Purchasing Cutting Tools in the Digital Age

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Manufacturing Engineering Magazine December 2019
By Jim Lorincz

Social media, digital libraries, and websites packed with information to aid in smart cutting tool purchasing.

You don’t have to spend too much time looking to be overwhelmed with useful information from distributors and cutting tool manufacturers about solutions that yield lowest cost per part, per hole, or per tool.

The supply chain of tooling manufacturers and distributors is being streamlined in the way it delivers information, product and support. Research for the latest and most advanced product and process solutions are only a keystroke away on the Internet. End users depend, just as they did in the past, on their suppliers and distributors for information about new tooling products and processes. The difference is in the immediacy and depth of information available to them.

Shops looking for competitive advantage can find it in interactive ordering, tool design and downloadable technical answers to manufacturing conundrums. Here’s what cutting tool manufacturers and their distributors have to offer savvy manufacturing end users.

Users Depend on Supply Chain

“A lot of things have changed at the end-user customer shops in the last five to ten years,” said Jan Andersson, director of global product management, YG-1 Tool Co., Vernon Hills, Illinois. “It used to be that there was one manufacturing engineer per production line or per part family. Now you’re lucky if you have one manufacturing engineer per plant. Customers no longer have the time to extensively research the latest cutting tools. They depend on us and our distributors for the latest tooling product and process information. As a result, we are partners with the customer, the distributor and the end users. Good communications from the end user-to-distributor-to-us is critical,” Andersson said.

YG-1’s Smart Tool Selector allows a customer to break down by tool type or application, such as milling, turning, tapping, or drilling, as well as by material and machine. It then enables users to drill down into tooling detail to find the best tool for the application. “It’s a simple way of finding the best starting point,” he said. “Smart Tool Selector allows you to take solutions by stair stepping down through the process. Knowledge resides in the digital tool and it relieves the frustration of poring over a catalog.”

According to Andersson, the role of cutting tool sales personnel has changed completely over the last 10 to 15 years. “We still have the traditional selling process but the knowledge level of the cutting tool sales person is much greater today because that expertise is needed at the customer level. There are fewer manufacturing engineers, for example, and they can’t always focus on continuous process improvements. They just don’t have the time to work on everything because the support structure has decreased.”

Shop visits are important for optimizing the cutting tool solution. Sales personnel at dedicated independent distributors must have a good technical understanding of processes, fixtures, machines, materials, and so much more, he said. “They need to be more technical, more of an applications engineer. Digital tools allow customers to pick a good solution or starting point, but to optimize the process, shop visits [help determine] customer goals for productivity, tool life and the potential for bottlenecks.”

Data Speeds Decision-Making

With the wealth of information available today, search engines have cut the time and effort required to research possible cutting tool solutions, according to Kurt Ludeking, director of marketing, Walter USA LLC, Waukesha, Wis. “One measure of change is the estimate that about 60 percent of the purchasing decision process is already completed by the time a customer contacts a distributor or manufacturer.”

With the wealth of information available today, search engines have cut the time and effort required to research possible cutting tool solutions, according to Kurt Ludeking, director of marketing, Walter USA LLC, Waukesha, Wis. “One measure of change is the estimate that about 60 percent of the purchasing decision process is already completed by the time a customer contacts a distributor or manufacturer.”

Social media seems to cut across all aspects of specifying cutting tools, although usage is uneven across end users, he believes. From using the experience of others to help with troubleshooting to learning machining techniques and finding new products, social media can be a wealth of information. By providing easy access to information, it can cut the learning curve and get users to an appropriate solution quickly.

According to Ludeking, the balance between distributor sales and company sales teams doesn’t seem to have changed much recently. “The U.S. cutting tool market has been strongly supported by distribution for a long time now, and I don’t see that changing,” he said. “What is changing are the expectations of cutting tool buyers for their distributors. Everything is going digital and the distribution of cutting tools is no exception. There is also increasing demand for distributors to provide technical expertise in cutting tools, and this is where the application software provided by manufacturers can be invaluable.

“In some ways the salesperson’s role has become easier; the digital tools and information help them be more effective,” Ludeking continued. “But the requests for assistance have gone up significantly as the industry struggles with finding trained machinists to replace retiring workers.”

He added that the relationship has changed with customers that have embraced digital tools and information available in that they are much further along the purchase decision path and well informed by the time they contact a sales person. “But the core of the interaction between customer and sales is the same,” said Ludeking. “Customer visits are as important as ever—establishing rapport and trust with the customer is crucial and still best done in person. In spite of all the digital tools and the wealth of information they can provide, there are times when there is still no replacement for looking at an application on the customer’s shop floor to work on improvements.”

Walter’s digital tools include the following: Walter GPS (Guided Product Search), which searches for tools by application; Walter Toolshop selects and order tools; Walter Online Catalog continuously updates all 45,000+ Walter standard products; Walter Xpress Online designs and quotes special tools online; and e-Library provides digital versions of all Walter product catalogs and flyers. Also available are apps optimizing wear and cutting data calculations and more.

Digital Technical Information

You can’t overstate the importance of digital media in today’s market, according to Larry Lefkof, director of marketing and product development for Seco Tools LLC, Troy, Mich. “We are able to generate awareness on all of the platforms by sharing success stories and new product information, engage with people following us and communicate machinist-to-machinist on Instagram, or with videos on Facebook and YouTube. In addition, we share product details through Machining Cloud and the Cimsource [ToolsUnited] search engine.”

For Seco Tools, like other cutting tool suppliers, its website is the key entry point for communication with its distributors and end-user customers. Having all of the information available for a machining solution can almost feel like information overload. In discussion about how Seco manages the challenge of meeting its customers’ digital requirements, Scott Hecht, director of channels and business development, and Bill Barcelona, director of customer experience, cited these approaches.

Dealing with information overload efficiently often comes down to who is doing a better job of tagging information to support keyword searches. Users don’t always think or search in the same terminology that companies use, so it’s important to tag information with common industry lingo to facilitate easy identification and use of the desired data. Suppliers also often employ online resources to assist customers in identifying solutions even if they are completely unfamiliar with the brand or tooling options available.

One such example is Seco’s Suggest application on Secotools.com, which makes product recommendations based on application parameters. Suggest is an advanced product selector that quickly identifies optimized tooling options for processing a part feature within the required tolerance. Through its simple user interface, Suggest can generate recommendations from minimal data.

However, the more information a user provides, the more customized the recommendation. Default values within each data input field ensure ease of use for all metalworking skill levels. Users can adjust their input data at any time as well as filter, sort and compare information to fine-tune a recommendation. All tooling suggestions can also be saved as well as electronically shared or printed for easy sharing.

Drilling down deeper into all the information associated with the application generates suggestions on tools, inserts, grades, chip grooves, MRR, cutting conditions, power consumption and expected tool life. The level of detail is comparable to what a technician would provide the customer in a face-to-face meeting, and with more customers going digital the company predicts utilization of Suggest and other online resources will steadily climb.

Customers are now able to get data and information on demand, alleviating the limitation of requiring in-person dialogues to resolve common inquiries.

For projects requiring more technical support, Seco’s process engineers are poised to provide the expertise required to help identify a process to produce the component from start to finish. The process could include a combination of standard and customer tools based on the component. In some cases, a solution may include tools that Seco does not provide. In situations where tools are sourced from multiple suppliers, the channel partner serving the customer can help ensure the optimal solutions are on hand when needed.

Seco’s relationship with its distributors and end users often goes beyond tooling and requires supplemental technical training, including component manufacturing expertise for aerospace, oil and gas, and medical applications, for example. Through the Seco Technical Education Program (STEP), Seco hosts dozens of training events each year, equipping hundreds of attendees with the latest in manufacturing know-how. Some of this technical curriculum will soon be available online, enabling remote learning of key skills.

Inventory Down, Specials Up

According to Drew Strauchen, executive vice president, GWS Tool Group, Tavares, Fla., digital tool libraries are growing in popularity, though they are still not a default standard for customers. “Companies like MachiningCloud do a nice job and it seems that more and more customers are using their platform or something similar to simplify programming and 3D modeling processes. Internet search engines are playing a bigger part, though end users and dealers tend to be very specific in their search criteria by brand names and part numbers, for example,” said Strauchen.

He regards social media as still primarily a marketing tool designed to create awareness and provide information. “While calls to action with hyperlinks or QR codes can be incorporated to generate potential pull-through, transactions for use are still not driven in this medium because we rely on our distribution partners to manage the purchasing transactions with customers for our tools and services,” said Strauchen. “For distribution, social media and e-commerce platforms have a much more significant potential as a purchasing mechanism.”

As technology advances and with the skills gap widening, more emphasis has been placed on cutting tool companies to provide technical support to help bridge that gap. “Once deemed a competitive advantage to provide such resources, it has now become more of an expectation,” he said. “Cutting tool sales people have had to become more cross-functional in terms of their skill sets, becoming generalists rather than specialists. That has been the trend as many companies are expanding into entirely new product verticals as a means of driving new revenue growth. Sales people with experience in multiple disciplines, for example drilling and milling as opposed to just milling, are better set-up for success.”

Strauchen said the biggest change is in online web-based ordering. “One of the byproducts from a cutting tool company’s perspective [GWS Global sells through distributors] is the greater adoption of JIT (just in time) inventory practices due to greater transparency of cutting tool manufacturers’ inventories via stock visibility on their websites and even direct data links shared between distributors and manufacturers’ ERP systems. The amount of inventory that end users and distributors need to carry to meet just-in-time manufacturing has been reduced, placing more of a burden on cutting tool OEMs.”

By the same token, Strauchen noted that use of custom tools can eliminate potential stock outages altogether because the inventory is exclusive to one customer and not at risk of being taken by another. For production facilities, this avoids a potentially catastrophic gap in the supply chain. “If the supply chain is working properly on a special tool, the customer need only wait once for their tools because we are doubling up on their initial order. In other words, if they are ordering five, we are building ten so that there is no wait time the next time they order.

“For standard tools that are visible and available to anyone who wants to buy them, there is a certain amount of risk, especially for OEMs that base their safety stock levels on ERP order history (and most do),” Strauchen continued. “One large tool order that wasn’t forecast can wipe out stock and result in a long wait for inventory to be replenished. Obviously, the end user needs to select the cutting tool that’s the best for them. From a manufacturing engineering point of view, the best tool should be the one with the lowest cost per unit that maximizes metal removal rate because MRR equals time and time is the most expensive element of any manufacturer’s cost.”

GWS Tool Group offers digital web-based tools that can be downloaded as a PDF or GWS can create a custom tool from a design that is uploaded from customer tool print, CAD file or even a napkin sketch, working with its inside team. Outside of the old-fashioned phone, GWS offers digital methods, including email and web chat to fit anyone’s communication preferences.

Time at the End User’s Spindle

Time spent face-to-face at the end user’s spindle is the best way to evaluate all the variables affecting a successful holemaking or finishing application, according to Mike Regan, Midwest central regional manager at toolmaker Allied Machine and Engineering, Dover, Ohio. “When we work with end users to find the best tooling solutions for their business, it’s important to balance all the digital resources available with old-school knowledge,” he said. “There is a wide variety of holemaking and finishing applications in manufacturing and in today’s globally competitive manufacturing market, everyone is required to do more with less and show cost savings while doing it.”

Allied Machine’s holemaking products include cutting tools from small diameter to large diameter, roughing to finishing, deep-hole drilling and even combination tooling. It provides a complete line of reamers for finishing and boring tools for enlarging existing holes. Although the company sells through distributors, its field engineers work closely with end user engineers and machinists to provide tooling solutions that get more parts out the door, reduce scrap and produce better quality holes. “Today, end users depend on outside suppliers to bring them the latest information on advanced processes and products,” he said. “Everybody is running leaner today. Shops used to have 10 or 20 tooling engineers on staff and a tool crib to handle cutting tools. Not anymore.

“We do a lot of training with our tooling distributors so they understand our product line and the solutions we bring to the market,” Regan continued. “Distributors find opportunities for us where our field engineers can work with end users to design and implement a better solution. Field support has to be much more technically and digitally savvy too. We’re always sourcing information and working with digital utilities at our customer’s spindle.”

To complement its onsite technical support, Allied Machine’s website offers free digital tools for customers such as Insta-Quote, ToolMD, Insta-Code and more. Insta-Quote enables users to design, quote, and order customized tooling in minutes and connects them with application engineers for additional support for challenging applications. ToolMD allows users to browse, assemble, and upload 2D and 3D images into their software programs to test compatibility and perform proactive collision testing. Insta-Code is designed to simplify thread mill programming setup. Operators can use the cycle time calculator for planning purposes and enter a thread mill’s item number to create a program instantly. Additionally, Allied Machine has partnered with MachiningCloud, a cloud-based utility that helps fast-track the process of creating tool assemblies.

Ultimately, the online utilities help end users navigate the massive amount of cutting tool choices available today, while collaborations at the spindle with dedicated field engineers provide personal support and improve manufacturing processes.

Reference: https://www.sme.org/technologies/articles/2019/november/purchasing-cutting-tools-in-the-digital-age/