Bodo Zacharek of Custom Cutting Tools in San Diego, Ca. has spent half a century as a journeyman tool and cutter grinder. He journey began as an apprentice in Sheboygan, Wi. He went on to work for a variety of companies before opening Custom Cutting Tools in the fall of 1998.
Oddly enough Bodo got into the business because he didn’t want to join the army and a four -year college or apprenticeship program was his best option. “I graduated high school in 1969,” tells Bodo. “I knew college wasn’t any more an option for me than the military so I found an apprentice program. I was going to be a machinery erector. So after graduation I went the next week with my lunch box and apron in hand to start my apprenticeship. I get there and the person in charge of the program tells me there has been a change. I froze; I didn’t know what to even think. He said not to worry that I still had an apprenticeship, but that it wasn’t in machinery erection, but in tool and cutter grinding. I didn’t even know what that was. I started at half the journeyman’s wage of $1.75 an hour.” Bodo’s decades of experience overflows in the shop, training all his employees in- house. Three of his four people working on grinders all completed their apprenticeships through Custom Cutting Tools and one other is halfway through the 8000-hour program. “It is important to keep manufacturing going in this country,” continues Bodo. “A great way to pass along the art and skill of grinding is though on the job apprenticeship programs. ”
Custom Cutting tools does only one thing, precision tool and cutter grinding. Customized tooling is different than off the shelf tooling that machine shops purchase everyday. Bodo and his team build a tool that will work best based off a customer-supplied print. Seems simple enough, but many shops don’t even know this is an option. “We don’t sell a product, we sell a service,” explains Bodo. “That’s why we are called Custom Cutting Tools, everything is made to order.” CCT (Custom Cutting Tools) services a wide selection of industries ranging from aerospace and medical to Joe’s Machine shop down the street. They grind a variety of sizes from tiny tooling for the hole in a stethoscope to tools used to build the space shuttle. Sometimes they know what the tool is used for and other times not. It all depends on if that information is critical to producing the best possible tool for the application. “Communication and flexibility are key to having happy customers,” tells Steve Wright shop manager at CCT. “Some clients will actually draw out the tool shape for us with exact dimensions needed while other times we have to decipher it off of a bar napkin. You never know what you are going to get and that is where our experience comes into play. We determine the number of flutes, how many cutting edges, how big, material, helix angle and clearances that work at high speeds, coatings and so forth. Everything is custom. We make one tool to 500 tools depending on the application. Single sides, double sides, you name it.”
Educating customers to the possibilities is a hurdle that CCT jumps every day. Shops are used to buying off the shelf end mills and inserts, but not everyone knows about the world beyond the standard offerings. “Take for example a need to make a stepped hole in 6 different diameters,” describes Bodo. “That traditionally could be as many as 6 different size tools that you need to make the hole. We can make a single tool with all six steps built right in. There are clear benefits to this: Less tooling, one vs. six. It frees up space in the tool carousel. Shops struggle on complex parts to have enough tooling available in the magazine, if one tool can replace six that is a huge gain in space. Plus no blending issues with one pass vs. six. Time is also a factor, a single operation is way faster than make a hole, change the tool, make a hole, change the tool and so forth. Quality also needs to be taken into consideration. All our tools are matched to the job at hand, insuring optimized performance and getting the most production out of the least amount of tooling. Of course custom made tooling costs more, but when you add in all the positives they add up to a value that a lot of times save the customer money.”
Hollywood has taught us that grinding means big round stones and sparks flying everywhere. Precision CNC grinding is not even close to a guy with a wheel hitting the OD of a part. Bodo knew from the minute he started CCT in 1998 that to be successful he needed state of the art CNC 5 axis grinders. “The complexities and capabilities of the Strausak CNC tool and cutter grinders is what sets us apart,” explains Bodo. “I didn’t want to build the business and be known as a garage grinder so I purchased the first of three Strausak CNC grinders about a year after I opened. I understood that if I wanted to be taken seriously in this business I needed CNC grinding. Steve came on board a week after I got that first machine. He had no experience in grinding, CNC or even manufacturing. Now he is the shop manager and knows the machines inside and out.” Deciding on the Strausak was a no brainer. The FLEXIMAT is regarded by some as a benchmark for flexibility and productivity in the manufacturing of cutting tools. It is armed with a NUM controller, which utilizes the NUMROTO programming software.
NUMROTO is one of the most popular grinding software available. Since its inception, the flexibility and built in automation are why it is the factory software used by machine tool manufactures like Strausak. Together the system is capable of producing one off tools to thousands of pieces all the same from first to the last. “In my opinion, NUMROTO is the best software out there for producing custom cutting tools,” details Bodo. “I write the program on the NUMROTO to about 80% so I can know cycle times and give a quote. Then when we get the job we fill in the blanks based on the measurements of the grinding wheel at the time of manufacturing. Each wheel is measured before they go on the machine. Because it wears, the grinding wheel is the weak part of the equation. We typically hold .0005, but if the wheel is worn we have to compensate. The NUMROTO helps us do that, ensuring we deliver the best possible tool to our customer. Lights out is something you hear a lot in manufacturing, but for us we can’t do that. As soon as the wheel starts to wear it throws everything off. We grind, we measure, and we grind some more. Everything goes on the comparator. We have to constantly monitor wear and tear. Even though it is a CNC machine it isn’t just a matter of pushing a button and watching a perfect tool come out. There is an artisan element of this job that only comes with experience.”
That same experience transfers over to the other aspect of the business, regrinding of tooling and cutters. CCT can regrind back to perfection their own custom tooling as well as standard off the shelf tooling from other manufacturers. “We can bring life back into pretty much any tool,” tells Steve. “The entire tool will be evaluated for wear and damage. Determination is then made as to what operations are required to recondition the tool to original specification. The customer is involved through all phases to ensure an economical solution. Reconditioning brings all the cutting edges back to original factory specs. It is not uncommon for customs to tell us their standard tooling is better after being reconditioned than it was when it was brand new.”
There is no middle ground in precision tool and cutter grinding. You love it or you hate it. Bodo has loved what he does for five decades and Steve is close behind nearing 20 years in the business. Not a week goes by that something doesn’t come through the door and cross their desks that they’ve never seen before. It is always a challenge and they love the adventure of solving an enigma. “Custom Cutting Tools feeds a creative fire in both of us,” concludes Steve. “We look at a puzzle and our brains automatically start to solve it. It is the same looking at a customer’s print. We are grinding it in our heads before we even open NUMROTO. The tool grinder mindset stays with us even at home. It drives our families crazy. We can’t even hang a picture frame without it beading dead nuts on.” Dead nuts on isn’t an official numerical measurement, but it is one that everyone understands. It is why CCT’s customers come back time and time again for all their custom cutting tool needs.