Indexable Tools Are A Safe Haven From Increased Carbide Tool Prices


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Alert manufacturers are moving to indexable tools to avert the recent steep price increase for solid carbide tooling, according to Ingersoll Cutting Tools (Rockford, Illinois), which supplies both types of tools. “There is a definite shift toward indexable drills and milling cutters triggered by the rise in solid carbide tooling prices,” says Chuck Elder, Ingersoll executive vice president. “We hear it from supply chain managers and distributors and are seeing it in our own sales figures.”

Tungsten carbide prices rose five fold in 2004, thereby increasing the price of solid carbide tooling by 60 to 70 percent. Prices for indexable tooling, by contrast, remained relatively stable since those tools contain only 10 to 15 percent costly tungsten carbide. The increase in carbide prices reduced the premium for indexable, compared to solid carbide milling cutters, from about 50 to 20 percent. For indexable drills, which generally cost less than solid carbide even before the run up, the differential increased from about 30 to 50 percent.

Mr. Elder added that, although carbide prices may flatten going forward or retreat slightly, the odds of any return of close to pre-2004 prices are extremely remote.

Savings For NAFTA

“At carbide’s present prices, North American manufacturers could save about $300 million a year in tooling costs alone by converting from solid carbide to indexable round tools,” Mr. Elder estimates. “That doesn’t include savings from eliminating the ‘reconditioning merry-go-round’ and from gains in throughput, which can be substantial.”

“The merry-go-round refers to the 4- to 15-week turnaround cycle for reconditioning solid carbide tools. In a high-volume operation, it necessitates a ‘float,’ or four to six tools for every one in active service.”

No More Reconditioning ‘Merry-Go-Round’

Case in point: Global Gear and Machining (GGM) (Downers Grove, Illinois), which makes 300,000 automotive drivetrain flanges a year, cut its drill inventory from 600 solid carbide drills to only 20 indexable Qwik-Twist drill bodies and a supply of replaceable points. Savings: about $205,000 a year in drill inventory and reconditioning cost—with essentially a drop-in tooling switch. “The bigger the tool, the bigger the savings with indexables,” adds Bob Jennings, Ingersoll Qwik-Twist product manager.

Indexable milling cutters have caught on, especially for mixed work, since several different types of cutting edges can be mounted on the same steel shank. “Indexable milling cutter sales have definitely taken off as carbide prices have risen,” says Ingersoll Chip Surfer Product Manager Mike Dieken. A principal application has been opening large holes by corkscrew milling as an alternative to step-up drilling. “And since one size mill can generate virtually any size hole, you get by with fewer tools,” he says.

Repeatability Pulls Even

Also contributing to the trend is the improved repeatability of modern indexable tools. “Today’s indexables routinely hold the same 0.0005-inch repeatability, after indexing, of any mainstream solid carbide tool,” Mr. Elder adds. “Moreover, it is possible to create better cutting geometries in an indexable insert than in a full-length solid carbide round.”

Prior to 2004, the market was gradually realizing that the benefits of indexables go way beyond tooling cost and are permanent, according to Mr. Elder. “The run up in carbide prices has simply accelerated the sea change toward indexable tooling over solid carbide. It started people thinking more about using costly carbide as a cutting tip only, and making the rest of the tool out of inexpensive alloy steel. That’s an idea that will be with us a good long while.”