A cutting tool is only as good as it’s applied. Just ask Rob Keenan, president of Seco North America. Referring to Seco as a global provider of comprehensive metal cutting solutions, Keenan and his staff offered an in-depth look at the company’s custom product capabilities available to customers and how this approach is differentiating them from being “just a cutting tool provider.”
During an editor-only event, I was introduced to the range of services the company has developed to enhance collaboration with its customers, and it starts with the company investing in itself and its offerings. Keenan notes that Seco:
- Invests more than 3% of its revenue in R&D
- Has approximately 250 people working in R&D
- Carries out product development in Europe, United States, and Asia
- Invests more than 5% of its R&D budget in intellectual property-related matters
Adding to the above are the value-added services designed to help ensure total solutions for machining challenges:
- My pages
- Component Engineered Tooling (CET)
- Custom products
- Seco Technical Education Program (STEP)
- Documented cost reduction (DCR)
- Tool reconditioning
All of these services work together to solve challenges customers face, and all were covered at the event, with additional emphasis on the custom engineered tooling services at Seco’s North American headquarters in Troy, Michigan. The custom organization was started in North America in 2006 and moved to the new Troy Technical Center in 2008. The custom tooling manufacturing completed the circle when it was moved to Troy from Tennessee in 2013.
“A lot of people think when you say ‘custom product’ that you are just talking about specials – meaning special tools – well, it goes beyond that. The tools we make are ones designed specifically for the customer, their application, the material, machine, and the machining technique that will be used,” Keenan notes. “There’s no use in developing a high-feed type of milling cutter if the customer doesn’t have the capability to use it. So our approach starts with really having to understand details of the project, machine, horsepower, overhang, etc. All of that goes into consideration to develop the custom tools. It’s a team effort.”
This is where the group collaboration and synergy is apparent.
When to go custom
“It’s a team effort with the engineering and knowledge that makes custom tooling a success,” says Technical Engineering Manager Bob Goulding. “Products are typically referred to as standard, modified, and custom, so you have to start with a logical approach to the challenge – looking at the application and the operation.”
The first question a team should ask when challenged with a part is if there’s a standard option available. That may sound logical, but sometimes a group may look at a project with very complex features and will immediately turn to believing that it requires custom from the start. But it’s the education step from the tooling supplier to the customer that can help open eyes to all available options. After learning all the options of what standards are available, the customer also needs to know what the best value is for time and money.
“Good technical solutions can be driven by a good approach, which should start by knowing what standard products are available. The best solution is to start with a catalog and, as required, they can step up to what will really answer the manufacturing need,” Goulding says. “Perhaps it’s customizing with standard, or moving all the way to custom-engineered, but it comes down to reducing cycle time and seeing continuous improvement.”
Goulding notes that’s where Seco shines. If a customer asks for a specific tool for a job, it’s the role of Seco engineers to ask if other approaches have been considered that might be more efficient. Often, there are significant opportunities to save when a different eye is on the project – and it could come from standard, modified, or custom – and ultimately the solution needs to take into account how the optimization in one area could produce bottlenecks elsewhere if all operations are not considered.
What the customer needs
Customization often goes beyond just needing tooling.
“Sometimes it’s beyond designing the right tool and requires education and training of the operators in order for the tool to work as designed,” Goulding states.
CET Manager Ken Bellinger says, Seco engineers often find that “today’s customers have engineering departments doing more with less due to a lack of resources, where one or two engineers are trying to run a facility with what they have on the shop floor. Then, when there’s a new job that doesn’t necessary fit into existing operations, it will often get forced into a line and it’s not the best fit regarding quality, productivity, and profitability.”
Seco engineering groups will process customer components, from blueprint, with or without an idea of the best approach. They are looking for results, so they deliver cycle-time analysis, time studies, and cost-per-part studies to get to the optimal answer.
This approach delivers a competitive edge for Seco, as well as the customer. The consulting services do not directly result in revenue as the answers and right approaches are developed, but they can lead to sales of the custom-engineered products. Oddly enough, with the goal from these products being the ability to make cutting tool edges last longer and achieve more parts per edge, it also reduces the demand for carbide. Because of this, Seco wants to ensure it’s delivering the best, most comprehensive solutions to customers to keep them coming back as they encounter more challenging applications. It’s a relationship to develop processes that solve problems.
Seco is also working on developing processes of their own to expedite the services.
Since the move of operations to the Troy location, Goulding says lead time for non-emergency custom orders was typically eight weeks or more but, “today, we have it down to around six weeks with the goal of dropping that figure to five weeks by the end of 2016.”
Just as the goal of these services is to help customers improve processes, the idea is not lost on Seco, either. A tour through the facility shows its investment in high-end manufacturing equipment to be able to deliver what they preach. The production floor is filled with robotic automation on 5-axis machining centers and visual production metrics on monitors throughout the facility. They’ve even changed to how they machine the components – machining from a hardened state versus the more typical rough, heat-treat, and then finish process.
As materials continue to change and at times become more challenging than what a shop may be used to, partnering with suppliers that can deliver productive answers is becoming an increasingly obvious path in a competitive market. In the past, custom-engineered tooling may have only been considered a route for a large facility, but smaller contract manufacturers are getting into the game and realizing the benefits they too can reap from the right partnership.
From choosing the right tool, to knowing the material properties, and understanding the pros and cons of the machine on which it will be used all play a role in the success of a custom-engineered project. From small engineering changes to a standard tool all the way up to a start-from-scratch designs, Seco is delivering tooling expertise from the ground up. Satisfied customers continue to come back with each new challenge they encounter, saving tooling costs, process times, and material waste.
Seco Tools LLC
About the author: Elizabeth Engler Modic, editor of Today’s Medical Developments magazine, can be reached at 216.393.0264 or firstname.lastname@example.org.