Producing Tools for the Woodworking Industry
The perfect woodworking cutting tool means something different to every customer. Unlike metalworking, woodworking cutting tools are usually unique to an application, so their variations are endless. Woodworking customers change products and product lines frequently to keep up with ever-shifting consumer and end-user trends. To supply the cutting tools and related services their customers require, toolmakers must possess an arsenal of capabilities very different from the ones they had when their shops first opened for business.
“To deliver the highest quality products to the woodworking industry and new segments, we have to be advancing in our machining technology,” said Jens Schulz, President of Leuco. “To gain access to a market, and not just copy competitor’s products, we have to bring innovation and utilize innovative equipment.”
Leuco is one of the world’s largest suppliers of carbide and diamond-tipped machine tools for wood and plastic processing. A wealth of ideas and technical know-how have been the heart of Leuco since the beginning. The product range includes circular saw blades, hoggers, bore-type and shank-type cutters, drills, clamping systems, and inserts. Sharpening service, application consulting, and service packages bundled under “Tool management” complete the spectrum.
As lumber supply catches up with current demand, a potential boom is on the horizon for wood processors. There was never a better time for manufacturers of their cutting tools to update perspective on responding with maximum flexibility to what will come in the door. Because while woodworkers will always require performance reliability and extended service life for their machine tools, the landscape has changed in significant ways that have spilled over to the shops manufacturing those tools.
What is different today from 20 years ago? The type of wood materials being cut, the circumstances surrounding production, and the workforce’s skillsets have shifted substantially in that time. These realities are a lot to contend with, doing things the way they’ve always been done. In a more sustainable business model, woodworking tool manufacturers would have all the right technologies to produce a tool design, program the grinding machine, simulate a prototype, and make a cutting tool in one seamless undertaking.
The good news is: they can have these technologies right now.
“The ownership of cutting tool innovation lies solely on our shoulders. Cutting tools are specialized; they are application-specific,” said Kevin Misenheimer, President, Misenheimer Inc. “We don’t try to do one tool for a multitude of applications. Whether they’re routing MDM, melamine, or laminated particleboard – we want to say to our customers: ‘this is the tool you should be using.’”
Challenge: Produce new tools for new materials in record time
With business conditions forever in flux, cutting tool producers know that the days of being a commodity supplier to the woodworking industry are behind them. A customer base that is constantly setting trends for wood and wood-based products needs its tool producers to be partners – helping them meet and exceed their expectations for producing parts quickly, parts that are cleanly cut using tools that perform consistently, accurately, and reliably over a long service life.
But today’s wood and wood-like materials are more exotic and are using composites unheard of in the past. Woodworkers explore alternative materials like never before, implement new performance laminates, and use new finish and surface treatments. After they come up with new material, they want to cut it right now, which means going from tool concept to production in shorter time frames. But machining these newer materials is often frontier territory. Woodworking cutting tool producers have to apply abstract and innovative thinking to every challenge and do it in record time.
The only way to be that responsive – even within 24 hours if the customer requests it – is if the tool manufacturer can produce a design, verify the capabilities to deliver it, and give the customer a preview of what they will get and how it will perform, in advance. Sometimes this process might need to occur without ever touching a grinding machine or being in the same building with it.
For this scenario to have a happy ending, toolmakers need to harness the ingenuity that can be programmed into grinding machines with software. Whether the material is MDM, melamine, laminated particleboard, or plywood with rubber laminated in the middle of it, programmable CNC machines and proprietary software developed by leading grinding experts give toolmakers the functionality to work without risk to achieve customer objectives.
“The Tool Studio simulation is one of our customers’ favorite features. For instance, when we set up a compression router bit, the wheels are set and programmed, and the 3D simulation begins,” said Justin Harris, Engineer and Carbide Supervisor at Leuco. “The simulation shows the tool being ground as it comes out correctly, with no runout and no breakage. The customer is satisfied with our products before even receiving the tool in hand.”
Challenge: Design tools requiring complex geometries, tolerances, and cut quality
Custom tools, increasingly a more significant percentage of a shop’s overall production mix, require complex tool surface geometries, tight tolerances, and cleaner cuts. Achieving more aggressive design features in a tool intended to produce parts from newer wood-like materials is one of the biggest challenges that woodworking toolmakers face. For these tools, solutions for controlling excess heat transfer use and optimizing chip removal to prevent clogging will be needed. With software, G-codes can be selected manually to direct a grinder’s movement more precisely – not only from the center but from different entry points as needed – without hours of guesswork and costly material waste.
“When we have a challenge in front of us, and we want to make tool geometry changes, that’s where Tool Studio software comes into play,” said Misenheimer. “We can make changes on the computer before any blank is ever put in any chuck. It allows us to create a special tool in a short time frame, and it reduces scrap. Before Tool Studio, we would be up until the wee hours of the morning, failure after failure. Those days are gone.”
A tool design must balance precision and quality with the equally important machining efficiency and uptime. Grinding machine OEMs can show the way to achieve this and increase value per operation. It can be eye-opening to consider just how much room there is in an operation to streamline the grinding process, or more specifically, the non-grinding tasks preceding and surrounding it.
- State-of-the-art machine hardware and software combines ease of programming feeds and speeds with the ability to produce highly complex geometries in one clamping.
- It can simulate the wheel grinding carbide or eroding PCD or other super-hard materials from the blank to produce a unique tool.
- A grinding machine can offer built-in automatic wheel changers and dressing units.
- The machine can be programmed to start the grinding process closer to the part and utilize in-process probing, further reducing cycle times for increased productivity.
- When processing edges and tips with PCD, grinding and eroding functions can even be combined in the same machine.
The result is that running good tools in 15 minutes vs. an hour becomes a realistic scenario. The market also offers automation solutions integrated into gantry robots, palletized part loaders that can run 1,500 pieces in a single pass, and vision inspection systems. The potential to take cutting tool production to unprecedented levels is there today.
Challenge: Bring your A-game despite the skills gap
This brings us to the elephant in the room: the state of the available workforce. These sea changes are occurring at a time when, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 29,000 new machinists will be needed by 2024 to meet demand from retiring workers alone. The continuing downturn in workers trained for a tool cutting environment would be problematic were it not for advances in production automation. According to the McKinsey Global Institute, almost 9 of every 10 hours spent on activities performed by workers in manufacturing production occupations can be converted to automation.
New levels of productivity and growth are within reach with automation, especially since machine tool OEMs offer standard options for automation implementation with increasing functionality and flexibility for woodworking toolmakers, such as tool changing and machine tending. United Grinding’s U.S.-based Automation Solutions offers a portfolio of industry-leading standard systems along with custom automation of specific equipment combinations from among the company’s eight grinding machine brands. Training and setup to get new operators up and running quickly is all part of the value.
Furthermore, in the new world order, current employees can be used with a resource like Tool Studio to the best of their abilities. For instance, having a workforce with no background in G-code, the CNC programming language, can be overcome with pre-programmed feeds and speeds in a simple operator interface. On the opposite side of the spectrum, newly minted trade school graduates with a general understanding of CAD/CAM can branch out and quickly become proficient in Tool Studio applications to design and program the CNC grinding process.
Solution: Leverage advanced engineering and applications expertise
Do any of the above challenges describe your situation? Have you thought about how to lower your cost per part, reduce cycle time, expand your know-how to match what you see going on around you? Pain points that woodworking cutting tool manufacturers face today can be converted to competitive advantages tomorrow.
United Grinding North America offers our customers the professional training needed for the most basic to the most advanced skill levels within a facility. Courses range from general grinding, operation, and programming to customized training. This service can be provided at your production facility on your own machine or at United Grinding North America’s headquarters in Miamisburg, Ohio.
But what we really want to help you do is assess the limits of your capabilities today and then push them further to serve your trendsetting customers best – and still be poised for the industry developments that you haven’t even thought about.