Putting Safety First Adds Up

Recognizing several years ago that too many of its machinists were getting bruised and cut from bumping against boring bars and other sharp tools inside its lathes, this company was prompted to look for a simple way to cover these tools and protect its employees.


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“When you look at the numbers and see that one in three injuries are caused by the same thing, you know you have to do something about that,” says Vanessa Malo-Kurzinksi, vice president of Swiss Automation (Barrington, Illinois). Recognizing several years ago that too many of its machinists were getting bruised and cut from bumping against boring bars and other sharp tools inside its lathes, the company was prompted to look for a simple way to cover these tools and protect its employees. After failing to find a ready-made solution that it could purchase, and after rejecting the expense of building covers via injection molding or on its own turning centers, the shop looked to additive manufacturing. 

Fused filament fabrication (FFF) enabled the company to make exactly the solution it needed, quickly and at a reasonable cost. Using a relatively inexpensive desktop 3D printer, Swiss Automation was able to design and produce customized tool covers, reducing injuries and improving the overall safety of its employees. But beyond these benefits, Swiss Automation is finding that the 3D printer can also solve many other simple problems on the shop floor. 

Safety—In Numbers
As a large turning shop operating more than 130 lathes, Swiss Automation recognizes the importance of building and investing in its workforce, including their safety. Founded in 1965 by Ken Malo, Vanessa’s father, Swiss Automation has evolved from a one-man shop with six cam-operated lathes to an enterprise with almost 225 employees spread between its main location in Barrington and a second facility in nearby Cary, Illinois. Today, the company’s primary focus is producing parts ranging to 2.75 inches in diameter, commonly brass and stainless steel components for hydraulics and medical devices made on its Swiss-type CNC lathes.

Swiss Automation has been able to sustain its growth over the years in part because of its investment in recruiting, training and cultivating its workforce. The company conducts outreach and supports manufacturing programs at local schools, and it maintains a paid apprenticeship program that pairs new employees with veteran mentors. Many of its successful machinists and operators today originally came to the company with no prior manufacturing experience.

Building a large bank of talent has been a necessity for the company, but a bigger workforce also means the potential for more workplace accidents and injuries. Roughly 30 percent of Swiss Automation’s OSHA reportable injuries were related to employees bumping into cutting tools on the lathe turrets. 

The solution was obvious from the beginning: Cover the tools. The committee’s challenge was to find how to do that simply and cost-effectively. After searching and failing to find a better option on the market, the committee realized that it would have to figure out how to cover the cutting tools itself. 

Turning to Additive
Finally, Ms. Malo-Kurzinski asked Marc Moran, the shop’s foreman, and Matt Savers, then-programmer, to determine how Swiss Automation could best make its own tool covers. After brainstorming designs and investigating the costs of injection molding or turning covers on its own lathes, Moran brought up the idea of 3D printing. The technology would allow the company to make its own tool covers without tying up a production lathe. Plus, he saw additional benefits to bringing additive technology into the shop. 

Mr. Savers began to investigate the market, looking for a printer that (1) offered a decent work envelope, (2) would be dependable and (3) would enable the shop to make tool covers out of durable ABS plastic. It turned out an expensive machine wasn’t needed.

The shop selected a LulzBot Taz 5, a desktop FFF 3D printer. Questions about dependability were addressed by the machine’s favorable Amazon user reviews (a resource not typically part of the shop’s equipment purchasing decisions). The company worked with LulzBot manufacturer Aleph Objects to produce a successful tool cover prototype before finally purchasing the system in March 2014. By April, the printer was installed at the Barrington facility in an out-of-the-way nook under a staircase, with an old laptop hooked up to run it. 

In theory, operating the 3D printer is relatively simple. 

Components are designed in a CAD program (Swiss Automation uses SolidWorks), and then the programmer drags and drops the resulting STL file into Slic3r, a freeware program recommended by LulzBot that cuts the 3D model into layers. The slicing software generates the G code, which is then conveyed to the machine via host software or on an SD card. At the printer, the user sets the layer thickness, temperature and speed parameters and begins the build. As Swiss Automation discovered, it’s setting those parameters that can make or break a build. 

“In the beginning, we had issues with delamination, which made the product weaker and more prone to break,” Mr. Malo-Kurzinksi says. “We had to learn how to balance the printer’s speed with the thickness of the walls.” 

After a period of prototyping and experimentation, Mr. Savers was able to turn out durable ABS tool covers on the LulzBot, and production took off. 

Each tool cover is designed for a specific machine and tool (the corresponding model number is printed directly into the side), with sizes ranging from 0.75 to 1.125 inches in diameter and 2.5 to 3.5 inches long. Larger covers that fit over two tools at once are as large as 3 inches long and 1.25 inches wide. The basic tool cover design can be modified easily and inexpensively to fit any lathe or toolholder as needed. 

The tool covers are printed in a vertical orientation and one at a time because of the constraints of the printer’s envelope. Mr. Johnson typically runs the printer at a 40 mm/sec. perimeter speed (how fast the printer extrudes filament to outline each layer or island) and 60 mm/sec. infill speed (how fast it fills in each perimeter with a solid layer or pattern). At these rates, a standard tool cover takes about 1 hour to complete and uses about $1 worth of material. The printer can run faster than this—its top print speed is 200 mm/sec.—but Johnson says running it slower results in better part quality. 

Layer height for ABS parts is set to a relatively thin 0.3 mm to help maintain precision, he says. The printer’s tolerances—ranging from 0.05 to 0.35 mm (0.002 to 0.020 inch) in the X and Y axes—produce tool covers that are accurate enough to fit snugly on the toolholders with no magnets or other attachment mechanisms. This accuracy plus the fact that aesthetics are not critical, means that the tool covers are ready to go right off the build plate, with no finishing or postprocessing required.

Making the Sales Pitch
Learning how to make the tool covers on the printer was a challenge, but it turned out to be only part of the solution to the cutting tool injury problem. For the covers to be effective, the team had to make sure that machinists would remember—and want—to use them. The team has found that tool covers printed in bright yellow, green and red are more attractive and appealing to use. They are also more visible, so machinists remember to remove them from the lathes before starting up. 

Ms. Malo-Kurzinski estimates that about 70 percent of Swiss Automation’s machinists now use the tool covers regularly. Since implementing them in July 2014, Swiss Automation has had no cutting tool injuries on machines where the covers were installed.

Swiss Automation is testing the market for selling its tool covers to other turning shops. It has launched coveryourtools.com (based on the slogan imprinted into the side of each cover) and started bringing the tool covers to trade shows—including PMTS earlier this year—to get the word out. Depending on demand, the company is considering making the covers on its lathes or possibly purchasing another printer to replace or work alongside the LulzBot Taz 5 to increase production.

The Ripple Effect
But even if the tool covers never take off as a sellable product, Ms. Malo-Kurzinski and Mr. Moran agree that the 3D printer has more than paid for itself in reduced injuries and saved time, not to mention the value it has added to Swiss Automation’s shop floor. 

In addition to other safety products, such as bumpers to cover sharp protrusions on the bar loaders, Swiss Automation is using its 3D printer to make components that it previously would have purchased at a higher expense from suppliers—things like grippers for its manipulators, which can range from $250 to $750 per pair. With the printer, the price is much less, only about $6 per set in material costs.

The shop is also able to make tools and equipment that better suit its operations. “Like with any new machine, you have to mess with it and learn about how it works,” says Mr. Moran of the 3D printer. “But then you start seeing more and more applications for it.” Even with the learning curve, the knowledge gained combined with the practical uses the shop has found for its 3D printer have made the purchase worthwhile. Whether it is building tool covers, parts baskets or a one-off prototype, the printer at Swiss Automation rarely sits idle for long.  

For more information from Swiss Automation, visit swissautomation.com or call 847-381-4405.