The Take on Tooling

Advances in tooling technology are helping to change the face of the cabinet and furniture industry. This reprint from Fine Woodworking magazine rounds up the latest news on progress in tooling manufacture, and outlines how improved cutters are bringing diverse new capabilities to CNC-equipped shops. July 4, 2005

Reprinted with permission from Modern Woodworking Magazine.

High speed, new technology, custom tooling, affordability drive today’s trends

By Brooke Baldwin Wisdom

With more and more wood processors turning to automation in order to go head-to-head with overseas competition, speed is the driving force behind many of today’s cutting tool trends. In addition, the widespread use of manmade wood substitutes by wood products manufacturers in order to produce a quality product at a competitive price has brought about even more changes in today’s tooling marketplace. “There is a need for tooling that will allow full use of these two capabilities,” says Rick Goan, general manager of Morris Wood Tool Co. “Tool makers are pushed to be innovative with new products, offering better geometries for freer and cooler cutting, using solid carbide, diamond products, solid carbide with diamond, and newer powder metal high-speed steels.

“Wood products manufacturers also have responded to the price issue with an increased use of veneers in place of solid wood products. With the highly abrasive synthetic or composite materials comes the need for something other than conventional steel tooling. In response to the production demands these materials require, we have seen our carbide department more than double in size and output over the last couple of years.”

Mike Pannell, president of Hickory Saw and Tool, also sees increased automation of U.S. wood processing plants as the impetus for a changing marketplace. “The hottest thing going in tooling is spiral solid carbide router bits,” he says. “High-speed CNC routers continue to be on the rise. More and more cabinet manufacturers have gone to CNC routers. Upholstered furniture has totally gone to CNC routers. That’s where we see the biggest demand for router bits. Most of the furniture has gone to manufactured board so that takes stronger tooling and more precise tooling. The tooling also has to be well balanced and last a lot longer even though it’s cutting a more abrasive material.”

The influx of CNC routers into small shops is increasingly influencing the tooling arena, agrees Norm Hubert, vice president of sales and marketing for LRH Enterprises. “A lot of the smaller shops are getting into CNC routers now,” he notes. “We sell a lot of standard tooling, but the brazed tooling is slowing because the shops are converting into insert tipped tooling. Repeatability is the biggest factor. With brazed tooling, every time you get it sharpened, the programming and parameters of the machine have to be changed. With insert tooling, there is a disposable tip, so the pattern stays the same all the time. This is especially important when you have interlocking pieces that must maintain the same patterns. Insert tooling used to be very pricey – four times that of brazed tooling. Now it is affordable, because it is being mass produced, so the price is almost the same as brazed tooling. The industry, in general, is getting more technical and affordable.”

Affordable is also the word when it comes to diamond tooling, says Chuck Hicks, president of Southeast Tool. “More and more people are starting to lean towards our diamond tooling now,” he reports, “because diamond has come way down price wise. For example, a tool, which five years ago would have cost the consumer $500 or $600, now costs in the high $100 to low $200 range. Competition is responsible for the price drop. A lot more tooling companies have gotten into it, so the price has been coming down. More and more competition has been good for the consumer. It used to be that the consumer was looking at a $20 router bit vs. a $500 router bit. For a lot of people that wasn’t even a choice. Now he is looking at a $20 router bit vs. a $150 router bit, so it makes sense for a lot more people. They last so much longer, you get a better value. The real value is in the downtime. You have basically no downtime at all. The drawback of diamond is that you can not get the tool quite as sharp as a solid carbide tool, so for some applications, diamond is not the best tool. On certain applications where diamond does fit in, it will outrun carbide 10 to one or more. Diamond is good for twosided hard melamine type board for example. The softer two-sided material is where the problems usually come in.”

More and more wood products manufacturers are turning to diamond tooling as it has become so affordable, reports Chuck Hicks, president of Southeast Tool.

The hedge against China
Going for price only is not a good strategy for wood processors in the long term, believes Bryant Garland, national sales manager for Forest City Tool, Inc. “Competition from China is the reason why we are really tightening up our tolerances even further in order to gain recognition with the customer as a provider of the ultimate product versus the Chinese product,” he says. “China’s tooling is not produced with the heat treating processes that we have, and it does not hold the tolerances. We’re actually starting to sell into China now. U.S. manufacturers who have moved production there say they can’t use the Chinese tooling on their CNC routers. When machines shut down, it costs them money. We’re providing tooling they don’t have to change very often.”

Besides quality issues, China’s inability to provide custom tooling is a boon for U.S. tool providers. “Custom tooling is the backbone of our business, because only standard tooling is coming out of Asia,” says Hickory Saw’s Pannell. “Standard tooling just won’t fit everyone’s requirements. Someone needs to produce the tooling that engineers draw up in the back rooms of woodworking firms. We do ‘ones’ and ‘twos.’ Smaller companies often need something special. Ten years ago, huge furniture companies were our main customers. Since so many have closed up, now we are going to businesses like flooring companies, cabinet shops, and door and window manufacturers. These companies are becoming more and more custom customers. We do a lot of insert tooling now. Also, many molding companies call us to make dies for them.”

Diversification and outsourcing is driving a demand for a variety of tooling that will fabricate more than just wood, according to Leslie Banduch, vice president of sales and marketing for Onsrud Cutter. “The trend today is that cabinet shops with CNC routers can do a lot more than cabinets,” he says. “With the capability of routers, the ease of programming and thinking outside the box, they’re not just a cabinet shop anymore. They want to differentiate themselves. Outsourcing by major manufacturers to these small cabinet shops is causing them to want our tooling made for plastics, acrylics, composites and non-ferrous metals. We have even gotten requests from custom furniture manufacturers for engraving tools so that they can do custom engraving. A need for tooling that will cut phenolic material used in the marine industry is another example. Recently, a cabinet shop in Michigan contacted us and requested a specialty tool for cutting honeycomb because they have been contracted to build aircraft cabinets.”

Onsrud Cutter created this display in response to the needs of wood processors with CNC routers diversifying into cutting a variety of materials, says Leslie Banduch, vice president of sales and marketing.

Changing technology
Andrew Dembicks, president of Andrews Toolworks in Raleigh, NC, says the wave of the future in cutting tools is ceramics. “Although the ceramic alloy works extremely well, it was difficult to attach it to a steel tool body with a bond capable of withstanding the shear stresses associated with woodcutting,” he notes. “Our recently licensed patented technology has solved the problem. Instead of applying the ceramic alloy, titanium carbonitride, via vapor deposition, which is the common method, we are using solid pieces of the alloy for saw tips, planers, chippers, granulators, shaper cutter knives and router bits. The ceramic alloy outperforms tungsten carbide because it is harder, slicker, finer grained and more chemically inert. Ceramics can double feed rates because it has a lower co-efficient of friction and is slicker than carbide. Ceramics handles heat differently than carbide. In independent laboratory tests, ceramic tipped saws demonstrated a service life four times that of carbide at approximately twice the price. It also can survive shock loads and runs quieter. The technology is about two years old. Carbide is to high-speed steel as ceramics is to carbide, and I suspect it will take over carbide in applications where productivity is an issue.”

Coatings on tooling reduces friction, keeping the blade cleaner and reducing the heat, which ends up prolonging the life of the carbide, says Greg Neer of Freud TMM, Inc. “We are producing tooling that uses coatings on a regular basis,” he notes. “Every saw blade we produce has a coating on it, making it last two to three times longer. Our standard coating is a chrome-based plate. An aluminum titanium coating is primarily used for large stack height cutting for large beam saws. When it’s used in measurements over 40 millimeters, our results are seven times that of a standard polished saw blade. We also have an aluminum oxide coating base, which we use for a lot of our standard and commercial blades that also is heat resistant. These blades allow us to get less friction, less build-up and just generally a much cooler running blade.”

In addition to a faster running saw blade with longer life, the industry wants a quiet blade, says Neer. “One of the big demands in the industry has been quieter blades because everything is very loud, and one of the loudest things is a saw,” he explains. “We have a laser-cut plate that eliminates the vibrations caused by the spindle, which is the main reason for noise issues. Reduced vibration helps the blade track better through the saw and keeps it quiet. As it tracks better, that has a large factor on the overall vibration of the actual carbide tip, which again helps with life.”

There also are a lot of advances going on in insert tooling, reports Hicks of Southeast Tool. “There is a next generation of tantung material called Jonalloy or Tigralloy,” he says. “It’s an alloy type material used in insert tooling that is mostly for hardwoods. The advantage for insert tooling is that because you do not have to braze it, you can actually get more wear-resistant types of carbide producing longer runs. It almost mimics a lot of the diamond to a degree, but consistency is what everyone is looking for in insert tooling. Even with diamond cutters you would have to change the cutter and adjust your height, etc.”

Expanding applications for diamond tooling
Advancements in tooling technology are often driven by research and development teams working directly with machinery manufacturers, says Phil Horton, director of project services at Leuco Tool. “An example is the I-system, which had specially designed tools for Homags and IMAs where the dust was extracted through the cutterhead,” he notes. “In cases where PVC edgebanding was used, whatever was machined came out clean. It was a perfected system, and at the same time, extracted all of the dust out of the cutting area.

“Here in the U.S., we are currently perfecting processes that enable us to move into new areas of diamond tooling. We are doing much more with solid wood. Historically, the most common methods of eroding diamond made it difficult to get a perfect finish in solid wood. To get the perfect finish you had to use very slow outdated processes. Now we’re into equipment that gives us the productivity in our factory, and at the same time, the finish quality that will allow us to move into new areas of solid wood machinery with diamonds.”

In addition to expanded uses for PCD (Polycrystalline Diamond) tooling, Horton says there is increased attention to tolerances in tooling and tool holding, both in processes and in products. “Tool holders that will run on higher RPM machines and hold tighter tolerances are in demand,” he reports. “Saw blades that cut higher stacks also are in demand. Sometimes a customer wants to go right from the saw to the edgebander, which calls for a finish cut saw that will cut a bigger stack to go right to the edgebander without having to be sized. There’s a new saw blade design almost every year. Much of it is driven by the OEM’s response to the demands of the marketplace.”

John Schultz, president of Waterbury, VT-based Super Thin Saws says grindable PCD is on the horizon and may have some usefulness for woodworking tooling. Three plusses may be the result. “It is reasonably plausible that PCD that can be ground will enable some types of tooling to be produced at a lower price,” he notes. “A sharper edge may be another result. After they are eroded, some metal working tools are subsequently ground to get a slightly keener cutting edge. With the new PCD, it may be possible to produce that keener cutting edge in one step. Thirdly, because it will have a different matrix, the new PCD may actually be able to hold a sharper included angle, which would allow cutting edge geometries to be produced that currently crumble if made from normal PCD. Some of the applications that are not currently good for PCD, such as where you need a steeper hook angle with a saw blade or a steeper top bevel, become good. This will not replace standard PCD. Both products will have their places.”

Reprinted with permission from Modern Woodworking Magazine.