Die Shop Down Under

Viking Tooling – A family Concern

In a small, inconspicuous-looking machine shop in Dandenong, near Melbourne, Australia, a family business is successfully applying the latest machine tool and design technology to the manufacture of tools and dies for the automotive industry.

Although Stephen Hansen is of Danish stock, he was born in Australia in 1957, spending just 7 1/2 years of his boyhood in the family’s ancestral homeland before returning to Australia for good.

In 1981, together with his father and brother, Hansen started a small but successful tooling machine shop called Scandia. The company is still going strong today, having provided Steve with the practical and business foundation for his next venture.

In response to what Hansen perceived as a growing demand, he and his wife, Yvonne, broke away from Scandia just over two years ago to form a completely new company: Viking Tooling. Steve explains why he decided to leave the family business. “Between us, our interest in manufacturing was diversifying. Personally, I was getting more into the manufacturing technology: CNC and CAD/CAM, for example. I felt that I could use new technology to great effect, and market my services to a particular niche of the industry.”

At the heart of this new, technology-driven approach, Viking can boast some pretty impressive kit. “We use the high-level Unigraphics CAD system commonly used in automotive design,” says Hansen. “It was a very big investment for us, but of central importance to what we do.

“The only thing the customer sends us is the basic part file for a new project. Then, all of the tooling has to be designed around it.”

Turning the CAD files into precision tools is the job of three Haas vertical machining centres. Hansen: “We installed the first Haas machining centre, a VF-3D, in June 2000. The second VF-3 came in March 2001, and the third in May 2001.

“I first came across Haas products at a show in Melbourne, about nine or ten years ago. I asked the guy on the booth if I could run the machine manually, and he tried not to laugh.”

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Like many before him, Hansen praises the Haas CNC for helping him to quickly get to grips with his investments. “I taught myself to program,” he says. “The Haas CNC is extremely simple, and there are lots of nice features, like one-button programming, work-offset probing and engraving. Mind you, the programs we produce these days are so complicated that we generate them on the Unigraphics system and drip-feed them to the Haas machines.”

In an industry where manual labour was traditionally the main means of manufacture, Hansen encountered more than a little skepticism when he first showed customers the new technology. “A lot of people were pretty unsure about the technology,” he says. “Then they saw first hand, realized what we could do and were pretty impressed.”

High-Speed Forte

In keeping with his original intention, Hansen wanted to maximize use of technology to produce his tools and dies. High-speed machining was to become a vital part of his new approach.

“When I was looking at the first Haas machine, the local agent – Alfex CNC – recommended that I should purchase the HSM (high-speed machining) option for our application. This was all new to me then,” he says, “but now I realize it was a wise move, and I’m grateful the Haas sales engineer persisted with this point.”

High-speed machining is now one of Viking’s fortes, and one that Hansen is particularly keen to discuss. “High-speed machining is not just about high spindle speeds. Having the high spindle speed is great, but it’s also about feeding at a sustainable, fast rate and keeping it under control, particularly in the Z axis. A lot of machines have problems tracking in Z. HSM on the Haas is great. A lot of machines round off corners, gouge, etc. It can get pretty messy. But the finish quality on the Haas is so good we don’t even have to polish to achieve the surface finish.

“Just recently we had a visit by overseas tooling engineers from a major car manufacturer. They were very impressed and quite surprised by our capabilities and the quality of work coming off the Haas machines.”

Making sure that the cutting tool feeds at the optimum speed is the look-ahead algorithm, which is part of the Haas HSM option. “The Haas brochure is exactly right,” says Hansen. “If you try to drive quickly around a mountain road that you’ve never driven before, you’re going to be a lot slower than if you know what’s ahead. The Haas control does exactly that, it looks ahead and determines the fastest possible feedrate.”

For many in tool and die making, HSM is a vital and important investment. To Viking, the investment was also common sense. “The machines we were using previously were too slow and too small,” says Hansen. “They were costing us a lot of money in downtime.

“In the first year of using the Haas HSM it saved us at least two times the investment cost. Also, by reducing the time to produce the components to the required standard, it effectively increased the capacity of the machines.”

Hansen says that he knows Viking’s investment was a shrewd move when he sees the looks on the faces of visiting customers. “Customers come in here and see the Haas machines zapping around at high speed and they’re pretty impressed. We can’t keep them away.”

The Viking machine shop is open 7 days a week, with the Haas machines running 24 hours a day. “I reckon the first VF-3 we bought did two years work in the first 12 months,” says Hansen, without a hint of exaggeration. “Once we’ve finished a program, the machine will just run ’til the job is done. Often up to 30 hours!

“The trend in HSM these days is to do a lot of lighter cuts very quickly. In the old days we used to do lots of big, heavy, roughing cuts. That’s gone by the wayside. If the tools break, you can have a disaster on your hands. We’d rather leave the machine running overnight and come back to find the job finished in the morning. These are very tough tool steels we’re machining. Mind you,” he adds, “on occasions when we’ve machined a big tool or die, the HSM has proved to be up to three times faster than conventional machining.”

Asked to identify the fundamental difference between doing things the high-tech way versus the traditional method, Hansen is quick to reply. “The machines are extremely accurate. It’s almost harder to make a bad job than it is to make a good one!” he says.

“Tooling budgets around the world are pretty tight. If you’re doing it by hand and you want to make a particularly good job, the extra time can cost a lot more. If you’re using a Haas and you have to run the machine some additional hours, it’s no big deal.”