Tool & Die

Strong finish

By Lynn Stanley

Coating technology increases uptime, trims costs for tool-and-die company

January 2012 - High volumes, new materials and complex jobs add up to tough tooling issues for The Wire Shop. “More and more customers want to increase their uptime,” says John Ferguson, president and owner. “Certain areas in tools wear faster than others. It can mean significant downtime if a customer has to pull a die and perform maintenance while employees on the production line stand idle.”

The Mentor, Ohio-based tool-and-die company is using an advanced low-temperature, vacuum-deposited coating on its tooling that Ferguson says is helping customers recover lost production time because of extended die life and reduced maintenance. Ferguson has used FortiPhy UltraEndurance coating from Phygen Coatings Inc., Minneapolis, for nearly a decade but says his requirement for the tough finish is becoming more frequent as customers look for other ways to be competitive.

The shop is adding 18,500 sq. ft. of manufacturing space to accommodate growth in its tool-and-die area and for its sister company, Formasters, a stamping and roll-forming operation also owned by Ferguson. The Wire Shop designs, builds and tests precision punches and dies. Combining engineering experience with skilled technicians, die makers and machinists, the shop produces a variety of tooling including progressive, secondary, compound, flying cut-off, pre-notch, draw and form dies. In addition to custom work, the shop also builds tooling for Formasters.

The Wire Shop primarily uses the FortiPhy coating for punches and tooling designed and built for the green power, agriculture, heavy truck, appliance and entertainment industries. Phygen develops and applies coatings for dies, molds and tooling used in die casting, metal forming, plastic injection molding and a variety of other demanding industrial applications.

“We initially used the FortiPhy coating on one of our own jobs,” says Ferguson. “We were performing a heavy metal draw to produce a part for a capped acetylene tank and were experiencing galling issues. The coating eliminated the problem, and we were able to sell the tool.”

More uptime
In its quest to help customers gain more uptime in their production processes and solve other problems, The Wire Shop evaluated a range of coatings available on the market. “There are a lot of good coatings out there but we found that they needed to be applied at higher temperatures. This sometimes caused distortion, especially in our larger workpieces. We found ourselves having to compensate for the distortion prior to the coating process. We could apply the FortiPhy coating to tool steels with no size change. We ran the gamut on different coatings and found that the FortiPhy coating outperformed them all.”

Typical hot-processed chemical vapor deposition and thermal diffusion coatings are applied at temperatures greater than 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit. Size changes resulting from these higher temperatures are especially problematic for parts with critical dimensions. In addition to modifying dimensions, physical properties can be compromised. Distortion also can occur in the tool itself when the coating process subjects die substrate materials to high temperatures.

“At Phygen, we’ve developed a patented physical vapor deposition coating technology based on the principles of plasma acceleration that can be applied at 950 degrees Fahrenheit, below the high draw temperature of D-2 steel and similar tool steels,” says Dave Bell, president and founder of Phygen. “Because the process produces a smaller nanocrystalline (14 to 40 nanometers in size) fine-grained structure and eliminates 90 percent of the macro particles in an intense, high ion energy bombardment, a dense, non-columnar coating structure is created with the highest possible adhesion level. This process allows the deposition of extremely tough, hard coatings with much higher abrasive wear resistance when compared to conventional PVD processes.”

Fewer operations
The FortiPhy coating is proving to be an advantage for customers looking to trim production costs. “We’ve been able to develop tooling that allows customers to incorporate two processes into one operation,” says Ferguson. “This is something you normally wouldn’t be able to do, but the coating makes it possible. Typically in this type of operation, heat pushes material limits to the fracture point. The coating provides the punch with a lubricity that keeps material from fracturing.”

The coating’s micro-structure provides a low coefficient of friction for improved tool sliding, rolling, rotation and release. FortiPhy coatings have a coefficient of less than 0.1 under normal lubrication conditions. The coating is equally useful for forming, punching and piercing newer materials like high-strength low-alloy steel. “A lot of our customers are using high-strength steel to lightweight components as another way to save costs,” Ferguson says. “If you can drop a gauge or two and still get the same strength, you can bring the price down. A customer able to use material that’s 0.078 instead of 0.09 in. thick can realize a 25 percent savings in weight which, in turn, lowers costs.”

High-strength, low-alloy steel is very difficult to form, making coated punches and tools a necessity. The Wire Shop sources all material for its tooling but primarily uses powdered metals and D-2, a high-carbide, high-chromium tool steel manufactured for high-abrasive wear applications.

“Phygen is committed to advancing coating technology and continues to make a substantial research and development investment in creating improved processes and coatings that can meet the increasing challenges fabricators face,” says Bell. Like Phygen, The Wire Shop invests heavily in engineering to enable its departments to sustain profits long term.

“We have to rely heavily on our engineering expertise because we’re being asked to come up with tooling designs that are more and more innovative,” Ferguson says. “This is being driven by the fact that people are being asked to do more with less.” Project time frames are another factor for The Wire Shop. “Time frames have dropped considerably,” Ferguson adds. “Lead times are much shorter. What used to be a 12 to 20-week time frame for tooling design and build is now in the range of six to 12 weeks.”

Once The Wire Shop designs and builds specified tooling and tests it, the shop makes a series of the punches or dies to ensure correct dimensions for process work. One uncoated tool is sent to the customer for use while the other tools are shipped to Phygen for coating.

“FortiPhy is the perfect fit for The Wire Shop’s challenging applications,” Bell says. “Typical CVD and TD coatings are applied at 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit to increase adhesion to the substrate. The hot coating process permits carbide particles to move to the surface and combine with the coating material. The process produces a hard coating but decarburization of the substrate weakens material near the surface and increases the potential for chipping.

“FortiPhy does not require diffusion within the substrate to build a hard coating. Instead, we apply a chemically stoichometric layer of nano-sized particles onto the surface. As a result, our coatings are harder and tougher and reduce abrasive wear in machine tools and engineered components in harsh environments.” Stoichometric means particles are in exact proportions required for a given reaction.

The Wire Shop can punch heavier materials and shave metal to a very tight tolerance of ±0.001 in. with the coating. “The big improvement is the additional uptime,” says Ferguson. “In-house we’ve seen an increase in uptime of 300 to 500 percent. With our cut-off operation, we’re cutting round tubes 31⁄4 in. diameter from galvanized steel with no burrs. Blades last three to five times longer and require no regular maintenance. In general, we get twice the die life with coated punches and dies.

Ferguson also credits his personnel with the shop’s growth and increased productivity. “It’s the ability of our engineering team under the guidance of chief engineer Pat Heidenthal to work closely with customers on their needs,” he says. “These things—experienced engineers, equipment and technologies like the FortiPhy coating—make us more competitive overall.” FFJ

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  • Phygen Coatings Inc.
    phone: 888/749-4361 
    fax 612/331-4230
  • The Wire Shop
    Mentor, Ohio
    phone: 440/354-6842 
    fax: 440/354-8691


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