Steel company earns millions with ‘magic’ drill thanks to McMaster partnership

The making of holes is a common operation in machining, yet it’s also one of the most complex, with frequent tool failure. When a company annually produces 18 million parts with holes, it stands to reason improving tool life makes a significant impact on their bottom line.

Bettering their drilling process for these parts is what led voestalpine Rotec Summo Corp. (vRSC) to the McMaster Manufacturing Research Institute (MMRI) this past year. Thanks in part to the process improvements and subsequent cost savings provided by the university research team, vRSC is now one of the largest world-wide suppliers of side-curtain airbag inflator bottles —the 30-cm long cylinder that’s filled with compressed gas and rests inside a vehicle’s airbag at the ready for deployment.

Burlington-based vRSC, which operates as a subsidiary of the multi-national company voestalpine Rotec GmbH, manufactures steel tubular components for side and knee airbags for the automotive industry. Prior to enlisting the R&D help of McMaster’s faculty and student engineers, vRSC’s $50 carbide drills would last for roughly 500 drilled holes before breaking. By project’s end, that number rose to a staggering 10,000 holes drilled per tool, says a happy Andy Skrepnek, vRSC’s Director of Innovation.

“It’s a tremendous success, and especially unheard of because we’re drilling on a round surface in very tough material,” Skrepnek points out.

This success was made possible through MMRI thanks to funding received by Southern Ontario Network for Advanced Manufacturing Innovation (SONAMI), a Niagara College-led consortium funded by the Federal Economic Development Agency for Southern Ontario (FedDev Ontario), a single-window approach to supporting manufacturers’ research and development needs.

As for the process, the MMRI has the capability to duplicate industry-level production process in their lab, providing a controlled environment to develop solutions that are robust, practical and tailored to a partner’s specific manufacturing needs. These dedicated resources allowed the research team to reproduce vRSC’s drilling procedures in-house, complete extensive tool design/testing and implement new tool and machining parameters to reach this 20-fold increase in tool life.

“This would be impossible to do without McMaster,” insists Skrepnek. “Without having their expertise involved, we wouldn’t be competitive.”

These overwhelming results, he says, has been a critical factor in vRSC landing millions of dollars in new business and has meant adding five more automated productions lines to its Burlington facility. And because its parent company is a large multi-national, it means this drill technology is now being adopted around the world. Indeed, vRSC’s counterparts in Germany just ask for the “magic” drill bits when placing orders from Canada now.

On the heels of this fruitful partnership, and thanks to more SONAMI funding, vRSC has recently started another project with McMaster with the intention of bringing major business to the Burlington factory. The faculty/student team is incorporating advanced research-based machining strategies into vRSC’s new production cell to achieve world-class productivity on a new inflator bottle production line.

“There’s nothing like this in the world! We’re actually designing our own CNC machines using input from the experts at the MMRI labs,” says Skrepnek, who adds that when these new production lines launch next year, it will mark “one of the largest projects ever kicked off in sales. “And vRSC won’t be the only beneficiary of a multi-million dollar project this big. It will be the Canadian tool shops, computer programmers and companies building the equipment that will also prosper,” he explains.

“We don’t have the expertise in-house for this specialized R&D, so without McMaster and the support from FedDev, we would not have the sales we have today.”

The MMRI is one of the largest university based manufacturing research institutes in Canada, supporting academic research and education programs spanning many manufacturing processes. The institute’s core focus is on enhancing productivity, quality and product/process innovation, while helping companies reduce costs. For information about the SONAMI funding, contact [email protected] or visit online.