September 29, 2023

3R Trail

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Serving the automotive industry

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ETBO is a large-scale tooling vendor that builds around 200 dies per year and has one of the largest EDM facilities in southwestern Ontario. Images: ETBO

Next year marks ETBO Tool & Die’s 70th year in business. Etienne and Marie-Louise Borm originally founded the company in Belgium in 1953. The couple immigrated to Canada several years later and launched the company’s Canadian operations in 1958 as a tool and die company specializing in industrial engraving.

“Our first job in 1958 was manufacturing forming tools for the original steel-walled, portable Coca-Cola cooler,” said Etienne Borm Jr., plant manager, ETBO Tool & Die, Aylmer, Ont. “Upon completion of this first job, the company quickly developed into a complete tooling provider servicing the automotive and electronic markets.”

Today, the company continues to remain a family business with the second generation at the helm. Etienne Sr. and Marie-Louise transitioned out of their roles at the company and their son Etienne and his wife Heather took over. The third generation of Borms are focusing on higher education with engineering specialties to support the family business in the future.

The company has grown over the years from its humble beginnings to more than 125,000 sq. ft. of floor space with 175 employees, including 15 engineers for tool, automation, and process design, and 50 toolmakers and apprentices. Located in the heart of Canada’s automotive corridor, upwards of 99 per cent of the plant’s business is in automotive, although it does take on some non-automotive work such as components for heat exchangers for the HVAC industry.

“We are a Tier 2 and below supplier for the automotive industry,” said Borm. “Our niche market is working with very thin metals, and because of that we only compete with a handful of companies globally rather than the significant group of local competitors.”

The Shop

ETBO is a large-scale tooling vendor that builds around 200 dies per year, designs and builds automation cells, provides metal stamping services with 25 presses up to 800 tonnes, including multiple servo presses up to 600 tonnes, and is one of the largest EDM facilities in southwestern Ontario.

Its stamping dies segment provides in-die capabilities such as subassembly, welding, part measurement with 100 per cent data capture and documentation, and servo axis control. It also provides robotic nut welding with vision inspection, robotic gas metal arc welding, projection and spot welding, production washing to cleanliness specifications, and production CNC machining.

To continue as one of the leaders in automotive manufacturing, the company is focused on adopting the latest technology, refining manufacturing processes, and staying true to its roots.

“Working with materials as thin as 50 µm (0.002 in.) requires a high degree of technical skill,” said Borm. “Cutting clearances need to be extremely tight to achieve the tolerances needed with these parts. It takes a lot of know-how and attention to detail, and we have the exceptionally skilled workforce and equipment to be able to provide the tooling and production for this market segment.”

The company has developed an in-house ERP/MRP system to allow its machines to communicate automatically and provide traceability across all aspects of the manufacturing process. This traceability allows ETBO to track every component that is manufactured for its tools. It also has helped with productivity because it provides information about the machine it was produced on, machine uptime, the operator(s) who worked on the part, and more. This has allowed the shop to fine-tune its processes and ensure that every component produced has all relevant manufacturing history associated with it.

ETBO Tool & Die

The company provides metal stamping services with 25 presses up to 800 tonnes, including multiple servo presses up to 600 tonnes.

“This has really allowed us to drive quality actions across the board,” said Borm. “We were doing Industry 4.0 before it became popular, and I think that has really given us and our customers a huge advantage. We also tackle toolmaking very much the same way we do production. We are very vertically integrated, and this allows each department to work at their optimum efficiency.”

The shop takes on typical tool packages from 1 to 20 tools and a vast majority of that is tooling for electrification in items such as battery coolers, electronic module covers, fuel cells, and frame components.

“Our biggest opportunity and challenge as an industry is seeing how electrification fits within Canadian manufacturing and how our company can fit into that,” said Borm. “The change is coming quickly and we need to be willing to adapt and position ourselves accordingly. And we need to be able to support that with the capital investment that’s required, whether that’s for larger machining, higher-tolerance machining, or however that presents itself in a shop’s product line.”

When it comes to production CNC machining, the company has 25 CNC mills with up to 170- by 70-in. working envelopes, eight Sodick wire EDMs, and a Sodick CNC hole drilling machine.

EDM Operations

The plant continually works with very thin materials that require tooling components with exacting standards. Die components need to be produced with repeatability of 2 µm in both size and straightness. The ETBO team has worked diligently to develop processes that allow this to be achieved consistently.

“Sodick’s wire EDM technology is key to ETBO achieving this consistency,” said Borm. “For example, fuel cell bipolar plates and head gaskets require very thin material to be processed. We’ve been able to construct tooling and support production of materials as thin as 50 µm (0.002 in.), which is critical for the success of these business opportunities.”

The eight Sodick wire EDMs have a “set it and forget it” capability, and all the plant’s EDM machines run 24-7. ETBO has standardized on the Sodick wire EDM as its preferred machine choice.

One of the advantages of working with EDM machines is no cutting forces or tool wear are involved.

“Trying to get to an accuracy of 0.0002 in. with conventional machining is extremely difficult as there are a lot of mechanical factors you a fighting,” said Borm. “The cutting tools are constantly wearing down, and if it’s really intricate geometry to machine, we have to use cutters that are three human hairs in diameter, and they can really deflect. So, between deflection and wear, that can account for the entire allotted tolerance. It requires some creative strategies, but with EDM we don’t have these issues.”

The plant’s wire EDMs are essential to producing highly accurate parts. The machines can be set to whatever parameters and accuracies are needed and the workpiece will come out correctly. This allows for lights-out operations.

 Sodick’s wire EDM technology

Die components need to be produced with repeatability of 2 µm in both size and straightness and Sodick’s wire EDM technology is key to ETBO achieving this consistency.

“We have a very regimented maintenance program on our wire EDMs to ensure that we can keep them running,” said Borm. “My words of wisdom on the wire EDM front are the more you maintain your machines and keep them clean and really focus on the daily maintenance of them, the better your results are going to be as far as the consistency of your wire thread.”

ETBO has been working with wire EDMs since 1985 when it purchased its first machine. It was easily justified because of the time saved by eliminating grinding and fitting. Around 20 years ago, however, the company shifted away from its existing EDM to look for new equipment.

For its wire EDMs, ETBO always looks for large wire spools to support long burns, reliable auto threading, consistent machines that deliver uptime, local service and support when ETBO staff need machine assistance, and parts with quick availability.

“Based on our testing of some other brands on the floor, we really felt that Sodick outperformed in reliability and uptime,” said Borm. “We also have a great relationship with the Canadian distributor, Ultra Machine Sales.”

For the most part, wire EDM technology is relatively mature and advanced in its technologies. However, that was not always the case. When it was first introduced, it was a very slow process reserved for components that previously required intense contour grinding. Also, EDM suffered from surface finishes that could not compete with ground surfaces. Hole starts were slow and mostly manual and filtration systems were limited in capacity and effectiveness.

“Today, EDM has developed further into being integrated into everyday tool building,” said Borm. “Wire threading with the Sodick wire EDM is now reliable and efficient, water filtration systems are effective and allow for long duration burns without service, and wire cutting speeds have increased dramatically over the past 20 years. We’ve also seen that surface finish improvements have been so successful that post-polishing can almost be eliminated.”

Sodick’s newer machines have moved to new linear motors, meaning there is no ball screw wear to contend with. For Borm, this is a huge advantage and said he expects the machines to stay accurate for as long as they are maintained.

“Linear motors also allow for faster response times for voltage gap control, and thus we see a slight improvement in performance,” said Borm. “Pitch compensation error correction is almost a thing of the past. The shop performs machine validations annually, checking for machine positional accuracy. With earlier ball screw machines, every validation cycle resulted in adjustments to the pitch compensation matrix of the table, but with the linear drives, this is virtually eliminated.”

The ETBO’s EDM department is monitored 24-7 and the shop has video accessibility to the machine to visually monitor machine performance. And with this the ETBO team can now monitor the machine performance during critical cut schedules from the comfort of home.

“Our Sodick wire EDMs do what we need, do it consistently, and they do it well,” said Borm. “The local support is great, and we’ve never found a reason compelling enough to want to switch.”

ETBO Tool & Die

Its stamping dies segment provides robotic nut welding with vision inspection, robotic gas metal arc welding, projection and spot welding, production washing to cleanliness specifications, and production CNC machining.

Associate Editor Lindsay Luminoso can be reached at [email protected].

ETBO Tool & Die,