A precision transformation

Traditional production methods were enhanced with cutting edge technology 15 years ago at Sutton Tools – and the internationally renowned tooling manufacturer has gone from strength to strength in lockstep with Automated Solutions Australia (ASA).

Walking the factory floor at Sutton Tools’ headquarters in Thomastown, Victoria, defies what many would expect of a firm that each year produces some 20 million drills, taps, milling cutters and specialist tools for industries, ranging from medical and mining to aerospace and automotive. It’s clean. Really clean.

“We used to be a far more manual operation up to the 2000s, with an environment not as clean as it is now, and more moving parts on the loading mechanisms” says Sutton’s Engineering Manager Tim Schurmann. “Our first robot was about 15 years ago, a Drake thread grinder that had one robot fitted to it.

“We decided this was a pretty good idea, so we purchased some more robots and we started to install them ourselves. But we soon found we needed help from somebody to integrate them to the control system on the CNC machines, so we got Pat in to do that work.”

By “Pat”, he means Pat Green, Director of Automated Solutions Australia (ASA). Green lives and breathes robots; his philosophy is that, though the technology might seem complex, its operation shouldn’t be.

“The systems that they started with were fairly basic, for want of a better term,” says Green. “And so we’ve tried to stick with those basics. Things have improved progressively, they’re using more technology, the interfaces are better and smarter, but we still try to maintain that common feel.”

Schurmann says the relationship with ASA has flourished, and that Green and his team knows Sutton’s manufacturing principles: “So when we ask them to integrate a robot, because they have that knowledge of doing it previously, we don’t have to give them 100% of the information. They know a lot about that already and we can get the job done quicker and more efficiently.”

This has also seen improvements in the specifics of how robots have been incorporated into Sutton’s manufacturing processes.

“Some of the first installations had the robots sitting on the outside of the machines,” Schurmann explains. “They would enter the machines and load the product, then bring the finished product back out again onto a pallet. The problem is the cycle time was fairly long: the door had to open, the robot had to go in, take the old part out, put the new part in, come back out, and as soon as the door closed, the machine cycle could then start up again. It was all fairly oily and hazardous, it required guards, and it was time-consuming.

“So we decided then to put the robots inside the machines. This reduced the loading time and the cycle time as well. And it prevented any oil dripping onto the floor. It reduced the hazards and having to put up guards around a robot on the outside of the machine.

“With our continuous improvement process we are where we are today,” Schurmann adds.

Sutton’s spotless modern plant in Thomastown has come a long way from the company started by English immigrant William Henry Sutton in his Melbourne garage in 1917. Now run by a fourth generation of Suttons, with a fifth now coming onboard, the company manufactures a wide range of high-quality cutting tools – about 40% of which are for export. Its success rests in its passion for cutting tools and its reputation for precision and quality, and automation has played a significant part in that.

“We’re constantly challenged to make our product faster, of higher quality, yet more economical, to compete with opposition companies and imports from China and India where the labour is a lot cheaper,” Schurmann says. “So using robots for loading and unloading and running unmanned for some of the day reduces our cost. Sutton Tools is probably only three or four percent of the total world production of cutting tools. We’re aiming at the high end of the market. Lots of low-quality tools are coming into the country. We don’t want to compete with that. We want to be world leaders in high-quality cutting tools.”

Schurmann adds that ASA is a crucial partner in achieving this: “ASA do a great job and we trust Pat and his team to support our evolving needs. When we first started to install robots, each machine would probably increase efficiency by 60% or 70%. It made a big difference. It’s faster, but in particular it takes out the people factor in incorrect loading.

“Our processes rely on the cutting tool being loaded correctly with exact timing – if an operator loads a tool even slightly out of timing rotation, it will be a reject. You learn over the years if you’ve got one tool that doesn’t meet specifications in a batch, the customer will send the whole batch back to you. We’ve got to be very confident that every one of those cutting tools in the batch that we export is correct and meets the standard. Robots mean we can pretty well guarantee right from the start that the product will be correctly timed all the way through until it’s finished.

“Compared to hand loading, robot loading has reduced rejects by probably 10% or 15% on some of the machines. It’s made that much difference on some trickier type loading situations. And we run them over morning tea and lunchbreaks, as well as lights out on the third shift.”

Schurmann says one of the many satisfying aspects was working with ASA to speed production processes: “I guess it’s all about reducing loading times and improving quality. Early on we were putting a robot onto a machine and you might not get the process right the first time. So you think, ‘Oh, we can save a couple seconds here and a couple seconds there’, and we’d get ASA back to refine it. And by the time you’d saved several seconds here and a few more there, across the whole process it adds up, and we can shorten the overall time dramatically. A lot of people say it’s only a couple of seconds, but at the end of the day it means quite a few more parts that we’re producing.”

This transcript was previously published in Australian Manufacturing Technology Dec-Jan’20 Magazine