Software helps Elkhart, Ind.-based Nortool grow even in tumultuous times
September 1, 2009
Nortool Precision Machining and Tool has turned to a 3-D CAD/CAM package for both design and NC and has found that it is delivering quicker and more accurate bids, while simultaneously improving the quality of tool- and diemaking.
Accurate quoting and delivery of tooling (such as the ones shown here) in just four to eight weeks is helping Nortool Precision Machining & Tool, Eklhart, Ind., to gain new customers in this difficult economic environment. Its new CAD/CAM software that supports 3-D for both design and NC has proven to be a big help.
Elkhart, Ind., is home of the truth for both its citizens and the manufacturing community.
The Elkhart Truth is the local newspaper that has documented the tough economic times that have hit this northwest Indiana town, where the area unemployment rate hit 17 percent this summer. The truth for the manufacturing community is that it's an incredibly tough time, particularly in this part of the Midwest where the very important recreational vehicle manufacturing industry is going through a major shakeup and the automotive industry has ground to a halt.
The whole truth, however, hasn't been printed or shared with all. The truth is that a local manufacturing company, Nortool Precision Machining & Tool, is asserting itself as a go-to source for precision machined parts and tool and die work. The company invested in a software package one year ago that brought together all of its disparate tooling design tools and gave the company a new way to generate NC code quickly for its machining centers. The company can do the manufacturing work accurately and fast, and it's quickly finding out that more customers are finding out about them and their turnaround times.
To be fair, Nortool is not a stand-alone company. It was founded that way in 1964, but it has been designing and fabricating tool and dies, as well as machining parts, for its parent company, Norco Industries, since 1991. So the company does have the luxury of having a "main" customer it can count on for business.
That doesn't mean the company isn't aggressively seeking other business. In today's economic environment, any additional revenue is much-needed revenue.
Nortool finds itself in a position where it can offer a variety of capabilities to entice customers. The company has a wire EDM machine, two CNC mills, four large drill presses, three laser cutting machines, a CNC press brake, a tube bender, welding equipment, and other fabricating tools. Of special note is the four-axis vertical milling machine, capable of accommodating parts up to 40 by 80 inches, making the mill one of the largest in the area.
"We are finding that the diversification of disciplines has helped a lot," said David Lindemann, a Nortool project engineer.
The purchase of the CimatronE software package has helped as well. Before the purchase, the company struggled with separate software programs for strip design, tool design, and generation of NC calculations. The software programs weren't customized to communicate with each other, so engineers developed in-house work-arounds. Unfortunately, when a change was made in one software program, it wasn't reflected automatically in the other programs. Nortool was competing in an industry calling for more exact quoting and quick turnaround, but its older software tools weren't delivering.
"Before, we got by on the experience of our quote guy. Sometimes he was right, and sometimes he was wrong," Lindemann said.
The meticulous quoting needed in today's manufacturing community wasn't going to allow that room for error, especially when you are talking about tooling that sometimes can cost as much as $250,000.
The CimatronE package was chosen after a thorough search of other software offerings for the tool and die industry. It ultimately made sense for Nortool not only because it was specifically designed for tool and die shops, but it also had the best NC generation software, according to Lindemann.
Once the software was in place and the tool designers fully trained, Nortool began to notice an immediate impact. First, the old 2-D prints of customers' products were coming alive after being remodeled in the 3-D CAD program.
"It seems that a lot of people that are buying metal parts want to see the parts as opposed to just getting a bunch of numbers," Lindemann said.
Second, Nortool tooling designers could go beyond the pretty shaded pictures and fully educate the customer. For instance, a customer could see its parts being unbent and watch as a Nortool engineer pointed out where material weakness may emerge during a blanking operation. This type of extensive design review and analysis has led Nortool engineers to get more closely involved in their own customers' product design efforts, advising clients on how to optimize the design for manufacturability, assisting in the selection of finishes, and helping define proper material thickness.
This type of visibility into the creative process doesn't end with the conclusion of the quoting process. Customers can view the work-in-process and see the latest changes because all of Nortool's staff is working in the same software program.
Third, Nortool was delivering better bids. The software provides a virtual answer as to how the part should be formed, how the tooling should be designed, and how the machining process will take place to generate the necessary tooling.
"In the front end, you are really talking about dollars and cents ... Especially now, if you have a new customer, you really want to be competitive to get noticed," Lindemann said. "When you get the work you want to deliver in hopes that you can get more work. We've done pretty well in picking up new customers by doing that, and a lot of it has to do with the capability we have with the machinery and the software."
Hari Sridharan, Cimatron's vice president of engineering isn't surprised. Based on his experience and conversations with other tool and die shops, Sridharan estimated that shops win business from about only 3 percent of the bids they send out. Those shops are suffering because they aren't sending out quotes that are completely accurate.
"If they do it right, the successful quoting rate would be much higher," Sridharan said.
Fourth, the bids were being delivered more quickly. Cimatron has engineering properties for all types of metal and just how those materials react when they are hit. It can generate blank perimeter and size in a matter of seconds. Using the formulations tools within the software, an estimator can determine just how many hits will be required to create the part. All of this can be used to pull together a bid in several minutes.
Nortool tooling designers are getting out strip designs quickly as well. In the past a tool and die designer would have to spend hours examining how a piece of metal would form in the die. This meant poring over every inch of the material, making educated guesses and using tools such as a travel wheel to determine just how much steel was going to be used. Now the prelim strip takes minutes to generate, not hours.
With the one 3-D CAD/CAM package, everyone at Nortool is now working in the same virtual environment. As a result, the company has been able to eliminate errors, accelerate the product design time frame, and coordinate the management of engineering change orders more easily.
Lindemann described a scenario about how the software has made life better for the tool and die shop: "Let's say I have one guy here with a bunch of experience, and other guys that don't have much experience. I can grab the experienced guy and have him set up schemes as to how he manufactures a part and how he cuts the steel; then I can have him save that in the software. That includes the tools and everything. So now the inexperienced guy goes and grabs what's called the template, applies it to the job, and the software programs it for him. Then he can set up the machine to run it. He doesn't have the skill of the diemaker or the NC guys. He just needs to know how to find it in the software."
So far eight tool- and diemakers have been trained on the software, and three more are scheduled to undergo training. Some are slowly migrating away from their older software tools, but they are finding that they are having to redouble their efforts as they have to plug information into the Cimatron software to keep everyone else up-to-date.
That scenario is not unusual, according to Sridharan. In other installations, he said he has witnessed users trying to use the Cimatron software as they did the old software package it replaced, going so far as to ask where particular "buttons" were.
Changing that mindset is part of the implementation process and continues even today. Soon everyone at Nortool will be working solely within the one CAD/CAM environment.
The truth is that it makes the most sense if the company is going to get the most out of its strategic software investment.