipped with a 20-position magazine and automatic tool changer (ATC). The ATC has a quick tool-to-tool exchange time of 1.3 seconds. The S33s and the a61 included Makino’s proprietary SGI geometric intelligence servo control to provide exceptionally smooth machined surfaces—even in high-feedrate machining operations. This feature helps achieve the lowest cycle times and smoother blending by controlling toolpaths to create the 3-D shapes of dies, cavities and cores.

“We learned that the same volume of work could be done with automated equipment without having a person standing at each machine. Operators can set up the cells and then are available for other operations that still require a hands-on operator, such as surface grinding. We can push more volume of work through there, and the people who would have been operating the older machines can focus on hand operations. The volume of work would go through faster,” Martin says.

“The first thought for many of our die-mold shop employees was, ‘You’re trying to eliminate our jobs’. No, we’re making your job more efficient so we can push more work through here and make more money with the same number of people. That’s the goal.”

These early steps toward automation involved purchasing machines with advanced controls that support unattended operation with automated tool changers; the a61 included dual pallets enabling operators to load workpieces while keeping the spindle running to machine other mold components. How well the machines performed on their own led Martin to consider ways to organize them into manufacturing cells. For the next step, Summit Tooling added to one of its existing commodity EDMs a System 3R material-handling robot recommended by Makino. This freed up the operator to handle other tasks, including micro welding for repairs and tooling alterations, while keeping up with EDM production.

Martin’s bigger step toward full automation came in 2011, when he hired Makino to integrate an EDM cell that includes a Makino F3 vertical graphite machining center, with a pressurized system to vacuum out carbon dust for high-speed electrode milling, and two EDAF2 sinker EDMs for production of slides, core pins, cores, cavity details and cavity forming shapes. A larger System 3R Workmaster system feeds tooling and workpieces to each of the machines.

“When we added the cell, it changed how we do things enormously,” Martin says. “Our guys now set up everything, walk out of here and come back the next morning, and everything they programmed is done while we were sleeping. It takes a change in mindset to get used to that thought, especially when we set up the machines and leave on Friday and come back on Monday morning and realize we just ran 72 hours’ worth of work through three machines and none of our employees were here.”

The company has since added two more automated cells that include:

  • A milling cell with a Makino F5 vertical machining center installed in 2013 and the two S33 vertical machining centers purchased in 2008, integrated with a second System 3R Workmaster. This cell replaced nine commodity vertical mills.
  • A second EDM cell installed in 2014–2015 combines two U32j and an U53Tj wire EDMs from Makino, loaded and unloaded by a third System 3R Workmaster.

The U32j and U53Tj wire EDM machines feature Makino’s new Hyper-i control that provides a user-friendly interface between the operator and the machine with a streamlined touchscreen. Using familiar technologies found on smartphones and tablets, the Hyper-i control has pinch, swipe and spread functions that give the operator a simple, efficient and natural feel. The simplicity is further enhanced with the integration of on-board digital manuals, intelligent E-Tech Doctor help functions and e-learning training system, which give operators practical support tools to boost machine productivity.

The Hyper-i control includes HyperCut technology that can produce a 3µmRa (16µinRa) surface finish and 1µm (0.00004 inches) straightness with three-pass machining. HyperCut also reduces cycle time. After installation of the first U32j, Summit Tooling tested it against one of its older commodity EDMs by running a job that previously took 12 minutes. A Summit Tooling operator produced the same part, running the same program used on the older machines, in less than five minutes. Wire consumption is down by 14 percent.

“Our previous EDM machines were five to seven years old. We want to stay ahead of the technology curve, so we invested in Makino EDMs because they utilize less wire, give better finishes and enable us to produce parts faster,” Martin says.

To provide flexibility in how the automated cells can be configured, one of the reasons that Martin chose the U32j and U53Tj EDMs was their programmable work tank and ergonomic access to the work zone. The automatic rise and fall tank simplifies loading and setup of the workpiece, while supplying access to robotic loaders from three directions.

Summit Tooling also produces mold components with the a61 HMC and another EDAF2, both operated as stand-alone machines.

Fast Payback on Automation Investment

Martin says his company realized a full return on its investment of its initial automated manufacturing cell in about six months after installation. That led Summit Tooling to add a second EDAF2 EDM with a fine-hole EDM drilling option to the cell in 2012 to produce high-tolerance small hole tooling features. The fine-hole machining option makes it possible for the EDAF2 to change 0.0039-inch-diameter-by-12-inch-long pipe electrodes with its ATC. Special automatic dressing routines are also capable of discharge dressing electrodes as small as 0.0035 inch in diameter, which can produce finished hole sizes of 0.004 inch in diameter using the EDAF2 fine hole option.

“Most machine tool suppliers will sell you a product and then they’re asking you when you want to buy the next machining center. [Makino is] concerned with how efficient you’re using the machine you invested in, and are you using the machine to its utmost potential to grow your business.”

“We have two customers that use Nano injection molding for surgical applications. You need a microscope to see the parts. Some are 0.125" long, and 0.003" in diameter. The fine-hole option allows us to produce holes smaller than 0.012”, which is a typical practical limit using traditional hole popper EDM machines. The difference with the EDAF2 is that the holes it produces are the perfect size and straightness,” Martin says.

With three machines being loaded and unloaded robotically and running unattended overnight and on weekends, Summit Tooling has dramatically improved delivery times while increasing productivity 30 to 40 percent.

Since 2008, sales have doubled while Summit Tooling has kept its die-mold shop employment steady at 16 operators, programmers and engineers. Operators program and load the three manufacturing cells to run unattended overnight and on weekends to increase productivity and finish orders faster. Reduced labor costs realized by investing in automation and reliable high-performance machines enabled the company to further diversify its services by adding employees to the company’s growing plastic injection molding business. Total employment in the company’s mold shop and plastic molding divisions has increased from 22 in 2008 to 30 today.

“The first thought for many of our employees was, ‘You’re trying to eliminate our jobs.’ No, we’re making your jobs easier and more efficient so we can push more work through here and make more money. That’s the goal. It’s all about staying competitive and bringing in the revenue to provide good paying jobs. And there’s simply not enough qualified labor to grow otherwise,” Martin says.

Next up in Summit Tooling’s drive to automate its manufacturing: Martin plans to add a third EDM cell to increase capacity while providing backup to avoid any disruption to delivering molds and components on-time to customers.

“Makino is helping me make sure we have the pieces, products and items needed for those machines and to make sure they get taken care of before a problem occurs. That’s an incredible tool.”

Martin credits the business growth and increased productivity to his partnership with Makino and SST, which sells Makino machines along with consumables, tooling and fixtures. Both suppliers continue to recommend ways to improve Summit Tooling’s manufacturing processes, technology and programming. For one hard-milling operation of a mold component made from grade 420 stainless steel (56 HRC), Summit Tooling previously needed 35 to 40 minutes to make light cuts to finish the part that had already been rough-cut elsewhere. Unsolicited, a Makino applications engineer visited Summit Tooling to demonstrate how the use of a different cutter and programming technique can help optimize productivity. The result: Summit Tooling now produces the entire part from blank stock in less than 12 minutes.

“Most machine tool suppliers will sell you a product and then they’re asking you when you want to buy the next machining center,” Martin says. “Makino instead asks, ‘How are you doing with the machine you just bought? Can we help you with cutter technology? Can we help you with cutter techniques? Is there a clamping apparatus or another process that you can utilize to speed up production?’ They are concerned with how efficient you’re using the machine you invested in, and are you using the machine to its utmost potential to grow your business.”