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A cutting edge for manufacturing

Researchers from the McMaster Manufacturing Research Institute (MMRI) offer the right 'tools' for industry to improve the performance of the machines in their factories. The payoffs range from reduced costs to greener factories.
A cutting edge for manufacturing

Stephen Veldhuis (left) and students from the MMRI examine a metal part

Canada's vital manufacturing sector has been under siege for some time.

Hit hard by a perfect storm of factors – intense global competition, the recession, a rising Canadian dollar, and higher energy costs – manufacturing jobs and output have declined.As the sector fights hard to compete internationally, companies have implemented Lean Thinking: improve productivity, trim waste, and make processes as efficient as possible. They want to build on the nearly 15 per cent of total economic output occupied by manufacturing.

Stephen Veldhuis, director of the McMaster Manufacturing Research Institute (MMRI), offers a cutting edge to help factories work smarter, reduce costs, and stay competitive on the global market.

In collaboration with various industry partners, researchers in the 11-year-old institute focus on improving the performance of computer-controlled industrial machines that sculpt metal parts in cars or planes or other equipment. The actual cutting-tool materials that do the work in these large machines might cost anywhere from $10 to $300, but this is only about 5 per cent of a factory's operating budget. The role tooling plays in manufacturing processes, however, is out of proportion to its size and cost.

Put an inadequate cutting tool into a multi-million dollar machine and you don't achieve the desired geometries in a machined part. A short-lived tool can shut down an entire line, stopping production and idling machines and workers.

The National Research Council estimates the loss in gross domestic product due to machine and equipment-line wear at 1 to 2 per cent a year. With GDP at $1.7 trillion last year, even a tiny hit would be huge.

“The point is, if you watch your pennies (tools), the dollars (productivity) figure themselves out,” says Veldhuis. “…Having a more advanced tool allows you to realize new products, higher performance. It allows you to work more efficiently, more competitively.”

MMRI research has led to tool-life improvements of up to four times, said Veldhuis.

As he notes in a nation-wide automotive program, AUTO21: “In many applications, it is the performance of the surface of a tool that limits the performance of the manufacturing process.” (MMRI plays a key role in AUTO21 as the auto industry works with scientists to innovate tomorrow's technologies.)

MMRI labs seek technologies that lead to more lubricious tool coatings to reduce friction. Researchers work towards more durable and longer-lasting cutting surfaces; they push tool capability to work on super-hard oxidation and corrosion-resistant alloys that operate at very high temperatures, such as in a jet engine.

This research has big environmental payoffs. Improved coatings mean less use of liquid lubricants and coolants. This leads to lower production costs and, combined with performance gains, makes for a greener factory.

This search for better tools gets down to incredibly small levels. For example, AUTO21 work includes development of nano-crystalline wear-resistant coatings, such as titanium aluminum nitride based materials. (A nanometre is a unit of length equal to one-billionth of a metre.)

Scientists at the MMRI and the Brockhouse Institute for Materials Research (BIMR) together assess critical surface features of tool wear and coatings. The goal is to avoid lost production and quality issues.

Cumulatively, the impact is reduced production costs associated with tool changes and online monitoring – key factors for Canadian manufacturers who seek a sustainable competitive advantage over regions that benefit from low-cost labour.

MMRI will soon become involved with new automotive technologies through the university's MacAUTO initiative. MacAUTO is co-ordinating research into auto design, power-trains, lightweight materials, and other vehicle technologies. It will soon work out of an auto resource centre at McMaster Innovation Park (MIP).

“If new motor designs are innovated, those new pieces and designs have to be produced and that often involves machining . . . So we'll be working closely with (MacAUTO director) Ali Emadi's people at MIP, converting their innovations into opportunities for Canadian manufacturing companies.” said Veldhuis.

Countries around the world are studying high-performance tooling. In Canada, McMaster is part of the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council’s CANRIMT, a national research network looking into machining-system simulations and innovative strategies to collect this research in a way that companies can readily use.

For Canada to optimize the value of its manufacturing research, innovations leading to new products must be aligned with Canadian companies to retain economic activity and employment together with the improved performance and efficiency brought by these changes.