No matter what industry you’re in, it’s likely that tooling is an important part of your production process, whether directly or indirectly. For the layperson, tooling is defined as the process of designing and engineering tools for the manufacture of parts or components. Within the large umbrella that is tooling, there are many different categories of tooling. These include fixed work holding tools, known as fixtures, moveable work holding tools, known as jigs, cutting tools, such as for milling or grinding machines, dies for various machines, and welding and inspection fixtures.
When it comes to tooling, manufacturers generally choose between two main materials, steel or aluminum. While steel has been the popular choice for decades, more and more OEMs are turning to aluminum, and for more than just prototyping. This is due in large part to the many benefits that aluminum offers. Before making your decision, you should look at a number of criteria to ensure that you are making the right choice for your particular job.
What are the important criteria you should consider when choosing a tooling material?
The correct selection of machine components is an important key to your operation’s success. It could be easy to go with whatever the conventional method is at the moment, but the only way to get ahead of your competition is to do things better. This means that adopting the optimal tooling process, the one that best fits your application, will give you a leg up in the marketplace. That’s why you should consider your material choices from every angle, in conjunction with other aspects of your production, before making a decision.
An important factor, for example, is to make sure that the average chip thickness ratio improves your productivity in multiples. That means you need to operate at the correct cutting speeds and feeds. This not only is influenced by the radial engagement of the tool, but also the material itself. The grade of aluminum or steel you use will have a direct effect on how fast you can make your cuts.
Another critical consideration is the training of your workforce, in particular when it comes to the effective use of cutting tools and the machining process. This can often lead to managers sticking with materials their team has experience with already, rather than choosing a newer alloy that might be more effective for the task at hand. An investment in training can pay off when it allows an operation to save money down the line.
Smart manufacturers will also carefully look at the desired quality of the finished part, the part’s properties, how fast and accurately the part can be produced, and how repeatable the process is, which is especially relevant for high volume production runs. Also, you should consider the precision of the tooling.
For applications where exceptional quality is a must, you must ensure that the required tolerances are met. In terms of workpiece accuracy, mechanical strength and rigidity of the tool needs to be adequate. The cutting tool strength must also be enough to withstand the machining forces. Finally, the correct selection of cutting parameters, grades, and geometries will help ensure efficient machining, while boosting productivity and lowering the cost per component ratio.
What are the benefits of aluminum when it comes to tooling?
When comparing aluminum to steel, many people are surprised by the plethora of advantages that the former offers. Whereas traditionally, steel has been looked at as the stronger, more durable, cheaper alternative, the truth is that aluminum has caught up to and, in some areas, surpassed steel as a manufacturing material.
First off, most people are aware of the major edge aluminum has when it comes to heat transfer. In fact, aluminum offers an average of five times improvement in terms of heat transfer. Because of this superior conductivity, the placement of cooling lines is less important and therefore can be less intrusive, allowing for a greater density of components.
Aluminum is also considerably softer than steel, meaning that it is much faster to work with. In fact, aluminum can reduce cycle times by up to 30%. The flipside of this is that because it is softer, it can be more difficult to work with. This is where experience comes in, as mentioned previously. That’s also way it is imperative for a mold to be properly designed and built to prolong the life of the tool.
Next, aluminum is easier to heat treat because it does not require the extra step of being annealed. Steel will often need to be annealed in order to reduce the internal stresses and toughen the metal sufficiently. Aluminum also takes most of the surface treatments that would work with steel.
If you ask most manufacturers, they are likely to tell you that one of the disadvantages of aluminum tooling is that it doesn’t last as long as steel. This is why aluminum has traditionally been turned to only as a prototype, for very short runs of 500 to a thousand. Go too long with an aluminum tool and it starts to break down is the general line of thinking.
But this is no longer the case. Today, aluminum tools can last well past 100,000 shots for production. Many modern aluminum grades are just as strong or stronger than steel, and aluminum tools can be surface coated to extend their lives even further.
With so many advantages, it’s no wonder that aluminum is often more cost effective than steel. That’s why every day, manufacturers are making the switch to aluminum, replacing their steel tools with improved aluminum versions.
Aluminum tooling is a durable and cost-effective choice for whatever your manufacturing needs. At Clinton Aluminum, our experienced personnel pride themselves on working with our clients to not only choose the right material, but to also streamline their production process in order to become more competitive.
If you have any questions about aluminum tooling and how it could work for your application, contact us today.