Solid ceramic endmills from Kennametal have helped one aerospace job shop in the US meet a critical delivery date.

Most shops evaluate new cutting tools in an effort to reduce machining time, increase tool life, or improve part quality – and sometimes all three. Stellar Precision Components, a Tier II aerospace supplier in Jeanette, Pennsylvania, did it for an entirely different reason.

“We’d just taken an order for some Inconel parts,” says Production Manager Edward Frieze. “None of us were really worried at that point about tool life or making a profit on the job – our only concern then was how the heck could we get them shipped in eight weeks.”

Opening doors

Four decades earlier, Mike Vucish Sr. was working for a manufacturer of naval nuclear components when he saw an opportunity to go into business for himself. He bought some equipment, invited a few students from the technical school where he taught shop class at night, and opened the doors of Stellar in 1978. He continued to work at his day job until his fledgling company was firmly established, but in the meantime brought some family members on board to help out.

“We started out doing a lot of overload work from other larger shops in the area, but that evolved into direct support of several nuclear programs because of my father’s experience in this area,” says Lori Albright, Vucish’s daughter and now owner and President of Stellar. “We’ve since become a key supplier to a number of prime aerospace and defense contractors including Boeing, Lockheed, and Raytheon, as well as various nuclear and medical customers, and have over 70 employees and sales revenues of nearly US$10m.”

Stellar prides itself on continual updates to its equipment list, and has an eclectic mix of CNC machine tools from Haas Automation and Okuma. Key equipment includes an Okuma LB-45 lathe able to turn 91mm diameter parts up to 305cm long, and a Haas VF-11 five-axis machining centre with 305cm of X-axis travel and a table load capacity 1814kg. Stellar also has several wire electrical discharge machine (EDMs), a dozen or so three, four, and five-axis machining centres and mill-turn lathes, and offers value-added services such as non-destructive testing, welding, heat treating, and Teflon coating.

No job too tough

Stellar is used to meeting demanding requirements. Recent projects include components for RAM Block II anti-ship missiles, the CCtCap crew transport vehicle, the 155mm Long Range Land Attack Projectile (LRLAP) advanced gun system, rocket motor cases for the Atlas Five launch vehicle, and others. Its newest project, however, would be one to test the mettle of machinists and management alike.

Frieze explains that Stellar had just received a purchase order for a handful of Inconel 625 prototypes. The raw material blanks for the job measured 457mm square and 76mm thick, and weighed nearly 134kg. The project team suffered little indigestion over the tough material’s poor machinability; Stellar routinely cuts Inconel and other nickel-based superalloys, as well as tungsten, maraging steels, 60 Rc 4340 (300M), and tool steel.

Nor was tolerance an issue. Frieze points to one recent titanium part that called for a 0.127mm profile tolerance over its 304mm length, the equivalent of holding “a couple tenths” in parts that cost more than US$5,000 apiece before machining. Meeting the relatively wide open tolerances on the Inconel part was not a concern. The problem was one of raw material removal: when finished, the Inconel plates weighed in at a svelte 13.6 kg, 90% lighter than their starting weight. Frieze knew there weren’t enough hours in the day to remove that much material using conventional carbide tooling – not if he were to meet the deadline. He needed a better solution.

Earlier that year, Frieze and several of his co-workers had attended a learning event sponsored by a local chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA), and hosted at the Kennametal technical centre in the nearby town of Latrobe. There he met Product Manager Matthieu Guillon, who introduced him to a cutting tool that Frieze was initially skeptical of.

“It looked and felt like a plastic toy endmill,” he laughs.

That tool was Kennametal’s series of four- and six-flute high-performance full ceramic endmills. Constructed from SiAlON KYS40-grade ceramic and designed specifically for roughing in nickel-based high-temperature alloys, these endmills often out-produce carbide by up to 20 times.

Guillon explains: “We recommend a starting speed of 250 to 1000 metres per minute and feed rates starting at around 0.03mm per tooth depending on the tool diameter and other conditions. Despite the far higher cutting speeds, we have some customers who have reported two to three times greater tool life than carbide.”

Stellar didn’t have any immediate use for the ceramic tools, but after making some quick feed and speed calculations, Frieze knew they would be an effective solution given the right application. Several months later, that application arrived with the Inconel plates. He called Guillon to say he might have a good use for those ceramic cutters they were talking about, and wondered how soon he could get some.

Sceptical to the last

Frieze remained sceptical. He’d tried indexable ceramic cutting tools on both milling and turning jobs in the past and had mediocre results. In this case, however, he was willing to try anything if it meant meeting the customer’s deadline. When Guillon arrived a few days later with the ceramic endmills, Frieze followed Kennametal’s feed and speed recommendations to the letter, crossed his fingers, and pushed cycle start.

“We weren’t certain what would happen so started out with a block of test material,” he says. “You don’t use cutting fluid with ceramic – only an air blast – and everyone in the shop was crowded around the machine saying ‘Wow, look at that!’ There was fire shooting everywhere. It was something we’d never seen before. But within the first hour, we knew it was going to work.

“The tools aren’t inexpensive,” he adds. “At one point, Lori [Albright] had around $20,000 worth of endmills sitting in her office and we were starting to question the investment. But once you calculated in the machine costs and reduced cycle time, we figured it was three to four times more cost-effective to go this route. Each endmill gave us one half hour of cut time, at which time we replaced it whether it was worn or not. The process was so predictable we were able to run lights out. It was a drastic saving.”

Best of all, Stellar delivered the parts on time with zero scrap, and is now quoting a second, even larger order. Albright is pleased with the outcome.

“This type of situation is the nature of our business,” she says. “We have to react to our customers’ needs and employ the best technology available to do so. That’s one of the reasons why Kennametal is so welcome here. We work together as a team to solve challenges.”

Looking forward, Albright anticipates continued growth. Having expanded Stellar’s existing facility six times, she figures it might be time to put up an entirely new building on nearby property. She also looks forward to bringing additional young people to the machining trade.

“We have apprenticeship programs with several of the area schools, one of which my father used to teach at,” she says. “I find that it’s often our younger people that drive our innovation. It’s too easy to keep doing things the old way and not invest in tooling and equipment, or pursue new technology. The days of high volume, round-the-clock fender clip manufacturing are gone, and it’s only by continually improving their manufacturing processes that companies can succeed and grow. For us, Kennametal is part of that success.”