GF Agie Charmilles (parent of Agie Charmilles, Coventry, in the UK) is well know for its EDM and Mikron machining centre technology. It claims market share leadership for EDM technology, with a 23% global market share (value), 13% (units); and also a leadership position for high speed milling, although its milling global market share is just 0.7%, by units. Setting this in context, Jean-Pierre Wilmes, CEO of GF AgieCharmilles, notes that the top five EDM producers claim 70% of the market, while in milling the top five claim less than 15%. Admitting that its milling technology had developed slowly over the last 10 years, development has now been ramped up and HSM is considered a key technology for the future. The Open House event in March was an opportunity for the company to underline this in general terms, as well as present its more recent technology developments – one a relatively new process for the company, laser ablation; the other a complement to its machining centres, CCD-based tool measurement. Examples of the successful application of both of these were given (see later). Image: Hundreds attended the March Open House and were treated to a number of presentations from GF AgieCharmilles and its customers SETTING THE SCENE Opening the event, Mr Wilmes first set the scene, saying that, following the collapse of orders everywhere in 2009, 2010 had seen a recovery in the company's fortunes, with a 25% increase in turnover, to £488 million, and a 45% increase in orders, to £519 million. Asia led the way on orders, with 65% growth, followed by the Americas at 47%, with Europe trailing on 37%. But recovery is accelerating in Europe, with year to date figures for 2011 versus 2010, presented at the event, showing European demand growing by 49% - "contrary to any expectation" - with Asia growing at just over 33% and the Americas by 15%. Indeed, Mr Wilmes underlined that German demand was already back to the heights of 2007 (for order intake), as far as his company was concerned – "and this was not expected for two or three years". This European recovery is particularly important for GF AgieCharmilles, since just over half its business comes from the region. But he acknowledges that Asia, and more particularly China, is becoming the "worldwide manufacturing centre for mass production". This is confirmed by its machine tool consumption, which, incidentally, did not turn negative in 2009, and which is estimated at over $27 billion dollars in 2010; Germany, the closest to this, consumed just $5 billion, having fallen from almost $10 billion in 2008 and when China consumed under $20 billion. And highlighting one particularly noteworthy example, he pointed out that Foxconn, manufacturer of Apple products (iPad, iPhone), employs 1.2 million people and "is consuming 1,500 Fanuc machining centres per month; per month not per year". (GF AgieCharmilles produces both EDM and milling entry level products in China, incidentally.) However, he emphasised: "In Europe, we are generating new business opportunities." And these fall into three main categories – aerospace/aeronautics; medical technology, particularly dental; and premium products, such as BMWs and Mercedes cars in Germany or watches in Switzerland. More broadly, the result of any crisis, Mr Wilmes observed, is changed consumer behaviour, leading to new market trends that impact manufacturers, resulting in specific machine tool customer demands and new trends in manufacturing. Image: New opportunities link to new trends... Image: And these have an impact on customers..... Image: Generating new demands in manufacturing, to which GF AgieCharmilles must respond EMERGING TECHNOLOGY One emerging technology cited as a driver is LED (light emitting diode) technology, used in numerous products, including Smartphones, but which will be used more broadly in support of energy efficiency. "This is a big new market, although nobody knows the size of it. Last year, we sold more than 170 machines for this business," reveals Mr Wilmes. GF AgieCharmilles technology that is cited for LED mould tool manufacture includes the Cut 1000 wire-cut EDM, Form 350 die-sink EDM and Mikron HSM 400LP 5-axis machining centre. These machines hold "almost all the positions" in manufacturers in Korea and Taiwan, the main countries involved in LED production, while there are also German and Swiss companies now also involved, the CEO claims. On machine tools more generally, Mr Wilmes suggests that customer needs will be: automation; dedicated, rather than generalised machines, supported by modularity; process improvement; plus there will be new technologies required. And summing up manufacturing trends, he cites miniaturisation, difficult and exotic materials, and demanding surface finishes as key. A number of GF AgieCharmilles technology end users were on hand to explain how they were using the technology. During a tour of the WTC, the company's technology strengths were pointed up. For the FO 350 MS die-sink EDM, it was the company's IQ technology, which limits electrode wear on both graphite and copper electrodes, that was the key issue – a wear rate of 0.01% for graphite was given. The production of tricky details, such as a high quality surface cavity followed by the burning of surface detail, without causing damage to the original mould surface, in particular, was highlighted. Image: FO 350 die-sinkers feature IQ technology and offer solutions for tricky details The Form 200 die-sink EDM was highlighted as the first true Agie Charmilles design, with Charmilles mechanics and Agie generator technology. Introduced some 18 months ago, it claims surface finish – 20% better than previous models - and fine detail performance as its key points, with over half a dozen so far installed in the UK. And the EDM machine was also part of a cell, integrated with a Mikron milling machine, both served by a System 3R robot. Automation is still a tougher sell for the UK market than mainland Europe, it was noted, however. WIRE-CUT TECHNOLOGY For the AC Challenge V2 wire-cut, simple part alignment and fast wire threading were the highlights, while the top-of-the range Cut 1000 Oiltech's ability to use the smallest wire and achieve highest quality possible surfaces was underlined. Wire diameter can be down to 0.020 mm and surface finishes of 0.02 Ra micron achieved. For the Cut 2000 and 3000 models, the benefits of automatic wire changing were underlined – still a unique offering from the company. By using two diameters of wire, and/or a high quality for finishing and lower quality wire for roughing: machining times can be faster; running costs can be lower; taper machining is more efficient; and tall parts with small details can be more easily tackled. The intermediate Cut 200, 300 and 400 machines deliver surface finishes to 0.1 micron Ra, feature energy-saving technology (Econowatt), boast the established Quadrax system that supports 30° taper machining anywhere in the work envelope, and feature Clean Cut generator technology that supports titanium and Inconel cutting, without recast layers or oxidisation. Moving to entry-level technology and the Cut 20P is the company's highly successful general purpose, easy-to-use wire cut EDM, which has seen 80 units sold into the UK in three years. Featuring an Agie technology generator, the control screen has just three pages; only two-three hours' training is required; while from DXF into control to machining can be as little as 2 minutes, it is claimed. For hogging out on tool steel, the company underlined its VCPE 1000 Pro X 3-axis vertical machining centre, which weighs in at 6.5 tonnes. Staying with machining centres, but moving to its high performance machining (HPM) models, and a 5-axis HPM 800U HD, with integrated two-axis table, was shown machining an aluminium power generation impeller. Other HPM machines highlighted various elements of automation (pallet changers and toolchanger – a 245-tool system is a recent addition) and machining capability. Image: Hogging out tough material is a job for VCE Pro machines GF AgieCharmilles' high speed machining credentials were underlined by its HSM 400 LP, linear motor machine (available in 3, 4 or 5-axis guise). But the key advantage of linear motors is not speed (although 2.5 g acceleration and 60 m/min rapids do feature), but the surface finishes achievable – 0.05 micron Ra versus the "traditional barrier" of 0.2 micron Ra. And accuracy overall is the theme – LED mould tool manufacture requires pitch accuracy of 1-2 micron, for example. Not highlighted, but revealed to Machinery, was that the HSM 400 LP, incorporating regenerative breaking, is more energy efficient than a ballscrew-driven machine of equivalent size. The company is still undertaking tests to be more definitive, however. Image: HSM 400 LP, fine finishes and accurate detail a speciality Image: GF AgieCharmilles explains the differences between HPM and HSM machiing thus Complementing its HSM technology is its CCD-based Intelligent Tool Measurement (ITM) system, capable of measuring tools between 0.2 and 12 mm diameter at full spindle speed, but, more importantly, is able to 'digitally clean' swarf from any captured image to provide a highly accurate reading. This aids the achievement of high quality surface finishes, with steps of just 1 micron maximum created, following end mill tool change, for example. PATTERNS BY LASER The WTC tour ended with the company's most recent machine tool technology development, the laser ablation machine. Unveiled at EMO 2009, so far some 40 machines have been sold in Europe, most of these being the 1000 model and most 5-axis models. There are four models, 500, 600, 1000 and 1200, with all bar the 3-axis only 500 unit available with 3, 4 or 5 axes. The texturing of moulds for PET bottles, cosmetic bottles, car tyres, shoe soles, mobile phones, plus car interior material patterns and embossing rolls are various applications cited. Unlike current chemical-based processes, which are banned now in some countries, the surface pattern is driven by digital data, so is accurately reproducible anywhere in the world, time after time. And because it is digital data, it will now be possible to copyright patterns/textures, it was suggested. Image: Laser ablation, the newest technology comes, like other machines, with automation, if required And two users of the latest technology advances, ITM and laser ablation, were revealed. In Taiwan, LED and precision optics mould maker Hong Yang Precision Industry Co is using ITM in support of accurate tool measurement. GF AgieCharmilles' milling and EDM technologies are used by the company, with the ITM system employed on its Mikron HSM 400 LP high speed milling machine. "We chose GF AgieCharmilles' ITM because it uses optics to measure, guaranteeing more accurate measurement," says Ching Xu, Hong Yang mould and die department chief. "In our process, we work about 16 hours per day, and we are always using ITM to measure and check our cutting tools. "We do not measure our tools on a measuring machine before we put them in the tool changer. We measure our tools directly by ITM. "In the production of dies for LED, poor measurement of the tool means the die cannot be used, because it doesn't fit," explains Mr Xu. "We have found that dies produced with GF AgieCharmilles' technology are of highest accuracy and quality." Italian firm Lap-Stamp, a mould polishing specialist headquartered in the Italian province of Bergamo, is using a Laser 1000 5Ax machine. Active in mould polishing for applications ranging from home appliances and aeronautics to medical devices and lenses for lighting, in 2010, the company was the first business in Italy to purchase a Laser 1000 5Ax. "Our Laser 1000 5Ax became profitable quickly after set-up, and allows us a degree of creativity and perfect application execution that was not possible in the past," says director Cristian Corti. "GF AgieCharmilles Laser technology makes it possible for us to create any design we can imagine and execute it perfectly, over and over again." GF AgieCharmilles user case histories Underlining the message that Europe is engaged in the premium product and not China mass produced area of manufacturing, a number of GF AgieCharmilles customers presented their companies, technology use and strategy. IGS – mould tool maker – competitive drive Hans Arts of Dutch high technology mould tool maker IGS Gebo Jagema, part of VADO, explained what his company needs to make sure it remains competitive with Asian competition. The 105-employee company is more than just a mould tool maker, it taking in front end engineering through to full service validation. IGS focuses on injection mould tooling, with an ambition is to "be the global leader as innovative full-service provider of integrated plastic tooling solutions for the injection moulding industry in the field of healthcare, optical and technical applications." In addition, its focus is on repeat tooling and tools having a high number of cavities. Located in Eindhoven, the company already employs modern IT, high technology CNC manufacturing and automated production, taking in EDM and high speed machining. It can automate further, it is acknowledged, but from companies like GF AgieCharmilles, it requires higher precision at lower cost. Mr Arts explains why. Customers want sub-micron tolerances, perfect delivery reliability and lower prices. To meet this, the company knows it must offer a flexible service, short lead times and reduce its prices. Competition is coming from the Far East and Europe, but the market is big enough for a dozen of companies like IGS, he says. Chinese toolmakers, of which there are some 5,000, are themselves investing in modern manufacturing technology, Mr Arts explains, with the China price only 15% cheaper than Europe. But China is also an opportunity, since an increasing wealth level will see a growing demand for western products. Today's 350 million middle class Chinese (>/=$9000 earnings) will become 650 million in 2015, for example. To that end, European and US firms are establishing moulding facilities in China. Dutch demographics and career choices are other drivers for action. The post WWII Baby Boomer generation will start to retire after 2010; family size is decreasing; and there's a lack of interest on the part of the young in technical education. The response to all of this from IGS is to enhance automation to reduce labour content, with greater robotisation of CNC milling and HSM milling, upgrade its current GF AgieCharmilles equipment and automate electrode manufacturing. Mr Arts explains how IGS is modelling savings to achieve greater competitiveness. Increase CNC milling output by 33% at the same cost level; increase output of high speed machining and electrode milling by 50% at the same cost level; decrease the investment in wire-cut and die-sink EDM for the same output. The results are that the average hourly cost rate drops 14%; the price to produce an 8-cavity reference mould falls from €112,000 to €99,000; and lead time will be cut by one week, to 11 weeks. And in conclusion, he would like GF AgieCharmilles to be able to support these goals. C-Mill – complex medical part Swiss firm C-Mill, a 12-employee company that specialises in complex milled parts, many for the medical industry, using 10 Mikron 5-axis high speed milling machines, taking in an automated HSM 600U. Image: Medical technology is one of C-Mill's targets The company's Patrick Ziswiler highlighted that C-Mill was located near Biel, home to Switzerlands precision watchmaking and medical industries. Like IGS, it is also a technology partner, involved at product design stage and subsequently is involved in both prototype and series production. Innovative manufacturing solutions generated by its staff are key. Medical items manufactured include implants, trauma parts (plates and screws), instrument housings, devices, together with ophthalmic, orthopaedic and dental parts. Other parts made are for F1, aerospace, energy, machine and gear applications. The key message was that GF AgieCharmilles technology supported high accuracy, high quality production of its complex parts. And one example in particular amply demonstrates that. Laser eye correction surgery is increasingly commonplace and C-Mill has been involved with the development and manufacture of a device that is employed as part of the process, the microkeratome. This is a precise, hand-held surgical instrument with an oscillating metal blade. It is used to separate the surface layers of the cornea and create a corneal flap during the first step of laser vision correction surgery. Image: Precise machining for this mechanical eye correction instrument was required First, the microkeratome is placed over the eye, then suction is applied so that the microkeratome is held perfectly still during the procedure. The microkeratome creates a hinged flap, around 120 micron thick, which is laid back while an excimer laser sculpts the cornea into the optimal shape. Once the cornea is re-sculpted into a shape that improves vision, the tissue is repositioned and healing begins. The microkeratome involves such challenges as machining parts from solid titanium, such that 95% of the material is removed (to avoid prior process contamination), and the achievement of surface finishes of 0.3 micron Ra and accuracies of 3 micron. Another example highlights how 5-axis machining technology benefits existing parts by offering a better solution. Plates used to repair shin bones used to be manufactured flat and then bent to form, but through 5-axis machining, they can be machined to the correct form from the start. And another is a titanium spine implant that must be machined burr-free, have a surface finish of 0.4 micron Ra and is machined in 250 lots to produce 3,000 parts/year. This particular item provides inter-vertebrae stablitity to spines, allowing for greater flexibility than do more traditional approaches to spine support. Novicrom – aerospace From Italy, Novicrom highlighted how its business, 60% aerospace/30% automotive, benefits from GF AgieCharmilles' Mikron technology. The 80-employee company employs an HPM 1000U with pallet changer, an HSM 600U with six-pallet changer, and a UCP 800U, all 5-axis machines and all located within a temperature-controlled environment. The company's Franceso Gentile says that notable jobs undertaken include a Boeing helicopter main rotor, an iron forging that is made from solid and machined via continuous 5-axis machining. Image: The Boeing helicoptor main rotor, machined from solid Mercedes High Performance Engines, UK F1 race engine maker Mercedes HPE's Hagen Helm highlighted that the development drive is very much behind the 2013 season race engine design and that high accuracy and repeatability are essential, both now and in the future. Indeed, Mercedes HPE's 2013 engine "must be the best". There are 3,000+ parts (1,000 part numbers) in an F1 engine and when changes are made to any part, it is essential that all others remain as near as unaltered as possible; otherwise the effect of the changed part cannot be separated from the effects of variation in other parts. Tight manufacturing tolerances are, therefore, absolutely key, with these are put at between 5 and 10 micron. And that is what its Mikron machining centre technology delivers. Right first time is also important, because a request for an alteration arriving on a Friday must be on the car Sunday. Speedy manufacture is important too "because, every half an hour I can shave off means more time for engineers to think". An emphasis on speed and small numbers becomes understandable, as Mr Helm points out that 0.28% of a typical 90 sec lap time is equivalent to one grid position difference in the top 10. While the company has been an established GF AgieCharmilles user since 1996, when a Mikron UMC900U arrived, it has since then installed both additional EDM and milling technology. But following the most recent investment of an HPM 800U in 2008 plus automation, including the new 245-position ATC that Mercedes HPE asked for, and got (see also main article), the company is now awaiting delivery of four more Mikron machines. F1 engines now 2.4 litres; 18,000 rpm; 95 kg weight; 1,800 km life; 150 kg fuel flow/hour; 8 engines per driver per season; Kinetic Energy Recovery System (KERS) technology captures energy and deploys to crankshaft. F1 engines in 2013 season 1.6 litres; 12,000 rpm; 4-cylinder fixed bore and stroke; 100 kg/hour fuel direct fuel injection (some 40% less); 5 engines per driver per season; improved KERS from 400 kJ to 4 MJ storage and 60 kW to 120 kW output. It is in the area of KERS that much development will be focused, with such developments feeding into road car design and the promotion of greener transport, Mr Helm believes. First published in Machinery, May 2011