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blade life

Key Considerations When Forging and Cutting Aluminum

November 30, 2015 / , , , , , , , ,


Anyone working in the metals industry knows that use of aluminum is growing. Even with fluctuating prices, aluminum demand is still much stronger compared to other metals, including steel and copper.

Thanks to rapid growth in the transportation and construction industries, aluminum’s upward trend is expected to continue over the next several years. According to one market report, the worldwide market for aluminum alloys is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.8 percent through 2020, with market revenue rising in the U.S. from $91.2 billion in 2013 to $126.5 billon in 2020. Another report states that in the global automotive industry alone, aluminum use is expected to grow at a CAGR of 7.4 percent over 2015-2020.

As key suppliers to the automotive and other aluminum-consuming industries, forges need to ensure their skills and equipment line up with market demand. Like any material, aluminum’s unique properties require manufacturers to be equipped with the right metalworking tools and techniques.

Out of all of the various groups of alloys, aluminum alloys are the most readily forged into precise, intricate shapes. As explained by the Forging Industry Association, this is because aluminum alloys are:

While these properties certainly make aluminum alloys ideal for forging, they also have different requirements compared to other forged materials. For example, as an archived article from Forging magazine explains, temperature controls and furnace construction for aluminum are different from those used with ferrous materials. Specifically, indirect-fired or electric resistance-type furnaces equipped with internal fans are often preferred for aluminum. In most cases, the article states, this usually means new furnaces for the steel forger contemplating forging aluminum.

Other forging processes such as trimming, heat treatment, and quality inspection also need to take aluminum’s distinctive attributes into consideration, as described here in the Forging article. The same holds true when sawing aluminum. Forges that cut and process metal need to make sure they understand what is needed to cost-effectively and efficiently cut aluminum.

While aluminum is a softer material, it is also abrasive, which can present some machining challenges. According to a recent article published in Canadian Industrial Machinery (CIM) magazine, aluminum’s abrasive property can wreak havoc on a saw blade, accelerating tooth wear and diminishing blade life. This not only increases blade costs and downtime due to constant blade changes, it can also affect cut quality and overall productivity. However, smart blade choices can help overcome this common cutting challenge.

To combat aluminum’s abrasive quality, most manufacturers recommend carbide-tipped band saw blades over bi-metal blades. This is because carbides are harder, tougher, and more durable, Matt Lacroix of LENOX  explains in the CIM article. “Carbide tips are slower to wear and better suited to handle the high machining speeds,” Lacroix writes. Other blade factors, such as backing steel and tooth geometry, can also help improve the efficiency of sawing aluminum, he adds.

As the use of aluminum grows, it is more critical than ever for forges to fully understand the material’s unique characteristics and machining requirements. For more information on how to cut aluminum, you can read the full CIM article, “Taking the Hard out of Cutting Soft,” here. The Aluminum Association also provides a brief overview on aluminum forging here.

blade life

Creating a Visual Workplace in Your Machine Shop

October 20, 2015 / , , , , , , , , ,


As manufacturers continue to look for new and creative ways to gain productivity and engage employees, many are adopting a lean manufacturing concept called the visual workplace. The idea is for managers to use visual devices and cues to not only better organize their workspaces, but to help workers better understand their tasks.

Visual management expert and author Gwendolyn Galsworth defines the visual workplace as follows:
“a work environment that is self-ordering, self-explaining, self-regulating and self-improving—where what is supposed to happen, does happen, on time, every time, day or night—because of visual devices.”


However, this means much more than simply hanging up a few posters and signs. Specifically, Galsworth wrote in Quality Digest that a visual workplace should meet the following criteria:

So what does that look like in practice? This will likely vary depending on the culture, layout, and goal of an operation. In fact, this is where managers and operators can get creative. Visual devices can range from a green flag that tells a supervisor that a machine is producing on schedule, to a color-coded chart that prioritizes an operator’s tasks. In general, the goal is to utilize as many visual cues as possible to keep the workplace organized, productive, and safe.

LENOX, for example, recently instituted a Safety Sticker program, which visually displays whether or not its operation has had any safety incidents. Sticker dispensing stations and a safety calendar are located at every entrance to the facility, and every employee is required to put on a green sticker with the number of days “accident free” written on it. When a recordable accident occurs, everyone in the facility changes from a green sticker to a red sticker for a seven-day period. After seven days, everyone reverts back to the green sticker. According to Matt Howell, senior manager, the program has been “a good rallying point for the facility and builds energy around safety.”

Another industrial metal-cutting company, featured here in a white paper, has color-coded its blade stocking process. Each blade is marked with a colored tag, which corresponds to a chart that helps operators easily determine the right blade for the job. Stocking shelves are also color-coded, allowing operators to quickly locate and restock blades. This has improved operator efficiency, reduced the occurrence of operator blade selection errors, and prolonged overall blade life.

A recent column from Modern Machine Shop describes a few other creative visual tactics that have been successfully implemented at machine shops:

Regardless of the methods you choose, the purpose of creating a visual workplace is to improve organization, productivity, safety, and, of course, communication.

What visual devices could you use to improve operations at your machine shop?

blade life

Can Your Service Center Be More Environmentally Friendly?

October 5, 2015 / , , , , , , ,


For years, manufacturers were bombarded with the “green movement.” Everything from conference keynotes and annual reports to football commercials centered on sustainability and the many ways manufacturing leaders were “going green.”

And while the trend has died down in recent years—replaced by buzzwords like “big data” and “connectivity”—the issue is still very relevant. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just implemented a new ozone rule that will affect the metals and larger manufacturing community. Under the new regulation, “facilities may be required to install costly pollution control equipment, limit production, or forgo expansion,” according to an article from industry publication Edge.

The final ruling, which was just published this month, isn’t as strict as many manufacturers feared it would be; however, organizations like the Metal Service Center Institute (MSCI) and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) openly oppose the new directive. “The new ozone standard will inflict pain on companies that build things in America—and destroy job opportunities for American workers,” Jay Timmons, CEO of NAM, said in a press release.

Whether by force or by choice, the point is that sustainability efforts will continue to be important for manufacturers. If you haven’t already started changing the way your metal service center operates, now is the time to make some environmentally conscious changes. Below are just a few ideas to get you started:

What changes have you made to make your service center more environmentally friendly?

blade life

Guidelines for Cutting Structural Tube in Your Fabrication Shop

August 10, 2015 / , , , , , , , ,


As reported in our recent Metal-Cutting Industry Report on Non-Residential Construction, the use of industrial and structural steel tube and pipe is growing. According to a market tracker from Metal Bulletin Research (MBR), the category is growing at the fastest rate since the recession, mostly due to economic growth and falling oil prices.

“Construction demand for structural tubing is now growing at a steady pace in most regions of the USA,” the MBR report states. “There has been some concern among market participants that the drop in oil prices and the associated hit to the local energy-centered economies would be detrimental to their construction outlook, especially since these were some of the initial drivers of growth in the recovery. So far, construction continues unabated, as contracts, financing and permitting have already been settled.”

Industry players are also optimistic. HGG, a supplier of tube-processing machinery, told MetalForming magazine it expects the category to grow by about 15 percent in North America alone. (You can read the full MetalForming article here.)

This is good news for fabricators that serve the industrial and commercial construction industries or that cut structural tube for other applications. In either case, most shops are working with hollow structural steel (HSS) tube specified to ASTM A500 (the standard specification for cold-formed welded and seamless carbon steel structural tubing in round, square and rectangular shapes). Although most shops wouldn’t categorize HSS as difficult to cut, it does have some unique characteristics operators need to understand to ensure proper cutting.

Unlike solid tubing, which only requires one cut, HSS tube requires the blade to cut through two thin solids with a space in between. These types of cuts—known as interrupted cuts—are best suited for bi-metal band saw blades because they are designed to withstand the vibration. Carbide band saw blades, on the other hand, have strong, durable teeth, but they are not shock resistant. Therefore, bi-metal blades that reduce harmonics are the best choice.

HSS tubes also aren’t ideal for bundle cutting. While cutting tubing in bundles can allow shops to increase the number of parts per shift, it can substantially reduce blade life. In fact, some experts say that any increased part volume efficiency is offset by a 20 to 25 percent reduction in band life.

A recent article from thefabricator.com highlights several other best practices for sawing structural tube. The following are a few of the industry publication’s tips:

For more guidelines on cutting HSS tube, including a discussion on circular saw blade options, you can read the full thefabricator.com article here.

blade life

Tips for Cutting Superalloys in Your Metal Service Center

August 5, 2015 / , , , , , , , , ,


Over the next few years, experts anticipate growth in the use of high performance alloys or “superalloy” materials such as Inconel and Hastelloy. The high-performance metals, which are known for their outstanding corrosion and high temperature resistance, continue to find uses in aerospace and aircraft applications, and more recently, are expanding into the oil and gas industries.

“Growing corrosion as a cost concern in exploration and production in offshore drilling rigs is expected to propel use of high performance alloys such as superalloys in oil and gas applications,” states one study from Grand View Research, Inc. “Non-ferrous alloys such as nickel and titanium are also expected to witness above average growth due to their high mechanical strength coupled with increased use in aerospace, oil & gas and gas turbine applications,” the study continues. Specifically, Grand View Research forecasts that superalloy demand will experience an annual compound growth rate of more than 3.0 percent from 2014 to 2020.

While there is certainly a science to cutting any metal material, tackling tough-to-cut materials like superalloys can be even more challenging as managers try to balance cutting speed, finish quality, and blade life. However, with the right tools and know-how, service centers can efficiently and cost-effectively handle tough-to-cut materials without compromising quality.

The following are three key tips for service centers that want to cut superalloy materials:

blade life

Five Tips for Using Metal Cutting Coolants in Ball and Roller Bearing Production

July 30, 2015 / , , , , , , , ,


As any machining expert will tell you, coolants are a critical part of the metal-cutting process. While they are an added cost and an added step in the production process, the long-term cost benefits of coolants are worth every dime and every minute spent. This is especially true if your goal is optimization. As an article from Production Machining states, manufacturers should view coolants as an asset or, better yet, a “liquid tool.”

Unfortunately, many managers and operators fail to understand the importance of  proper lubrication during the metal-cutting process. According to Modern Machine Shop, most manufacturers see lubricant as “the least important factor in the total cost of machining and the last place to look for process improvements.” In fact, it is common for companies to often “cheat” on the proper concentration levels of metal-cutting fluids in order to save money. This may reduce coolant costs in the short term, but the high costs of machine wear and tooling replacement make this a poor management choice.

As explained in the white paper, Understanding the Cut: Factors that Affect the Cost of Cutting, coolants provide lubrication, which is essential for long blade life and economical cutting. Properly applied to the shear zone, lubricant substantially reduces heat and produces good chip flow up the face of the tooth. Without lubrication, excessive friction can produce heat; high enough to weld the chip to the tooth. This slows down the cutting action, requires more energy to shear the material, and can cause tooth chipping or stripping, which can destroy the blade.

Like any manufacturing tool, proper use and coolant management is essential if you want to get the most out of your investment. To help ball and roller bearing manufacturers ensure proper lubrication management in their metal-cutting operations, the LENOX Institute of Technology offers the following five tips:

  1. Start with a clean machine. As an article from MoldMaking Technology explains, proper metalworking fluid management starts with the draining, cleaning, and recharging of the machine. When changing coolants for any reason, clean and disinfect thoroughly with a fluid advised by the supplier of the coolant.
  2. A proper fluid mix is key. Extending the life of your fluids and achieving the best fluid performance starts with proper fluid preparation. Metal-cutting fluids need to be mixed a certain way in order for their chemical makeup to be correct. Experts recommend pouring the water into the mixing container first and then stirring the coolant concentrate into the water. One way to remember the proper technique is by the acronym O.I.L. (Oil In Last).
  3. Remove tramp oil to extend fluid life. Waste oils, which come from the machine or surfaces of the raw materials, are often picked up by the metalworking fluid and are referred to as “tramp oils.” Regular removal of tramp oil from the manufacturing process helps improve fluid performance and longevity, air quality, bacterial resistance, corrosion resistance, and tool life. Typical methods for tramp oil removal include regular inspection and the use of skimmers, centrifuges, and coalescers.
  4. Monitor fluids regularly. Measure, with a regular frequency, the concentration and quality of your fluids. Testing tools include refractometers, which can quickly determine the total amount of solubles in a solution, or titration kits, which are more extensive and are used to analyze fluid concentration in metal-cutting fluids contaminated with tramp oils. Tests for PH levels and alkalinity can also be useful,  as pH readings outside the acceptable range indicate a need for machine cleaning, concentration adjustment, or the addition of biocide.
  5. Make coolant checks part of everyday maintenance. Instituting regular coolant checks as part of a preventative maintenance program or daily operator checks can eliminate unnecessary tooling costs and maintenance downtime. Low coolant levels on a band saw, for example, can lead to premature and uneven wear of band wheels, which typically cost $1,000 each.

While coolants may feel like just another cost item on your consumables list, they play an important role in keeping maintenance costs down and cutting tool performance high. By following a few best practices, ball and roller bearing manufacturers can ensure that their metal-cutting coolants are not a necessary evil, but an opportunity to improve process efficiencies.

blade life

How Fabricators Can Benefit from Tooling Investments

July 10, 2015 / , , , , , , , ,


Most operations managers understand the importance of keeping productivity high and costs low. However, many managers fail to understand that in many cases, spending more in the short term is necessary to achieve the long-term goal of productivity.

This concept is especially true when it comes to metal-cutting tools. Because tools are consumables that need to be purchased and replaced often, it is tempting for managers to focus more on upfront cost. But as the following examples will explain, this strategy does not always offer the best return on investment.

Productivity Pays
At an event held earlier this year, Jacob Harpaz, CEO of Ingersoll Cutting Tools, explained why managers need to look beyond the price tag when investing in a new tool. According to Harpaz, featured here in Modern Machine Shop, a cutting tool can deliver improvement in three ways:

  1. Lower price
  2. Longer tool life
  3. Greater productivity

Although all three can be beneficial, Harpaz says choosing a tool with greater productivity will always offer the most lucrative return. Here’s why: For a representative machined part, Harpaz estimates that the cost of machinery represents 26 percent of the cost of machining a part; overhead represents 21 percent of the unit cost of machining; and  labor and raw material account for 28 and 22 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, the cost of cutting tools accounts for just 3 percent.

The implications of this are significant, according to Harpaz. Using the above estimates, dropping the price of the tool by 20 percent would only deliver a 0.6-percent unit cost reduction. The seemingly even greater change of increasing the life of the tool by a factor of 2 would still only save 1.5 percent. However, increasing productivity would increase the number of pieces the shop can produce in the same period of time, which means the labor cost, overhead cost, and machinery cost per piece would all decrease. Increasing productivity by 20 percent, thus, produces a savings of 15 percent overall, providing the greatest savings opportunity.

Benefits of Upgrading
With the above in mind, managers that want to get the best return out of their tooling need to remain open about investing in upgrades and new technologies In saw blades, advancements in tooth geometry and wear-resistant materials are providing significant improvements for many metal-cutting operations. This article from Canadian Industrial Machinery, for example, explains why the additional cost of a coating on a band saw or circular saw blade can be worth the investment, especially when cutting a challenging material or when higher performance is needed.

There is no question that high-performance blades will cost more. However, because they are able to cut faster and with more accuracy, they improve productivity and save money in the long run. O’Neal Steel, a Birmingham, Alabama-based fabricator featured in a white paper from the LENOX Institute of Technology, found that incurring a significant upfront expense to upgrade some of its blade was worth it. Before the upgrade, O’Neal was spending about $90 per blade, but the fabricator was only getting one day’s worth of cutting. “We had a fair margin, but we were constantly messing up material,” explains Jim Davis, corporate operations services manager. “Most people think it’s costing a lot of money in blades to switch. Well, that’s true, but when you’re cutting really tight tolerances, your blade’s going bad and the material lengths are off, you can add up money really fast and lose all your profits in just an hour or two if you have blade issues.”

For another job in its Knoxville, TN, location, O’Neal was only getting two days of cutting per blade, so they were going through three blades a week. Again, Davis upgraded from a blade costing $280 to one that was $40 more, and immediately his blade-life increased to seven days.. He estimates that in the long run O’Neal saved $600 a week, or an annual total of around $30,000. “That’s a radical change, about a 3:1 ratio on the life of a blade,” said Davis.

The Deciding Factors
Of course, not every upgrade will be worth the cost. The key is for managers to weigh the opportunity cost against the hard cost, considering the true benefits a new tool can offer and whether or not it will contribute positively to the bottom line. To do this effectively, managers need to work closely with their tooling partners to discuss the pros and cons of the different metal-cutting options, while also evaluating all of the factors that contribute to the cost of the cutting process. If the long-term benefit is there, managers need to be sure they aren’t being shortsighted by the price tag. As fabricators like O’Neal are finding, the upfront investment may offer higher productivity, as well as substantial bottom-line savings.

blade life

How Blade Care Affects Your Metal Service Center’s Bottom Line

September 5, 2014 / , , , , , , , , ,


When it comes to selecting the right metal-cutting tools, most managers focus on two main features—performance and cost. In fact, most forward-thinking managers would probably even agree to spending a little more on a blade if it could clearly outperform others on the market.

However, what many managers fail to see is that the value of a blade goes far beyond its cutting time or its price tag. The real value is in the blade life. This is especially true in service centers, where managers are trying to balance tight delivery schedules with high variability. There is just no time to constantly change out blades. As this article from Forward magazine describes, a growing number of service centers are starting to measure overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) to gauge the availability, performance, and yield of their equipment, and blade life can play a key role in optimizing equipment.

Put simply: blade life matters. It affects your productivity, your cost, and your quality.

While advancements in tooth geometries and materials have certainly helped extend blade life, how your operators care for your blades is what really helps you get the most bang for your buck. Below are some tooling tips managers can apply to optimize their blade life:

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