Automation, Innovation Chart EDM’s Course

Advances in EDM technology—including increased automation and combining machining processes to get the job done as efficiently as possible—help EDM stay afloat and keep moldmakers successful.

It’s no secret that in the last decade moldmakers have had to cut costs to remain competitive while facing the threats of both offshore competition and the economic slowdown. The EDM market has responded in kind with advances in sink and wire technology as well as automation—technologies that have redefined this industry. These changes, new products, and EDM’s future are presented by some leading manufacturers and suppliers.

Industry Changes
According to Greg Langenhorst, Technical Marketing Manager,
Mitsubishi EDM (Wood Dale, IL), the biggest change in the past 10 years is a product of the concentration on cost and performance. “Moldmakers are now competing in a global economy, and domestic players have to find ways to stay competitive with the low labor rates in other countries,” he explains. “This means doing more with less, and faster. It is critical that today’s U.S. moldmakers are using automation and are smart with their equipment purchases. They must choose the EDM machines that deliver the best performance and the best technology in the smallest footprint, then automating it to get the biggest payback.”

Also touting the benefits of automation is Dean Calin, Marketing Manager at Erowa Technology, Inc. (Arlington Heights, IL), who notes, “Unattended processing of work and automation—on both sink and wire—has become necessary to stay competitive in the moldmaking market today.”

Stephen Bond, National Sales Manager at Methods Machine Tools, Inc./Methods EDM Group (Sudbury, MA) believes that diversification is the eminent trend of the last decade. “Challenges in the market regarding mold pricing and delivery have forced moldmaking companies to diversify in both equipment and type of work,” Bond states. “Like never before, companies face a greater pressure from overseas manufacturers forcing profits and amount of work to almost nonexistent levels. Gratefully, the quality of the work had not been what American molders were used to; and molders found themselves forced to send the tools out to be re-worked if the mold was going to produce acceptable parts. Moldmakers are resourceful by nature and that inherent quality has allowed those shops still successful today to adapt to new technologies, reduce their costs—and moreover make quicker deliveries than the competition from other countries.

“As was the case in Japan and Korea, the challenges we face with higher labor and reduced delivery times will be the issues China, India and others will face in the future,” Bond continues. “As their quality goes up, so will their prices for labor, raw materials and machinery. Mexico—once a strong competitor with the U.S. due to labor costs—is now looking for ways to reduce costs to compete with Asian countries. As they say, what goes around comes around.” 

At GF AgieCharmilles (Lincolnshire, IL), Business Development Manager Gisbert Ledvon weighs in on foreign competition. “Because of low labor costs in regions such as Southeast Asia, foreign companies were often able to produce molds less expensively,” he states. “Today, molds for items such as toys and cell phones are made almost exclusively overseas. Due to an inability to compete on price, many American moldmakers were forced out of business. The survivors are those companies who focused on new markets and invested in new technologies. These manufacturers implemented automation, optimized workflow and adopted innovations in EDM and 5-axis high speed milling. There was a significant shift in the use of technologies as well. Traditionally, nearly all EDM sales to moldmakers were in the diesinking arena. Over the past 10 years, advancements in wire EDM have led to a large number of shops relying on the technology to reduce labor hours and produce molds of high complexity.”

Product Line Changes
EDM suppliers have refined their product lines to meet the industry’s demands for increased quality in shorter time periods. “Machine tool builders have moved to more efficient machine designs, using the latest in PC controls, servo motor technology, and electronic compensation to provide a more cost-effective machine while holding the accuracies required to meet customer requirements,” notes Langenhorst of Mitsubishi EDM. “Most of the design world has moved to 3D-CAD, so the manufacturing world has to follow by adding these types of software capabilities right into their machine controls. The latest generation of CNC controllers now has 15-inch touch screens added to normal keyboard and mouse inputs. Being user-friendly is the key when you are selling to the video game generation. Rich colors and clear graphics in full 3-D solid models right on the control screen help operators visualize the part they are machining and hopefully eliminate some of the mistakes that have created scrap in the past.

“All of our EDM, waterjet and laser equipment has and continues to move in this direction,” Langenhorst continues. “Our new control has taken us from the standard 2-D world into the world of full 3-D parasolid capability. Along with this is built-it machine intelligence, so we can supply our customers with our many years of machining technology and experience, and help them get the best results possible from day one.”

Calin at Erowa Technology points out that the requirement to palletize has become more necessary for quick movement of work or set-ups. “This is preparation for automation possibilities,” Calin explains.

Great strides have been made in both diesinking and wire EDM, GF AgieCharmilles’ Ledvon asserts. “On the diesinking side, Gamma technology has eliminated the need for hand polishing on large mold surfaces and reduced electrode wear by up to 40 percent—reducing operating costs,” he explains. “Developments in thermo-controlled machine construction has aided in providing much higher levels of precision. Micro EDM takes this a step further, allowing for small electrode undersizes and minimal electrode wear.”

According to Ledvon, cutting technologies have become very application-oriented, so that the machine will automatically apply the specific technology needed to maximize performance in each type of application. “CNC breakthroughs have made programming and automation much easier, helping moldmakers efficiently run single parts or multiple mold inserts in a lights-out environment,” he says. “Larger integrated tool changers supplement these efforts by accommodating up to 160 electrodes for certain micro applications.

“In the realm of wire EDM, twin wire technology has offered a significant breakthrough, letting shops cut with both large and small diameter wires in a single setup,” Ledvon continues. “The development of wires down 0.0008” in diameter allows production of much smaller parts and the fact that these wires can be automatically threaded improves productivity. Generator innovations have resulted in faster cutting speeds—boosting output and reducing costs. Automatic 3-D setup features eliminate manual horizontal and vertical workpiece alignment.”

At Methods Machine Tools/Methods EDM Group, Bond adds that many companies have adopted hard milling capabilities to help reduce overall time to build a mold. “This has forced the mold shop owners to gravitate from die sinking large mold areas to hard milling them instead,” Bond elaborates. “Additionally, the machinery needed to do this type of work has changed along with the complex programming associated with this shift in technology. Diversity also includes they type of work performed in the shop. Where 10 years ago a mold shop was just that—a mold shop—now companies find themselves entering the production machining arena to supplement the shop between molds going out the door. Mold shops now are looking to machines like CNC lathes and production mills to fill those needs, this in addition to the needs for what would be considered as standard moldmaking technologies like EDM. Robotics will most certainly play the largest role in manufacturing and that includes mold builders. Incorporating automated solutions to all facets of mold building allows for reduced labor and quicker turn-arounds. Owners must get more hours out of the machines without the labor if they stand a chance to sell molds throughout the world.” 

Future Challenges
Bond of Methods Machine Tools/Methods EDM Group expects upcoming qualified labor shortages will challenge the industry. “The industry is not growing and the moldmakers today are getting older,” Bond says. “Moldmaking needs to adapt new and exciting technology to draw in the next generations of would-be mold builders. The industry will face shortages in experienced labor and the pressure will be placed on technology to make up for this loss in qualified, skilled mold builders. Automation, newer machinery, advanced CAD/CAM will all play a huge role in not only the mold building but industry building as it relates to drawing in the next young talent.”

Erowa Technology’s Calin adds that some mold shops won’t survive; however the “very innovative and progressive shops” will most likely fare well.

Expanding on Calin’s sentiments is Ledvon of GF AgieCharmilles. “For the time being, U.S. moldmakers have an advantage due to the low value of the dollar,” he says. “It will not last forever, but for now, the U.S. is the ‘inexpensive’ place to build high quality molds. Many shops will capitalize on this situation—investing in new technology to ensure future competitiveness. Material costs will go up. As a result, wire EDM will become more widely used, as it produces re-usable slugs instead of reducing valuable materials to worthless chips.”

Ledvon also predicts that 5-axis, simultaneous high speed milling will become a more important and prevalent technology in the mold shop, not only for making electrodes but also for completing entire hardened mold components in a single setup. “Automation will increase in all leading mold shops, with multiple technologies connected by one robot to achieve lights-out production 24/7,” he stresses.

Langenhorst of Mitsubishi EDM Systems ties everything together nicely. “The bottom line is that we must continue to build machines that are more cost effective, always striving to provide the biggest bang for the buck,” he stresses. “Mitsubishi has been supplying EDM machines to the U.S. market since 1978, and the level of technology that one can purchase today for the same $145,000 number as back then is incredible. We all have to be smart and use whatever means possible to get the job done as quickly and efficiently as possible, and that may mean thinking outside the box and combining different machining processes to be successful.

Rough cut on a laser or waterjet, and then finish on wire EDM. Hard-mill most of the mold cavity, and then burn ribs and sharp corners on sinker EDM. The guys that can combine multiple processes like these are the guys that are not only staying business—but are making money and growing their business.”

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