M old, tool and die makers know that, in today's tough economic climate, simply working hard isn't enough. Instead, a key to success lies in innovating to become more competitive -- and there's more t...
Mold, tool and die makers know that, in today’s tough economic climate, simply working hard isn’t enough. Instead, a key to success lies in innovating to become more competitive — and there’s more than one way to do this.
For specialty welder Tool-Tec Welding Inc., located in Oldcastle, Ont., the pathway to innovation wasn’t traveled alone. In 2007, the company — which relies on the automotive sector for the majority of its business — partnered with the University of Waterloo to develop a robotic working cell capable of reconditioning molds, in the hope of opening new markets. The aim was to create a six-axis robotic tungsten inert gas (TIG) welding system to weld multiple layers and build a 3-D Class A mold surface.
“The goal was to generate the basic capability so an optimized robot trajectory can be generated directly from a solid model with which any 3-D solid volume can be deposited on an arbitrarily oriented surface,” said Pat Zaffino, Tool-Tec’s founder and president. “To our knowledge, there are no other research or industrial applications in which 3-D Class A tool steel surfaces have been successfully built up using robotic TIG welding.”
WORKING EASIER & FASTER
The project was funded jointly by the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), which contributed $250,000; and Precarn Inc., an Ottawabased not-for-profit industrial research organization, which contributed $500,000. Additionally, Oldcastle-based mold manufacturer Omega Tool Corp. supplied test molds and finishing work.
With molds costing anywhere up to $1 million, few companies can afford to make a new mold in the event of damage or the need for small engineering changes. Equally, few companies have the expertise to perform these changes themselves. Most choose to outsource the work to a specialized shop instead — which is where Tool-Tec comes into the picture.
Engineering changes on injection molds often require the addition of tool steel to specific areas of the mold. Current industry practice is to perform these changes manually with TIG welding, Zaffino explained, but this is very labour-intensive and time-consuming, and also requires the mold to be preheated to 700F. Additionally, when TIG welding is carried out using manual techniques, the welder must be provided with protective gear and suitable cooling. “Using the robotic welding system, the process is now automated for very large weld buildups that wouldn’t have been considered in the past, allowing for more and larger engineering changes to be done,” Zaffino said.
The process allows Tool-Tec to robotically recondition contoured molds up to three times faster than can be done manually, without sacrificing quality or accuracy. Previously, the company had benefited from funding from the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) to achieve 2-D robotic welding on a flat plane. Zaffino hopes the new robotic cell will provide his company — which employs 35 workers in a 21,000 square foot shop — with an even greater competitive edge. “Robotically welding in the 2-D shapes allowed us to weld on 45 to 60 per cent of the molds that came into our shop,” he said. “Now, we have the technology and ability to weld on 3-D surfaces in 3-D on a contoured surface using CAD data, allowing us to weld on at least 85 per cent of the molds.”
Zaffino stresses the importance of Tool- Tec’s partnership with the University of Waterloo in bringing this project to life. “The partnership was critical in providing state-of-the-art technology pertinent to the robotic TIG welding research, specifically in the areas of robot tool-path generation, weld quality and solid modeling,” he said.
No less important was the funding from NRC, OCE and Precarn Inc. “On its own, Tool-Tec didn’t have the financial resources to invest in the required research and development necessary in the robotic welding field,” Zaffino said. “The funding provided through public-private partnerships has made all the difference in the development of this leading-edge technology.”
Tool-Tec Welding Inc. (Oldcastle, Ont.); www.tool-tec.net; 519-737-9978