EDM Fits Form Toolmaker To A "T"

When recession hits in the form tool industry, 'You’ve got to get busy living, or get busy dying,' as a character in the movie The Shawshank Redemption puts it. The need for flexibility and quick reaction times to meet customer demands is never greater.


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When recession hits in the form tool industry, “You’ve got to get busy living, or get busy dying,” as a character in the movie The Shawshank Redemption puts it. The need for flexibility and quick reaction times to meet customer demands is never greater.

Premier Tool Corporation (Coriopolis, North Carolina) learned that lesson in early 2003. Flexible application of EDM have helped the company weather the downturn. Premier Tool came into being in 1987 as a provider of dovetail forms and shape tools for the automatic screw machine business. Owner Jerry Hoskins had a vision: He thought he could provide better quality, more consistent form tools than were currently available. Steady growth since that year has justified his vision and brought Premier to its present embodiment with 5,000 square feet, ten employees and a solid clientele, primarily serving the automotive parts industry. The company has been in its current building for 7 years.

“Electrical discharge machining revolutionized the form tool business,” Mr. Hoskins declares. “Back when all the tooling was high-strength steel, we used surface grinders to make tools. Today, we’re making carbide-tipped tooling, and almost everything is done with EDM.”

Premier runs a partial second shift and frequently works as much as 20 hours a day. When in full production mode, the company focuses on manufacturing carbide inserts during the day and allows the automatic equipment to make the larger form tools (which take 3 to 5 hours each to produce) at night, with less monitoring. As might be expected, all orders are short runs, the largest being around 30 sets of continuous form inserts.

The first machine Mr. Hoskins bought when he opened the doors in 1987 was a 90H model from Mitsubishi EDM (Wood Dale, Illinois) to cut form tools faster and more accurately. “We ran that thing as hard as we could run it until 1992, when we bought a 90HA,” he says. “Then we could relax a little bit.” An FA10—the company’s only submerged-arc EDM—followed in 2001, and a new RA90 was purchased in 2003. Premier runs brass wire in the machines.

“The key things for us are accuracy, repeatability and reliability,” the shop owner asserts. “The Mitsubishis are good machines. The accuracy is built into them, and they’re reliable. Our first one is still running today. It’s not as accurate as when it was new, but it still holds better than 0.001-inch tolerances.”

“Repeatability is important because we can get a customer coming back to us to reorder the same tool 6 months later. In the old days, an operator might not match the exact height or offset, and we’d have to adjust the holder, which meant extra setup time. Now the computers do everything, and we can produce a tool that will fit exactly with a faster setup, meaning faster delivery to the customer.

“The other thing about these machines is that . . . [the company is] a strong organization with a nice share of market,” he continues. “That means there are people in Chicago to keep us running. Most of the time, they can diagnose problems over the telephone. They almost always have the right part ready to ship out overnight.” Mr. Hoskins had himself trained by the factory when he bought his first EDM. Premier takes advantage of dealer training courses when offered and trains workers for the older machines in-house. “It has saved us a tremendous amount of money,” Mr. Hoskins claims.

When the downturn finally hit in the first quarter of 2003, it was the first break in Premier’s steady upward climb since its formation. The EDM equipment’s flexibility proved to be crucial.

“Quick reaction is the key in these conditions,” Mr. Hoskins says. “You’ve got to be ready to jump on any order that comes in. There’s nothing we can’t do with our EDM machines. They’ve not only met current needs, but they’ve also let us broaden our base somewhat so that we can take on more business than before.”

Premier is working toward a new plant to relieve crowded working conditions and improve material flow. Mr. Hoskins hopes to break ground sometime this year. Once that project is completed, he will consider new EDM equipment. “We’ve seen a pickup in business in the last 3 to 4 weeks; we’re hoping it keeps on moving,” he states.