IMTS Insider

Digitizing the Tool Room To Maximize Cutting Time

Category: Manufacturing Technology Jan 15, 2021


From Individual Tool Setup to Fully-Automated Integration  
How can you put a price on art? You can’t, and that’s been a problem with tooling. With the evolution of digitization, the tool room of the future combines art with science and data to maximizes tool composition and efficiency. 

Alexander Zoller is president and third-generation leader of ZOLLER Inc., a German company with U.S. headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2020. He has dedicated his career to creating tooling and associated solutions that provide productivity increases.

ZOLLER, celebrating 75 years in business, is leading the charge to digitize tool rooms.

“The manufacturing floor has changed and will continue to change,” Zoller observes. “Industry 4.0 technologies allow adding components and devices that are connected, from tool setup to use, to qualify value. Machine uptime is the name of the game, and digital technology produces more products that are of higher quality in a shorter amount of time and at a lower cost.”  

Tool Management Solutions
Because tooling is not considered a capital investment, managers often only know the purchase price and have limited (or no) verifiable data on how tooling impacts operating cost. Zoller considers this wasted money, as the total investment for tooling and associated equipment may cost as much as the CNC.

“It’s not just a simple drill — it’s your bottom line,” he says. “How do you know which drill actually cuts the most parts or gives you the most uptime?”

Zoller inherently views tooling with a systems approach, which includes identification, presetting, measuring, inspection, automation, storage systems, software, data transfer, and digital twin solutions.

Journey of a Tool
A typical tool room of the past would have storage racks for cutting tools and tool holders, but the two are not connected. A data-driven tool room and associated software manage the single components and complete tool and setup sheets to lay a foundation for efficient tool management. It starts with using presetting and measuring machines, printing data on a QR code affixed to the tool holder and scanning the code at the CNC to automatically enter tool data into the corresponding data fields of the CNC machine control.

“You can compare the QR code to a license plate on a car using an electronic tolling system like I-PASS,” says Zoller. “Users can identify the location and status of a tool at any point in the manufacturing process and use the data to drive decisions.”

Notably, he says many (perhaps most) shops have no real idea of their tool inventory, the tools they use the most, and the tools they no longer need but are cluttering up the shop. “A tool management system puts the lid on inventory and locates frequently used tools closest to their point of use,” says Zoller. “It’s also an easy way to begin digitizing.”

Part of a tool management system also involves a “smart cabinet” that delivers maximum transparency. It eliminates time searching for tools, rules out grabbing the wrong tool, and ensures you have the right tools in stock.

You can automate and digitize tool room activities to a far greater degree than you might have imaged, and it’s easy to start small.

Preset and Measure
Using measured and preset tools can increase the productivity of manufacturing operations by at least 20%. Because presetters can be operated without special training, and because precise results are operator-independent, they address the shortage of experienced labor. Even a “starter” presetter provides standard measurements (such as the length and diameter dimensions, radius, angle, and radial and axial runout) at the push of a button. More advanced tool setters can transmit data directly to the CNC machine control, eliminating data input errors.

Presetting in the tool room guarantees that machines on the floor are only doing what they have to do — run. “If machines are sitting idle because you are setting up, you’re losing production time.” Says Zoller. “That’s a lot of money, so it’s really important that every individual tool can be measured, preset, and verified outside of the production floor.” 

To truly evaluate cutting tool life and ensure proper edge preparation, a shop needs to assess and capture edge measurements before and after use. As with a presetter, measurement of contours, radii, angles, distances, wear, chamfer width, and other variables can be accomplished with limited operator experience using an automated measuring system. Users can compare actual to nominal variables, archive digital images, and store and analyze data.

“We can track how many parts were cut with the tool and the tool life so that you can make investments accordingly,” says Zoller. “Especially if you’re working with expensive material, knowing the life of your tool is a huge cost saver.”

Essential for Automation
Any visitor to IMTS has witnessed the explosion of automation for loading and unloading applications, but Zoller offers a word of caution.

“An automation process will only work correctly if the management software has all the information of the tool holders, the cutting tool, the work holding, and the CNC machine.

Is your cutting tool rack a disorganized mess? Cora, a collaborative robot solution, and a tool keeper bring organization and efficiency.

Because of there is a lot of information to capture, we suggest making the extra effort to implement a digital twin first,” says Zoller. “Only then can we move the physical components and assemble them together. Fortunately, this work only needs to be done once.”

One of the largest benefits of a digital twin is that it enables simulating any of the processes ahead of time to test and confirm assembly steps, increasing production efficiency. The digital twin also supports the use of collaborative robots, where people work with robots to set up machining centers, increasing productivity per worker.

“Industrialized nations with higher labor costs and a shortage of skilled labor compete against other parts of the world. The companies that will be on the forefront will be those who can better manage, automate and streamline their manufacturing processes,” says Zoller. “If they don’t, they will lose their competitiveness.”

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