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The nuts and bolts of tooling design

There’s no such thing as a good manufacturer without good tools. Manufacturing advisor Andy Hinton explains what tooling is, what to consider during the design process, and why it’s so important to get it right first time. 

A good craftsman never blames his tools, as the saying goes. But in the case of manufacturing, the wrong tools can be a real problem. A tool is simply any device that helps to shape, form or construct raw material into a product or component. Take a baking tray or the jet on a hosepipe. Both are tools: the baking tray helps to mould the dough into a desired shape, and the jet determines the speed and delivery of the water flowing out of the hose. Tooling is the process of designing and engineering these tools.  

There are five types of tools that are commonly found on the shop floor of a factory: 

  • Machining tools - to cut, drill, trim or grind solid materials 
  • Joining tools - to bond, fasten, weld or solder components together
  • Forming tools - to press, bend, stretch or heat materials into a new form  
  • Moulding tools, - to inject, extrude or cast liquids such as molten plastic or metal 
  • Coating tools - to paint, spray, dip or add one material onto another.

The more complex the process, the more complex the tool and the tooling required to make it. For standardised procedures like cutting or stamping, tooling can often be bought off-the-shelf, but more customised equipment like injection mouldrequire a bespoke solution which can run into tens or even hundreds of thousands of pounds.

This is where tooling design comes in, and it is essential that this process is given proper consideration. If a tool isn’t fit for purpose at the first time of asking, the cost of replacing and redesigning it can quickly snowball. I’ve met companies who have had to modify a tool 20+ times before it was able to do the right job, because not enough thought was put into it during the initial design phase. Trust me, you don’t want to be in that situation

Drawing on several decades experience on this process, I’ve put together a guide to help you make sure every tool is right first time:

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Manchester based furniture manufacturer, Kids Funtime Beds, were supported by the Hub to improve their coating tooling.

1. Design by volume  

Once you’ve decided on a new part or product, work out the cost of manufacture, taking into account the expected volume of units needed within a specified period of time. If you need to produce a large number of units over a long-term production schedule, a longer-lasting tool that can produce multiple units at a time will boost productivity and bring the cost of manufacture down. But beware: more complex tools are not only more expensive but also require more maintenance, so if you’re only planning a limited run, keep things simple! 

2. Know your materials 

It’s vital to completely understand the material you will be using before you have a tool designed. What tolerances do you have to work with? How will it behave when shaped or moulded? Does the tool allow for these characteristics? Think for example about the differences between a mould with hard corners compared to rounded edges; corners are harder to fill so require a material that flows more easily. 

This is complex stuff, so bringing in an expert consultant is a good call. Our Manufacturing Growth Fund can help you there – more on that below. 

M&I used Innovation Vouchers to access expertise from Manchester Metropolitan University to test their manufacturing processes to make improvements to their products.

Cardea-Solutions used grant funding from the Manufacturing Growth Fund to develop new tools. Their Hub advisor connected them with local business Wheatley Plastics to develop the moulds.

3. Test and Prototype 

If you can afford it, always develop a physical prototype before getting a tool made. 3D imaging and modelling are useful resources, but there’s no substitute for being able to physically hold something in your hand. 3D printed models are fast becoming a popular solution. 

Prototype or not, you should take a carefully structured approach to tooling, ensuring that it forms a key part of your overall product design process. The Stage Gate Process concept can be a useful methodology to follow – read our factsheet for more information 

Another useful string to your bow is Failure Mode and Effects Analysis (FMEA), which can help you to identify risks and failure points in your design as early as possible. 

4. Quality or Quantity? 

The quality of your tool will determine the quality of your product. If you’re making washers the production values and tolerance levels are low so it may not matter if the tool, and therefore the final product, is a bit rough around the edges. But if you’re manufacturing high-precision products it is likely you will need to meet strict specifications and your tool will need to deliver accordingly. 

5. Watch out for wastage 

The amount of waste created by a process is often determined by the precision of the tool. Take injection moulding for example; the mould itself is a cavity between two plates, into which molten material is injected and cooled. A good mould tool should prevent ‘flash’ around the edges where the plates separate. Excess material is costly over the long-term and usually requires somebody taking the time to remove it from each finished part.  Find out about the eight wastes in our factsheet. 

 6. Look after your tool and it will look after you 

All tools will eventually fail. The lifespan will depend on what the tool is made of, how much it is used, the environment it is used in and how well it is maintained and stored. The latter points are the key controllable variables  tools should always be cleaned after use and stored in a controlled environment to prevent rust and deterioration.  

7. Find the right advice 

When it comes to tooling suppliers, most companies go on recommendation. A lot of tools are made in China where costs are lower, but keep in mind that this normally comes with longer lead times and sometimes (but not always) a lower quality finish with costly trips to rectify (the hidden costs). 

The best way to find the right supplier is to speak to your peers. The Business Growth Hub’s Manufacturing Network and Champions Network are excellent resources to call upon, as are the Hub’s manufacturing and innovation teams, who can connect you to local expertise. 

A great example of a company which has benefited from our support is Cardea-Solutions UK, a manufacturer of safety and security products in Trafford. Cardea had developed a prototype for a new product but needed time and finance to get it off the ground. I met Managing Director, Paul O’Carroll, and recommended he apply for a grant from our Manufacturing Growth Fund to bring in a tooling design expert for the new impression tools that would be needed for production.   

Not only did Cardea secure £5,580 towards the cost of consultancy, they were able to appoint another of our local manufacturing successes, Wheatley Plastics, to deliver the project for them.  

Developing a prototype, using a design expert, securing grant funding and linking up with a local partner – I couldn’t think of a better tooling story if I tried!

Access more resources and fully-funded support from the Hub's Manufacturing team

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