Die lubrication: the big picture

Looking beyond manufacturing

The FABRICATOR June 2005
June 14, 2005
By: Steven Rainwater

When considering a die lubrication method, you should be sure to evaluate its effect on your entire operation. While most of us focus on how lubrication affects just the manufacture of parts, a close look reveals that it affects many other aspects of running a plant. However, many of them are not obvious.

The activities, costs, and results of die lubrication do not neatly occupy related columns on a spreadsheet. When maintenance employees are deciding the best way to replenish fluid reservoirs, they usually do not review the previous quarter's shipping costs. When die designers select a tool steel, they usually do not focus on whether the fluid actuation is integrated with the press controls. When engineers determine a fluid viscosity, they seldom consider how many bundles of rags the press operators use each quarter. These seemingly unrelated categories and many others are related by die lubrication decisions.

Perhaps no other process in a stamping, forming, or fabricating facility reaches as broadly into the operation as die lubrication does. Yet, because it must be adapted to each manufactured part, lubrication sometimes is the last thing planned, and frequently it is approached haphazardly.
It's Worth the Effort

The truth is that a close look at the real impact of die lubrication should lead to measurable improvements. Carefully planned and executed die lubrication strategies can push significant efficiencies through an entire manufacturing operation.

The principal reason for applying fluids and lubricants in forming processes is to reduce friction and remove or dissipate heat. The heat and friction are generated at the point where the tool and the workpiece meet—that is, where the shaping, forming, bending, drawing, cutting, or punching takes place. The goal with die lubrication is to make sure an appropriate film of lubricant is at the interface between the tool and the workpiece to minimize or eliminate damage to the die and markings on the part.

The goal with fluid application is to find the best possible method to deliver the desired amount of lubricant to the area in the die where it is required and where it will do the most good. When determining the method, you should consider more than just the fluid delivery system.

Traditional Methods

You can select from dozens of ways to lubricate the interface between the die and the part. They range from those developed through thoughtful innovation to convenient workarounds using available resources. Most common die lubrication methods fall into one of two categories: direct die lubrication and direct stock lubrication.

Direct Die Lubrication. The most obvious way to lubricate the die is to apply fluid directly onto the surfaces that require protection. You can accomplish this by external spray, in-die spray, or drip/flood methods. The external spray method allows you to position nozzles in key locations around the die so they are pointed at the desired surfaces. In simpler applications, you can apply the lubricant by hand with a tank, a bottle, or even a brush. For in-die spray, you can integrate the nozzles with the die design, allowing fluid lines to be connected and lubricant delivered more precisely to critical spots.

Lubrication points that open up and spray or flood the die also can be designed into the tooling. This drip/flood method usually includes some type of pump to move the fluid from its container to the die. Each of these direct die lubrication methods enables the fluid to be applied at predetermined locations where friction exists or heat is generated.

The advantages of direct die lubrication include prolonged tool life, die protection, and precision routing of the fluid to its destination. It allows flexibility in positioning nozzles uniquely for different dies and plumbing permanent lines for use with multiple dies. The primary difficulty with direct die lubrication is that the fluid sometimes is applied where it is not needed. This increases consumption and requires appropriate and sometimes extensive attention to deal with the excess fluid.

Direct Stock Lubrication. Applying lubricant to the stock after the material handling process and before it enters the die also carries lubricant to the die. In some cases, lubricants are even applied when the coils or blanks are manufactured at the mill processing center.

The best way to lubricate stock is with a roller lubrication system. This method allows you to lubricate both sides of the stock uniformly. However, if the stock already has some contours or if the fluids are extremely thick, you might need to spray the lubricant onto the stock with directed spray nozzles.

You can apply the lubricant by hand-spraying it on with a spray bottle or by wiping it on with a sponge, flannel, or a brush. Or you can use the drip method, in which the lubricant falls from a container controlled by a petcock or other valve. The fluid falls either directly onto the stock or onto a piece of material that spreads it.

The benefits of stock lubrication are consistency, cleanness, control, and reduced fluid consumption. However, some complex dies require more fluid at certain key locations, which stock lubrication alone cannot provide. Additionally, it sometimes is difficult to achieve good results in stock lubrication when more viscous stamping fluids are used.
Impact Categories

So where is the impact of die lubrication most significant? It depends on how your company is organized. While the issues regarding die lubrication are nearly identical in all facilities, companies vary on how they organize the roles and responsibilities among the various departments. Following is a framework for evaluating the impact of die lubrication among four departments. This isn't a one-size-fits-all analysis. You'll have to tailor this so it fits your organization.

Operations. The effects of proper die lubrication on the physical operation are numerous. Fluid ordering, shipping, and storage are primary concerns. Premixed fluids may save time and labor, but do they make the best use of space and shipping dollars? If the fluids are mixed on-site, where should they be mixed—in the storeroom, at the press, or somewhere in between? If you use several fluids, are all of them necessary? How does the die lubrication method affect the plant's air quality and cleanness? Do you need additional infrastructure to deal with cleaning, disposal, or recycling, or would a different method eliminate these factors without reducing your capability to produce the desired part?

The employee aspect of the operation is often overlooked. Providing apparel, gloves, masks, rags, pigs, dams, and pits is only part of the equation. What are the real savings when employees are happy and productive? Also, safety is a crucial concern that is affected by the method of lubrication. Fluid on the part is OK. Fluid on the floor, in the air, or on the skin is not OK, and all require operational activities, incur expenses, and can open the compliance can of worms. Insurance and municipal regulations also cannot be underestimated as operational factors.

Quality. Quality can be difficult to measure, but it affects the operation nonetheless. Reworks or discards because of galling, scarring, tearing, misshaping, or other defects crop up when too little or too much fluid reaches critical sections of the die. Speed is an issue too—the inability to provide lubrication fast enough can impede quality and lead to customer dissatisfaction. Selecting and fine-tuning the right lubrication method can mitigate or in some cases eliminate costly quality issues.

Engineering. The application methods affect engineering. The lubrication capabilities can affect die design or even the opportunity to manufacture certain parts. Sometimes the decision to take on work can be enhanced by some methods and obstructed by others. Ultimately, bottom-line costs for design and production are affected by the array of expenses related to fluids in the plant. Salespeople and engineers should view these expenses realistically when bidding on projects. Opportunities to be more competitive often can be created when die lubrication methods are improved.

Maintenance. Maintenance touches virtually every area of the plant, and maintenance professionals are uniquely involved in the die lubrication process. They are generally responsible for the fluid, the equipment that dispenses it, the machines it services, and the physical environment surrounding the entire application process. Maintenance personnel can provide decisive insight to die lubrication methods because of their expertise. Fluid mixing, replenishment, monitoring, recycling, and disposal all add maintenance responsibility, time, and cost.

Downtime for cleaning and service affect productivity. Reclamation pits, recycling pumps, and filtration equipment may save on fluid consumption by presenting the opportunity to recycle. They do, however, give maintenance personnel more responsibilities that influence operating costs. Important improvements also occur when die life is prolonged. Downtime caused by die changeover and die maintenance can be reduced when lubricants reach critical areas in the most efficient manner.

Look for Opportunities

With so much competition looming large in the stamping and fabricating industries, you need to take every opportunity to discover ways your company can operate more efficiently. It can be intimidating to know that you have to deal with a multitude of issues after you have upset the apple cart. On the other hand, it is alarming to see costs going through the roof and not know why.

It is time to discover the efficiencies created when fluid usage and application methods are seriously and thoroughly evaluated. Careful forethought and a methodical approach can help you achieve profitable results.

Steven Rainwater is a special projects coordinator for UNIST Inc., 4134 36th St. S.E., Grand Rapids, MI 49512, 616-949-0853, fax 616-949-9503, unimail@unist.com

Steven Rainwater

Contributing Writer
Orlando, FL

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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