As toolmaking contracts have drifted overseas, particularly to China, Irish businesses have increasingly looked to technology to give them the edge they need to compete for high-end, high-value work, according to Brendan Feely, director of Tubbercurry, County Sligo-based injection mould manufacturer Alpha Precision.
In particular, he points to CAD/CAM software from VISI as the catalyst for new ambitions, even in the post- 2018 economic downturn.
“Even companies that weren’t computer literate were investing in the technology to survive,” he says. “The software had a huge effect on the toolmaking industry, giving us a competitive advantage to weather the storm.”
In Alpha Precision’s case, the software has helped the company to forge ahead on important medical, aerospace and automotive contracts, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in precision engineering.
It’s now “high end all the way” for Alpha Precision, says Feely, with high-end staff building high-end mould tools using high-end software. “The technology promotes a more automated process and means our staff needs a different skillset nowadays, to use VISI to its full potential.”
He describes VISI as a “glue” in the complete toolmaking environment. “We have a variety of different machines doing different jobs, so our operators have different skills.
The software’s applied on the back of the machining, and because there are several disciplines, such as design, milling, wire and spark eroding, [it] fits naturally into its given area. The operator in that area is just trained on the one particular VISI module.”
A common language
Alpha Precision has 16 employees, producing an average of 40 tools per year.
These range in size from 100mm x 100mm x 100mm, to up to 600mm x 1-metre, mainly for the automotive, medical, packaging and electronics sectors.
Feely compares workers in the toolroom to a group of people from different countries, each speaking a different language.
“One language is design; others include flow analysis, milling, wire eroding and spark erosion,” he says. “VISI is the common language that unites all those processes, ensuring everything moves fluently through the toolroom from one discipline to another.”
The company partners with its clients from initial concept right through to final production and its experienced design team uses VISI to design complex moulds.
These include a number of high cavitation tools for a medical customer and two-shot plastic injection tools that involve an overmould.
With VISI programmes running high-speed milling processes on Roder and Makino F3 and F5 machining centres, the challenges posed by the medical industry pose no problem, in terms of requiring very fine micro levels, says Feely.
“We use high-end 42,000rpm spindle speeds for very small detail finishing, and cut our electrodes on the Makino F3, with high definition being done on the F5. And we can also machine a cavity in just one night, which would otherwise take a week.
Using VISI Machining, we can quickly produce a highly polished medical part with fine detail, a milled finish and a split line within micron accuracy.
Bright sparks VISI
Electrode & Wire, meanwhile, powers Alpha Precision’s EDM machines for spark eroding and Mitsubishi wire erosion.
Parts of the tool will have been cut on each of the machines, he explains, and by the time it’s ready for shipping, is a very fine-micron, accurately controlled, finished tool, typically for the medical or automotive industry.
Alpha Precision has invested in a wide range of VISI modules, including Modelling, Analysis, Flow, Mould and Progress, the wire cutting and electrode systems, along with 2D Milling, 3D Milling and High-Speed Milling.
That means the software is used at every stage of the process, beginning with putting together an accurate quotation for a customer.
“We use VISI’s analytical tools to check the drafts and all the different features we’ll need to build into the mould, such as the core and side pieces,” Feely explains. “When the order’s been placed, we work closely with our customer’s moulders on the design concept, including flow analysis and tool layout.
Once the 2D design is broken down and we have the tooling in full 3D, we really begin to see the huge power of VISI, which controls everything from design, through milling to wiring, in one environment. Because we’re not going across translators, there’s a perfect understanding within the technology, taking it right through every stage.”
VISI ensures that all milling for hard prepping and highspeed finishing is handled quickly and accurately, which he says is vital to Alpha Precision’s operation.
“We make a lot of one-off custom components for each mould, meaning we only run a programme once. As pattern cutters, we need to be very good at generating CNC code time after time, and VISI is exceptional at doing that job for us.”