Hard Steels Require Tough Tools


Illinois Toolmaker Invests In Hard Milling Technology

When your clients include top-of-the-line consumer appliance companies, you have to make sure not to disappoint them and you have to provide them with the best tooling possible in the least amount of time.

Because the world of appliances is always evolving and design changes are a regular occurrence, companies like Chelar Tool & Die, Inc., of Belleville, Illinois, must keep their equipment and technology up to date to maintain their customer base and must produce tooling better, cheaper and faster than ever before.

Most of the tools that Chelar produces are large progressive dies and stamping dies. Assistant shop foreman Marty Bittle says: "Because we do mostly draw dies, and a lot of progressive stamping dies, our applications require hardened steel, especially A-2, D-2, S-7 and CPM-10V at 60 HRc or more hardness." With this in mind, the latest investment in Chelar’s arsenal was its purchase of a Makino V56 in December 2003.

Investing in a new mill just for hard milling wasn’t an easy decision for the suburban St. Louis company, nor one that was made without first doing a lot of homework. Chelar designed its own tests—a standard cutting test and a rigidity test—and put the Makino up against a number of other machine tools. The tests measured the number of parts that could be made in an hour, as well as identifying which machine had the best spindle and the best tool life.

With the V56, Chelar got four hours of tool life cutting steel at 60 HRc with a solid carbide end mill with a proprietary coating from Hitachi. Based on these tests, Chelar purchased the Makino, and with the results the company is seeing, Bittle says it’s been well worth the investment.

Chelar bought the V56 with hard milling applications in mind. "We have other machines in our shop that are fine for softer metals," says Bittle. "But we have found that these machines could do the hard milling only for a short amount of time and couldn’t hold the tolerances or maintain tool life. The V56 has been great.

"We expected a lot out of this machine—to perform at its maximum at all times—and that is exactly what we’ve seen so far. For instance, we can remove metal down to 0.00005 inches with the V56, which is something we could never have imagined doing before on a vertical machining center."

Proper Tools Are Key

Chelar Tool & Die was founded in 1962 by three men—an engineer, a foreman and a salesman—named, respectively, Charles Flynt, Elmer Katt and Art Engel. The name of the company was derived from the first two letters of each founder’s name. Like many tool and die shops, the founders had worked for other tooling companies and decided to go out on their own. They set out to be the most progressive, quality-driven and customer-oriented tool and die shop in the area.

Today, Chelar’s president is Malcolm Katt, Elmer’s son, and the same basic principles apply to the way he runs the business. "Satisfied customers mean solid, return business, and an investment in technology is the way we’ll retain our current customers and attract new ones," says Katt.

It’s About Control

Chelar was the first company in the United States to have a machine with Makino’s Pro5. And, the V56 is the first machine that Chelar has had with a Fanuc controller. "With the Makino Pro5 controller and SGI.4, our contour work is three to four times faster than it was in the past," Bittle continues.

"Before we got the machine, we worked with Makino to send our operators to the Auburn Hills facility for training. And we continue to get support, not only in applications from the engineers at Makino in Auburn Hills, but from Bill Myers, our local Makino representative, who has always been available if we have questions or concerns. In addition to the test cuts we did, these are all factors that led to us buying the Makino—the company has the most to offer that we’ve seen, from support to training to technology needs."

Another aspect of the Makino that aided in the decision was the control. "We love the control on the machine, and Makino’s Pro5 is Windows based," Bittle remarks.

"We really like that there are always several ways for us to do or get to one thing. The way it processes information is far superior to anything we’ve worked with before, and it has a great deal of memory to store multiple jobs."

Competitive Acquisition

Katt, Bittle and the entire management team at Chelar realize that the machine tool is just one part of a successful operation, albeit a major part. And they’re willing to do whatever is needed in order to stay competitive.

"To stay on the leading edge competitively and to get the most out of the machine, you need the right tooling, end mills, software and even the proper building foundation," says Bittle. "Without all of these aspects, companies won’t be successful. You can’t skimp to save in one area and expect the same results; we made that commitment when we brought in the V56.

"In fact, before installing the machine we even added an extra layer of antivibration material to the foundation of the entire room in preparation for purchasing another machine in the future." Bittle stressed that it’s this kind of preplanning and forethought that will keep Chelar competitive.

Chelar also invests in its employees. "The majority of our employees are two-year graduates of a nearby technical college," Bittle states. "Once they are hired, they go through a four-year, 8,000-hour apprenticeship. In fact, one of our apprentices was just awarded a national title from the National Tooling & Machining Association (NTMA), which we consider a great testament to our apprenticeship program.

"As a result, these employees are better trained as tool and die makers and as Chelar employees. They know our systems and our shop and are accustomed to our way of doing things. This benefits all of us in the long run."

Less Time Equals More Money

Bittle says that before installing the Makino, many parts required multiple setups. Often a part would go from one mill to another, and then to a jig grinder. Today, Bittle says that jig grinding has been virtually eliminated from the operation. "Our pieces used to go through surface grinders in a manual operation. Now we can cut a part on one setup in the V56 and provide a surface finish similar to a lapping finish without any jig grinding.

"It’s fantastic and saves us time, which is money for us and for our customers. With our old process on the grinder, the wheel would load up so fast that we were always redressing or changing it. Now we can do the same job in minutes instead of hours."

On a form punch that Chelar makes for a household appliance, Bittle says he regularly sees surface finishes down to 7 micron Ra straight from the machine in M2, 60 HRc steel. Previously this part required multiple setups and eight to 10 hours of handwork in polishing.

Today, the part is made completely on the V56 and all hand polishing has been eliminated. "With hand polishing, finishes can be somewhat of a mystery. Now we can guarantee a particular finish and a part that will fit or work right out of the machine," adds Bittle.

Another part that Chelar is now cutting on the V56 is a die with 50 die buttons in approximately 58 or 60 HRc steel. "Before it took about 45 minutes per hole to machine this part," Bittle says. "Now it takes 15 minutes per hole and no additional finishing. Plus, we eliminated two setups. That equates to a two-thirds time savings for us, which is better than we hoped. And we’re getting a more accurate radius and a more accurate part all the way around."

More Growth To Come

Chelar has plans for continued growth in the future. Katt says the company recently added 3,000 square feet of design space, 8,500 square feet for manufacturing and 4,500 square feet of additional space which is now storage but could later be converted to more manufacturing space. The additional area will allow Chelar to add more equipment and make the best use of the space the company has.

Katt says that just with the addition of the Makino they can ship and manufacture parts faster and handle a greater volume. This aspect has changed production methods across different parts of the operation.

With 55 employees working two 10-hour shifts, running six days a week, there is always a lot going on at Chelar. And the enhanced capability of the V56 is allowing the company to make additional revenue because it has been able to take on overflow work from local die/mold shops.

Recently, Chelar completed 16 molds for a local shop that in the past was a job they would have turned down because they didn’t have the capacity or capability to take on the job. This additional revenue will help the company see an even faster ROI on the Makino.

Bittle says they can also work differently and more efficiently with the V56. In the past, dies were completed in small pieces and assembled at the end. But now, with the large workspace the V56 affords, they can do bigger pieces and inserts and they are always confident that they’ll be accurate.

"Assembling more features of the die into one plate rather than making them individually and assembling them is a big time savings for us," says Bittle. "And the tools we make seem to be getting larger and larger." Chelar also has the capability on site to test their tooling and even run some production parts as needed.

"Like everyone else in this industry, our customers are demanding everything better, cheaper and faster," says Bittle. "And with the V56 we’re able to deliver."

To learn more about Chelar Tool & Die, visit the company’s website at www.chelar.com. Or contact the company directly at 618-234-6550.