Keep sharp with better tooling management
September 12, 2013 | 7:00 pm CDT

No matter whether they are a small custom shops or big plants with hundreds of employees, woodworking manufacturers often overlook a vital part of their business. They might consider themselves “cutting edge” in lots of areas except the real cutting edges – their tooling.

Some of the primary areas of concern include poor storage or management that results in damage and lost production efficiency or even safety hazards, bad or inconsistent monitoring of sharpness and sharpening or tool life, and overall a lack of attention to all the factors that contribute to the cost of tooling. The good news is there are plenty of both high-tech and low-tech ways woodworking manufacturers can effectively tackle these problems no matter the size of their operation.

Storage and management

Lee Harbin at Supa Doors in Universal City, Texas, describes a typical situation. Before the company started seriously managing their tooling, he says, “Tools were just sitting beside the machine. There was lots of clanking together, lots of damage.” Machine operators and company management had no real grasp of where tooling was or how it was being used. If operators needed tooling that wasn’t at their machine, they had to go chase it down.

Now the company has centralized tool management and adopted Intooligence software to manage all of their tooling. The software tracks all the tooling. “Now I know whether the tool is in a room or on a machine,” he says. The tool room manager delivers tooling to each operator, so operators can focus on production and not be chasing tooling around the plant.

Jim Baad of Intooligence says shops seem to fall into two camps: those that treat tooling as an expense and those that figure it as an investment. The Intooligence software helps manage a tooling investment by making it easy to keep track of tooling data. “The software is very flexible,” he says. “You can do a lot of data entry or not.” It’s Web-based, so you can use an existing computer and the company can’t help with setup, and the cost is as little as $50 per month.

“Once it is set up, lots just use it to monitor,” says Baad. “Lots take a piecemeal approach, evaluating specific tooling. One company used it to evaluate four sets of tooling in different metals. You can start the system with limited data and add as you go with no limit on the number or type of tools.”

Similarly, identifying tooling can be simple or sophisticated. Baad says you can use a pocket engraver with a diamond tip or even laser etching. The Intooligence software can even work with barcodes etched on tooling, and companies can attach full documents to individual tools in the software. He also noted that some manufactures also input machine maintenance data into the system to keep track of both tooling and machines in the same place.

Quality control

But even with sophisticated tools to keep track of tooling, monitoring quality can be tricky business. Greg Neer, National Industrial Sales Director of Freud America Inc., says one of the biggest problems they see is people overrunning tools. “Oftentimes we find end users certainly with the right idea to extend tooling life will run a tool as long as possible, sometimes to the detriment of the tool, causing excessive wear,” he says. “The useable wear life of a tool is that it maintains a good quality of cut for a period of time then drops off radically. If there is not a defining quality affect like chipping or burning material, it is very easy to run a tool way past this optimum life range.”

Tooling manufacturers and sharpeners often use microscopes to closely examine tooling, but some operations have found a really easy way to know when tooling is no longer performing optimally. Zech Pegura, moulder room supervisor at UPF Granger in Granger, Ind., says the company has installed amp gauges on all of their machines. When tooling is dull or damaged, the machine has to draw lots more amps. “Before, we would run machines until the breakers were popping,” Pegura says. His company also uses the Intooligence software to track tooling data.

Another thing that can affect tooling life and quality of cut is poor dust collection, which will not allow heat to be removed from the tool, says Baad. And improper maintenance such as lack of balancing can create potential safety issues.

Knowing your numbers

All the tooling experts agree that better monitoring improves tooling life and efficiency. “The best practice for quickly extending a tools life is to know where the optimum usable tool life is for the tool in a given application and to get the tool off for proper sharpening and insuring peak performance through each usable cutting edge life,” says Neer. “If an end user is burning tools, slowing down the machine speed down, cutting their ‘fine’ materials early and throwing up poor materials or uncoated materials later because the cut quality is not important, these are signs of really not managing the tools correctly.”

Pegura says his company uses the Intooligence software to keep track of data on tooling so they can create benchmarks for expected life between sharpening. Before the software and good record keeping, he says, “We were just guessing.” With better data and improved maintenance, he calculates his 170-man plant saved $5,000 in tooling costs just in the first six months.

Neer says, “Many times production employees do not know if a given tool is out for service, on a machine or just lost. Organize and measure -- these two things alone can save an organization 10-30 percent per year.”
Baad of Intooligence echoes those sentiments. “You can almost always trim 10 percent of tooling costs with better procedures,” he says. “We had one customer with really bad tool damage problems. There was no proper storage, not a central location for tooling. No one was in charge of tooling. No one was inspecting. Tooling was not put in cases.” He said he showed them how easily tooling could be damaged by simply tapping an Allen wrench to some diamond tooling, which is very hard, but it is brittle and easily damaged if not handled properly. “Now all their tooling is in cases, and there is rarely damage,” he says.

Work with suppliers and sharpeners

It’s also crucial to work with suppliers and sharpeners to get the right tools and then get maximum performance from them. Baad suggests developing a strong relationship with your sharpener. “Take 30 minutes and walk them through the facility. Are we doing anything stupid? It’s kind of like listening to your doctor a little bit,” says Baad. “Take advantage of the repeat relationship. It’s to their advantage to keep you up and running.”

Freud’s Neer suggests using the data you keep on your tools to evaluate any changes in tooling or suppliers. “How do you know if someone tells you this tool last 2X as long? The key is knowing your costs per cut so through testing we get past the noise of 2X or 4X and we can dial in and say if you use this new technology we can be specific on the exact dollar amount of savings.”

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.