Tool & Die

A question of value

By Tom Klemens

Above: Tool steel blocks of different grades and sizes, supplied by Diehl Steel Co. for A-G Tool and Die’s use in making dies.

With A-G Tool and Die’s switch to lean manufacturing, it re-evaluated—and reconfirmed—the wisdom of using presquared material

November 2013 -In 1980, when Richard Gentry started at A-G Tool and Die, Miamitown, Ohio, all of its raw material came in as simple bar stock. Starting from the next larger size of standard material, tool and die makers began projects by squaring their own blocks before launching into the customization process. Today the company begins with presquared material from its longtime supplier, Cincinnati-based Diehl Steel Company Inc., and uses its tool and die makers’ time and skills on what they do best—assembling and debugging dies.

A-G Tool and Die specializes in the design and manufacturing of progressive dies, transfer dies, draw dies and single hit dies. The dies are used in a variety of industries including appliance, automotive and air handling. And all those complex dies begin with simple blocks of tool steel.


“Back 20 or 25 years ago you could find all the help you wanted,” says Ken Seilkop, CEO of A-G’s parent company, Seilkop Industries Inc., Cincinnati. “At any given time, we employed five to seven people that did nothing but cut and square tool steel. But in addition to paying toolmakers and apprentices, there was also a significant investment in the machinery and resources needed to perform that function.”

When Diehl Steel began offering its tool steel with four and five finished sides, A-G quickly took advantage of the option. “That freed up our guys here to do tool and die maker work instead of machinist work,” says Gentry, who now is A-G’s purchasing expediter.

Despite the additional material cost, it also made financial sense. “While my peers didn’t believe it at the time, the cost of having Diehl do the squaring for me, when all costs were considered, was less than doing it in-house,” Seilkop says. “I could redeploy my internal resources, invest in and maintain less machinery, and still come up with the same results.”

After its initial venture into providing prefinished tool steel, Diehl added other preliminary services. It also launched its Accu-Square line of tool steel blocks with six finished sides. The strategy was simple. “We looked at what machine shops, tool shops and mold shops were doing as first- and second-stage operations and began to do those things in-house,” says Mike Sheehan, president of Diehl Steel. “In addition to finishing the surfaces, we do some heat treating, grinding, milling—things so that when the customer receives the material, they’re already a couple steps ahead and can immediately start machining and building tools.” The preprocessing cuts both the time and expense involved in creating tooling.


“We’ve done this for years, but we just were never really terribly efficient at it,” Sheehan says. Diehl originally used Blanchard grinders to finish its blocks, a relatively slow and tedious process relying heavily on operator skill. Over the years Diehl has modified its squaring operations to reduce both tolerances and cost. The company moved first to standard CNC milling machines. However, in the last two years it has invested nearly $1 million in high-tech machinery designed specifically for squaring blocks.

“With the Blanchard grinder, you have to flip it multiple times. But with our newer machines, it’s just a two-step operation,” Sheehan says. In addition to simplifying the process, bringing on the new equipment has accomplished three of Sheehan’s primary goals. “We were looking at getting the tolerances we wanted and the consistent product that we wanted, to a toolmaker’s satisfaction, which is different than that of a lot of people,” he says. On that score there initially was some pushback, but that has largely abated. “They would say, ‘I have to resquare your blocks anyway; they’re not to my tolerances.’ Well, now we produce them to a toolmaker’s tolerance, and we do it in a timely fashion, meaning we turn them around quicker than you can do it 

in-house.” Sheehan attributes those capabilities to a combination of the machinery Diehl has invested in and that the company runs two shifts.

The third goal, price reduction, has also been met. “At a price point of $20 to $25 for a block that you can hold in your hand, you really would be hard pressed to say ‘I can do that cheaper,’” Sheehan says. 

Lean considerations

Some people find that claim hard to swallow. When A-G launched its lean manufacturing initiative in 2007, basically all facets of the company’s operation were open to scrutiny, and some saw purchasing prefinished material as inefficient.

“They thought we could buy saw-cut material, mill [the sixth side of] those blocks and save money over the presquared material,” Gentry says. “So we went back to purchasing saw-cut material from Diehl and finishing it in our mills, in our CNC cell area, along with doing the other operations.”

Although it seems like a minor item to purchase oversize material, then mill it to a finished length, the reality was quite the opposite. “We did videotaped stopwatch time studies to prove out what costs were one way versus the other,” Gentry says. It turned out the company was not saving money by using saw-cut material.

“We discovered that the cost of perishable tooling was tipping the balance back toward Diehl,” says Seilkop. “Our CFO, Robin Vogel, pointed out that our perishable tool expenditures were far outweighing any benefit we gained by machining the tool steel ourselves. So we quickly went back to the Accu-Square solution and we’ve been doing that ever since.”

Sheehan says with the number of tool and die makers and mold makers shrinking, steel service centers supporting the industry will likely continue to move toward doing more of the first- and second-stage operations to aid tool and die shops. “Over time, more and more shops are going to look at their operations, do an honest analysis, and ask themselves, ‘Do we really want our toolmaker squaring up blocks?’” he says.


All’s well…

At first the decision to switch back to Accu-Square material wasn’t popular with everyone at A-G. Toolmakers were reluctant to see the steel cutting and machining going over to Diehl. “We took that away from them and that was a culture shock,” Seilkop explains.  But A-G had a plan for its toolmakers that fit with the lean philosophy, and fit with the toolmakers’ greatest strengths. “Now we give them control of the part we think they do best, which is the assembling, troubleshooting and debugging,” Seilkop says.    

A-G has been able to cut costs, while making sure that no employees were laid off in the process. That, however, did require a number of people to go through additional training.  “Some of the people went in to cell areas, while our core toolmakers were tasked with building and trying out new tools,” Gentry says. “With these programs in place, we were able to keep all our employees on staff, something that was very important to us when we began the lean process.”

Seilkop says that maintaining A-G’s depth of experience and knowledge has helped keep it competitive with offshore companies. “When offshore competitors design and build a die that does not produce an acceptable part, they don’t necessarily have the expertise needed to troubleshoot that die and make it work right,” Seilkop explains, but A-G does. FFJ




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