The Zoller roboSet2 tool inspection system offers 24/7 tool-state monitoring.

Measuring tools lengths to precisely set up machines isn’t the most time-consuming task in low-volume, high-mix job shops. But automotive manufacturers and suppliers can’t generally afford to let equipment sit idle while machines wait for tools.

“Auto plants tend to heat-shrink several thousand tools into tool holders every week, so the hours add up quickly,” says Michael Stepke, product specialist for inspection machines at Zoller Inc. He adds that demand for constant machine uptime has made his company’s tool presetters popular with high-volume manufacturers in recent years.

Increasing demand has forced Zoller, a German company that has had U.S. offices since 1997, to expand its North American presence dramatically. The company is in the process of building a new U.S. headquarters in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a few miles away from space it has leased for more than a decade. When the project is finished next year, company officials expect to increase U.S. employment, adding several engineers and technicians to the team.

Stepke says the driving forces are automation and increasing production run rates. The automotive industry has pushed both of those trends for years, and adopting high-speed manufacturing is moving down from original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and Tier 1 suppliers to the lower tiers and job shops.

The trend is occurring in many industries as companies push the boundaries of production, challenging supply chains. Automation will be key to meet the highest demand ever seen in manufacturing.

“High-volume production can easily justify tool presetting. Eliminating changeover times can add significant value to your production time,” Stepke says. “We see that most often in automotive, but it’s starting to become a challenge in other industries. We see a lot of growth in aerospace and a lot of technology crossing over from automotive into aerospace.”

Digital tool management

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) or Industry 4.0, has many manufacturers looking for ways to collect data on machine and tool use so they can monitor production and quality to better plan factory time. Stepke says that Zoller Tool Management Solutions (TMS) can play a big role in data collection and management.

“Typically, companies that use tool presetting set up their tools in a cart that can be rolled to the machine where they will be used. We can put radio frequency identification (RFID) tags on the pre-set tools to transfer data to and from machine tools. RFID data transfer ensures the right tool is in the cart and in the right magazine for the job,” Stepke says. “After each job, tool-use data is available in the centralized database system, so you can evaluate how many cuts you’re getting from a particular tool before surface quality changes. We can store all of that data in the RFID tags too.”

Zoller software engineers have developed database software that works with common CNC controls and cutting data from tool manufacturers. Users can collect data on their own cutting results (based on use data from the CNCs) and compare that to manufacturer specs.

“Shops can use Zoller TMS not only to track use; it can track storage locations companywide,” Stepke adds. “There are a lot of shops that use the 30 rule – after 30 minutes of looking for a specific tool, stop and order a new one because you’re wasting expensive employee and machine time. If we can cut down on that by letting people know exactly where the tool should be located, we’re creating a tremendous value.”

He adds that the Zoller database can tie into vending machines, storage cabinets, and CNC machine tool storage to identify where items are in a shop, their state of tool life, and whether or not replacements are needed.

“As more data gets collected, the manufacturing process should improve. Using historical tool data can determine what tools to use for the next job,” Stepke explains. “Setup sheets can get much more specific on the tool and its components, and the expected tool-replacement time.”

Automation trends
Radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags can transfer data to and from tool pre-setters, tool measurements systems, machining centers, and tool storage systems.

A big driver for the increased interest in automated tool presetting and tool management, Stepke says, is a radical change in the costs of implementing automation costs. Once reserved for the highest-volume manufacturers, falling prices on robots and CNCs have made lights-out operation accessible to more users.

“The major automakers and their top-tier suppliers know how much time is lost in tool changes, so they’ve adopted many of these systems,” Stepke says. “Now everyone else is discovering the ability to gain efficiencies. Automated tool presetting is moving down the supply chain as job shops that never considered automation before add robotics and tool management systems.”

Finally, he adds, machine tool manufacturers are developing more multi-spindle machines that can simultaneously cut multiple features into one workpiece or make several identical pieces at the same time. For that latter task, Stepke says precision tool presetting is vital to getting identical results for each spindle.

“If you have four spindles, each running the same process to create four identical parts at a time, the tools have to be identical and set up exactly the same way,” Stepke says. “Getting exact tool setups is much more difficult if you’re using manual tool-setting processes.”

Zoller Inc.

IMTS 2016 Booth #W-2022

About the author: Robert Schoenberger is the editor of TMV and can be reached at 216.393.0271 or