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Turning an ancient art into a high-tech precision process  

If you’ve ever had a lump of wax pressed into your mouth by a dentist then you have experienced basic investment casting – when the creation of a long life product such as a dental crown begins with a simple mould. Although the tooling process for an aerospace component may be long and complex the intricate parts that form a turbine blade begin their life in a similar fashion. As its name suggests, Tooltech based in Plymouth is a specialist in this area.

An advanced manufacturing company with a deep knowledge of tooling and complex components, Tooltech supplies the aerospace, power generation, medical, marine and automotive industries. The company has an extensive CNC machining setup and produces high-end tooling and precision components to very tight tolerances. Using dedicated software and equipment Tooltech specialises in the manufacture of one-off and low volume items, producing injection mould tools that work first time and high precision fixtures that keep parts stable during repetitive production processes.

In particular, the company is a market leader in developing wax pattern reforming products.  Within the investment casting process these ensure that as a wax pattern cools after it has been removed from a wax pattern die, it does so in the correct position. Use of a reformer can improve the accuracy of casting and Tooltech customers using Tooltech wax reformers include Rolls Royce, Kennametal and Alcoa.

“Our customers come to us because they want to increase productivity and yield through part repeatability and consistency,” explains Mark Newcombe, Managing Director.  Through its design team Tooltech also helps to develop customer concepts into usable items, prove a new process or investigate the viability of a future project. The company has been using NX for over a decade. “Reliability is key within industries like aerospace and power generation,” continues Mark. “Customers usually design their own products and our role is to help them realise their designs. We follow quite a complex sequence of operations in order to create tooling that can be used to produce intricately shaped components and we have to achieve absolute accuracy, ensuring that customer tolerances, specifications and production windows are adhered to. NX helps us to achieve that level of quality. It also enables us to communicate easily with our customers.”

A highly specialised skill

Tooling preparation can be rather complicated and that presents a major challenge for Tooltech. Mark again: “Even design engineers do not always understand how to take their models and create the tooling to produce the required result. There is a shortage of people with knowledge and experience and our main difficulty is that we have a full order book yet we find it difficult to find skilled labour to expand the business. For this reason we have had to spend much time and effort on developing our own staff, we have also come to rely on technology such as NX as a means of raising our productivity.”

It was this desire to improve efficiency that led Tooltech to TEAM Engineering. “We somehow felt that we could get more out of NX and asked for some guidance,” explains Mark. TEAM Engineering recommended some bespoke training and Mark and his CAD manager spent three days at TEAM Engineering’s head office in Peterborough followed by three days with their trainer on site in Plymouth as part of a flexible training package.  “It was really helpful to be able to work on our own projects; the whole experience opened our eyes. We could not have asked for a better mentor. Our trainer really listened to us and when we showed him our CAD models he saw immediately where and how we could improve our technique.”

A new approach to modelling

Mark explains what he learnt. “Essentially we had made the mistake of putting all our components into one model simply because we were not aware that there was a better method. As a result we could not really view different components and parts clearly. This was a revelation to us. Our CAD office had followed one method over the years and not utilised all the features within NX.”

Tooltech is now modelling to new standards of quality, creating different models and linking them within assemblies. “It is so easy to understand and control what we have and we are finally using NX to the full. My involvement in CAD is so much more enjoyable and there is no holding back our young, enthusiastic CAD manager who has actually passed tips to TEAM Engineering and been recognised for this by a TEAM Engineering award for innovative design.”

According to Mark, TEAM Engineering predicted that Tooltech would increase CAD productivity by at least one third. “In fact we are easily twice as quick. What would have taken two weeks to design now takes one week and we are now able to reduce lead times.” 

Customer oriented competitiveness

Mark notes that previously Tooltech had sometimes been more expensive than certain competitors. To reflect its new-found efficiency Tooltech has been able to reduce prices and provide more competitive quotes. “We are now in a position to do 50% more CAD. Whereas we used to have a backlog in the CAD office, now we are forging ahead with CAD and creating a waiting list for the machines. We have therefore purchased a new unit. We are very busy.” The company is already in discussion with TEAM Engineering about purchasing a new seat of NX.

Mark credits TEAM Engineering with Tooltech’s business growth. “TEAM Engineering has enabled us to be more competitive. The guys at TEAM Engineering are extremely customer oriented; they really put themselves in the position of their customers. They have been absolutely superb, providing excellent technical support when we needed it. In the early days we asked for help once a week, now we rarely need to make contact but we know they are there. TEAM Engineering set us up and we are now flying.”

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