Michigan manufacturer wins big with early adoption of cutting-edge technology
All shops want to be more productive and reduce downtime. For some, this means an investment in a high-end CNC machine tool. Others give quick-change toolholders a try, or pursue an IIoT (Industrial Internet of Things) machining strategy. Then there’s high-pressure coolant, magazine-style bar feeding, and the latest carbide grade and geometry, all of which might serve to increase throughput and reduce costs.
For Manufacturing Engineering Manager Zac Findlay and the production team at Armstrong International Inc., Three Rivers, Mich., a recent machine tool replacement project meant all of the above, all at the same time. The results? Spindle utilization now hovers in the low 90 percent range. Tooling-related downtime has decreased by hundreds of hours per year. Each day, up to three shifts are either unattended or lightly attended, and cycle time on a long-running component is down by one third.
They didn’t know all that would happen going into it. Regardless, Armstrong International had some excellent reasons to shop for a new machine. For starters, a key employee who’d spent 47 years with the company was about to retire. Replacing someone with that level of experience would not be easy, especially given the current shortage of skilled labor. Making matters worse, the CNC lathe he was responsible for—an Index ABC production turning machine purchased in 2005—was breaking down far too often.
Findlay charged one of the newer members of the department, Senior Manufacturing Engineer Bailey Cupp, with finding a modern, more productive machine tool, one that would be easier to set up and operate than the legacy equipment it was replacing. That was in late 2019, and today, Armstrong Industrial is cranking out more parts than ever before.
“The Index served us well, but after nearly 15 years of day-in, day-out production, it was beginning to show its age,” said Findlay. “So aside from eliminating several days or more of downtime each month, we also wanted to upgrade our machining capabilities. That’s why Bailey dug into this with the attitude of, ‘Let’s start with a clean slate, and find the best technology available.’ To be honest, we knew it wouldn’t be all that hard to beat our old process, but we definitely exceeded our expectations.”
Keeping the Faith
Armstrong International is a 120-year-old manufacturer of steam and condensate products, humidification and hot water equipment, heat transfer systems, and other thermal management solutions. Currently on its fourth and fifth generation of family ownership, the company employs more than 1,200 people and has 21 facilities throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. With a culture of faith, humor, and dedication, Armstrong International promotes teamwork and innovation, with an underlying message that employees should treat customers and each other as they themselves would wish to be treated.
“We have four manufacturing divisions worldwide, and Three Rivers is the largest, with around 100 people in the shop and several dozen CNC machine tools,” said Findlay. “We’re a little different from the typical aerospace or medical shop, though, given that we’re an OEM and have to develop a range of unique tools and machining solutions for a very diverse product line.”
Because hot water and steam-generated heat are so widely used and have so many different applications, Armstrong Industrial’s manufacturing group is regularly challenged to machine a variety of component shapes, sizes, and materials. One of these is a family of 17-4 PH H900 parts roughly 0.5" (12.7 mm) in diameter and 0.75" (19.05 mm) in length, each known only as a “seat.” Along with a handful of lower-volume titanium, Nitronic 60, and 316 stainless steel components, this was the workpiece most often made on the Index and the target for Cupp’s machine tool replacement project.
After assessing the available options, he reached out to Matthew Czajka, account manager at Network Machinery Inc., Shelby Township, Mich., a REM Sales partner and reseller of Tsugami Swiss-style CNC lathes. Said Cupp, “I’d had good experiences with Tsugami lathes at another shop before starting here. And since we already had a Tsugami B038T gang/turret machine on our floor and were quite happy with its capabilities, as well as the support we were getting from REM Sales, Zac and I were both comfortable going in that direction.”
A Special Request
After some preliminary fact gathering, Czajka introduced Cupp and Findlay to Joshua Sharp, regional sales manager at Tsugami / REM Sales LLC, Windsor, Conn. The four discussed the project and soon determined that the company’s B0326-III opposed gang tool CNC lathe would be the best machine for the job.
“Although we introduced its predecessor at the 2012 IMTS, the Tsugami B0326-III was a new model for us at that time,” said Sharp. “The Mark III is an evolution of the original design, a 32-mm, twin-spindle convertible headstock Swiss-style lathe with 8,000 rpm on the main and sub, 6,000-rpm live tools, and up to 43 stationary and 26 live tools. It’s a great machine tool for complex parts that require a lot of milling work.”
Findlay and Cupp agreed with that statement, but noted that the Mark III fell short in one respect. Although the 17-4 seat is “not overly complicated,” they were looking for additional tooling stations. “Armstrong wanted to run lightly attended or even lights-out and needed redundant tooling,” Czajka said. “So we removed one of the live tool units and replaced it with a bank of five more turning tools, giving them space for a minimum of two spares of each tool. Regardless of the modifications, though, the machine that Armstrong International received was the first one of its kind sold in the United States.”
First in Line
As mentioned earlier, part of Cupp’s mission was to find a Swiss-style lathe that would be faster to set up than the Index, a goal that was gaining urgency given their skilled operator’s retirement. They knew that, given the ongoing shortage of qualified machinists, they needed equipment and tooling that would be easy to use yet accurate and productive. For the latter, they turned to Ken Wojtanek, application engineer, and Darrell Harris, senior technical sales engineer for Seco Tools LLC, Troy, Mich. Both had been promoting the company’s upcoming line of quick-change Swiss-style tooling for months.
“We’ve been a Seco shop for many years and use their tooling on pretty much every CNC machine in the shop,” said Findlay. “Our local guys Ken and Darrell are great, the company is very supportive, and we’ve had excellent results with their tooling. But at that time, they didn’t have much in the way of Swiss-style tools and toolholders. Both of them told me there was a new product line coming out, but that it wasn’t quite ready yet.”
Cupp couldn’t wait any longer and was preparing to place a purchase order with a competitive brand when he got the call from Wojtanek. “I can get the quick-change tools for your new machine, but you’ll be the first ones,” he said. “Are you willing to be a beta site?” Seeing as they were already first in line on the machine tool side, the two figured in for a penny, in for a pound. Cupp created a tooling list and instructed Wojtanek to have everything shipped to the REM Sales showroom in Windsor, where Applications Engineer Adam Clark would be responsible for machine setup and runoff.
Ken Wotjanek explained that Seco’s Modular QC (Quick-Change) toolholder system reduces downtime on Swiss-style lathes by allowing the operator to change turning tools outside the machine. There’s no need to navigate tight quarters or fumble around with small screws and wrenches, trying to reach tools that are often upside down or deep inside the machine. Instead, the QC head and insert can be removed as a single unit and replaced within seconds.
“Changeover time is quite fast,” said Cupp. “The clamping screws are easily accessible, and the Seco torque wrench provides confidence that the tool head is secure and correctly in place. Indexing an insert to a fresh edge does not require fighting with or removing the toolholder or coolant lines—due to the space constraints, this would have been a very cumbersome task with a traditional holder. Thanks to its ease of use and accessibility, Seco’s modular quick-change system is a big improvement.”
Note Cupp’s comment about fighting with coolant lines. Where CNC lathes—Swiss-style or otherwise—typically require a series of copper or plastic lines and fittings to bring cutting fluid to the work area, Seco’s Modular QC is equipped with the toolmaker’s Jetstream Tooling technology. This allows high-pressure coolant (HPC) to flow through the tool and precisely hit the work area. There’s also a “Duo” version on select cutting heads, which supports coolant flow from underneath the tool as well, something that’s especially helpful on parting applications and during heavy cuts.
Quick-change tooling is of little value unless it’s both rigid and accurate, however. As a result, Seco’s QC system is equipped with a patented carbide pin pocket design for more accurate insert positioning. Said Cupp, “Our experience has been that positional repeatability is within 0.001" (0.0254 mm) or better, accurate enough that we can replace threading inserts without diametral adjustment, and we no longer need to touch off after changing a worn insert. Because of this, we now write tool offsets directly in the program to speed up the changeover process and reduce the chance of an operator mistake.”
Wrapping Up in Windsor
There’s more to this story than beta tests of quick-change tooling and new Swiss-style CNC lathes. As part of the turnkey agreement, REM Sales’ Adam Smith was charged with implementing an additional cutting edge system—the TMAC (Tool Monitoring Adaptive Control) from Caron Engineering Inc., Wells, Maine, intended to give Armstrong International the ability to operate the Mark III mostly unattended.
Mike Laurendeau, responsible for Caron product sales in the Eastern U.S. and Canada and OEM accounts throughout North America, credited Bruce Cunningham, president of Ovation Engineering, Romeo, Mich., for introducing Findlay and Cupp to the TMAC system. “Simply put, TMAC is a universal interface that gives shops the ability to avoid anything negative in the machining process,” Laurendeau said. “It uses machine-mounted sensors and advanced software to detect cutting forces and vibration, then takes the appropriate action, whether that’s to adjust process parameters, switch to a backup cutting tool, or shut the machine down and send an alert.”
The turnkey project was a complete success. Aside from Seco’s Modular QC tooling and Caron Engineering’s TMAC, the new machine has an EDGE Turbo magazine-style barfeeder (which the TMAC monitors for vibration), Tsugami’s oscillation cutting feature for improved chip control, and an MP Systems high-pressure coolant unit. And, at Wojtanek’s suggestion, Armstrong Industrial switched to Seco’s TS2050 grade DCGT inserts, a move that has reportedly quadrupled tool life compared to the shop’s legacy turning tool.
Back to Three Rivers
Six months after its delivery, the B0326-III is busy making parts. After a brief training period, production quickly ramped up to three shifts in early March, two of them often unattended. Spindle utilization approaches 92 percent each day. With the new turning grade, Seco’s Modular QC system has reduced tool change-related downtime from 403 to just 51 hours per year, an 88 percent improvement.
Consumable tooling cost has also gone down, with a projected $6,000 in annual savings. Machine setup times are lower as well, often less than half an hour, even with inexperienced operators. Together with Tsugami’s oscillation function and HPC, Seco’s Jetstream Tooling technology has improved chip control to the point that even super-stringy 17-4 is now manageable. And the cycle time for the 17-4 PH seat? What was once 83 seconds has fallen to 55 seconds, while absorbing the time and handling of an offline engraving operation into the machining process.
“To be honest, most of this last part we attribute to the Tsugami’s faster rapids and multitasking capabilities, but there’s much more to this than cycle time,” said Cupp. “Seco’s QC tooling has greatly simplified the tool change and setup procedures, something that was very important to us after the retirement of our Index operator. Now, even less-experienced machinists have no problem working on the machine. Having redundant tools has also made a huge difference, as it allows us to walk away from the machine for hours at a time. And the increased tool life has saved our department a lot of money.”
Findlay agreed but suggested that the TMAC is the glue holding it all together. “As soon as it senses an increased tool load, TMAC fires off a macro that calls up a replacement tool,” he said. “If it senses no load at all, it means a tool is broken, so TMAC tells the machine to cut off that part and restart the cycle with a new tool. No downtime. And if all else fails, TMAC sends an alert to whoever is responsible for that shift. On top of all that, the TMAC’s load monitoring capabilities give us greater visibility into our machining processes, providing additional optimization opportunities. Between TMAC, the Tsugami Mark III, and Seco’s Modular QC system, we clearly have a winning combination.”