Traditional production methods combined 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.”

Amid so much change, certainty is vital. Green says ASA provides Sutton with a good stable format that they understand.

“They have about 30-odd robots in their facility,” he remarks. “What’s crucial when you have that many is commonality. You want people to feel accustomed to it. You don’t want 30 different machines, because that’s a challenge, whereas 30 machines that feel similar and that operate in a similar way are a lot easier to understand.

“Our work is specifically so that the robots feel very similar and comfortable. The machine might be different, but the robot interface, the way it works, the way the systems are set up are all common for familiarity. The operations have upgraded, but you still try to use a similar feeling program so that when they look at it and when you provide training, it’s valid across the range. That’s really the aim when you have such a broad spread of such a large number of machines.

“And obviously from the support perspective, if they’re all similar, I don’t need to know the specifics of one machine to give them guidance across the lot,” Green adds. “It’s one of the benefits of developing close relationships with the people we deal with: we tend to fairly quickly become trusted partners and I think the customers that we have our best dealings with are those that are comfortable with us, know us well, feel like we’re a part of their team, and I think, generally speaking, we do that quite well.

“This might sound like a strange thing to say, but we don’t just seek customers far and wide. We don’t try to be the one-stop shop for everyone. We do operate in fairly niche areas. We’re happy to say to people that there are other companies who are better suited to a particular solution than ourselves. It means our customers can have confidence that we truly understand the areas that we’re plying our trade in.”

Schurmann says automation has given Sutton an increased confidence to branch into areas where they can develop new products for new needs as industries change and adapt.

“Some of the newer products we’re making are carbide milling cutters for the aerospace industry, and to grind that type of material you need diamond grinding wheels,” he says. “So now we have a cycle time that is a lot longer than with high speed steel. And with the long cycle time we can, by automatically loading these carbide cutters into the machines, run during the night and get a lot more efficiency. Without robots we wouldn’t be able to produce at an economical and high performance level.

Just as Sutton Tools has evolved, so has ASA, with a customer base that covers quite a bit of territory. Green says its heartland is metal manufacturing: “Machining, machine-tending, some injection moulding, things where you’ve got a machine that’s manufacturing a component – we’re tending those machines and we’re interfacing to them and we’re doing post-process or preparatory work; we’re very strong in those areas.

“We’re held in very high regard by the machine tool industry, and there’s obviously the paint shop automation that’s part of our business that we dominate in. And generally, we have enduring relationships with companies, and I’d put that down to the rapport we build.”