The designers, programmers, and machinists at AB Tools, in Lincoln, Calif., are experts in developing and producing high-performance rotary-cutting tools. Alan Baker started the business in 1977, and Jon Baker joined in 1979 as the first employee. Today they supply advanced tooling products to manufacturers working in almost every industry, from smaller shops to large facilities in aerospace, automotive, medical/surgical, and numerous others.
AB Tools also is experiencing the highest volume of sales in its 40-year history, mostly supplying tools to U.S. customers but also exporting those high-performance products to Canada, Mexico, Europe, and Australia.
“We not only stand by our product 100%, but we use them in our day-to-day operations,” according to Jonathon Baker, president of AB Tools. “From milling out some multi-flute carbide-tipped cutters with one of our own Dexi-Dovetail cutters, to securely holding blanks with our own Accu-Hold endmill extensions.
“The Shear-Hog is our best-selling product,” the president continued. “My father, Alan Baker, designed the Shear-Hog insert 25 plus years ago and it immediately became our number one product — and it has been ever since. We make a range of carbide-tip cutting tools on steel blanks to increase the possible range of diameters and lengths of our products.”
Their results are not without some technological basis. “We chose to invest in ANCA technology when our top grinder, Alfred Lyon, became interested in how a CNC machine could help our business,” Baker recalled, referring to the ANCA line of CNC grinding machines. “Once we invested in an ANCA, the company significantly increased its capacity in what types of tools we could produce. Personally, I think our ANCAs offer the entire package - they run clean, don't require a lot of maintenance, and are fast to set-up. Our cycle times improved and the programming ease is night-and-day,” in contrast to other high-precision grinding platforms.
“Years ago it was difficult to be competitive in producing special tools due to the time and labor involved,” explained Alfred Lyon, AB Tools’ shop supervisor and top grinder. “When we invested in an ANCA machine, its grinding capabilities and flexible software meant we could now produce one-offs or two-offs faster.
“Furthermore, it dramatically increased the efficiency of the manufacturing process meaning we could manufacture specials at a profit. That has meant that today we are very competitive in our pricing and can service our customers with shorter lead times.”
Lyon recalled his interest in the ANCA line of CNC grinding machines exhibited at IMTS, where a technician demonstrated how one of AB Tools’ complex production set-ups could be programmed on the machine in less than five minutes. “Previously, to make a tool it took 20 to 25 minutes to program the G-Code, and a further 15 to grind (the workpiece.)
“The change meant huge savings in time and effort, and once you finish the job and the program saves so the next time you require that tool you can simply reload the file,” Lyon added.
After the purchase, an ANCA applications engineer came to AB Tools for three days of training on the new machine. “I'd like to think I'm a fast learner, but in one day I was grinding tools and by the second day, I felt like the trainer didn't need to be there,” according to Lyon. “It was literally that fast.”
Lyon linked the proficiency of the ANCA technology to another pressing issue for manufacturers: “Having technology that is easy to learn is especially important, given the lack of skilled operators. At AB Tools our approach to 'broach' that skills gap is to train people who have recently finished high school and offer them a career path. In a few days we get them operating, setting up, and then we train them in programming. It’s that easy.”
There are other advantages, too. “My favorite thing about the ANCA technology is the ability to program off-machine,” Lyon continued. “In the past the simulation was in my head and that's true of many manual cutter grinders. You have an idea of what you want, and after making the tool you hope it is produced to look like what you’ve been dreaming about. The ANCA simulation software allows us to create the tool, with all the given parameters, and see what the finished tool will look like. That, combined with being able to program off machine, has revolutionized how we make cutting tools.
“Repeatability is also important,” the grinding expert said, "because in the past we could make the same tool but it would never be exactly the same. The flute length would be different, cut length, relief, clearance — all those things would change slightly. With ANCA CNC grinding, we can save the program and all the features that go along with it, meaning the cutting tool has the same features every time it is ground.”
In addition to the operational advantages, the results merit praise from the shop’s grinding expert. “When we got our first MX7 Linear we were blown away by the finishes,” Lyon recalled. “I mean, the cutting edges are just beautiful. The flutes, how they look… and we don't polish anything. I love to share what I make on social media and (see) comments like ‘That's art’, as the tools these days are honestly beautiful,” he said.
Jon Baker recalled that Lyon, one of AB Tools’ most valuable employees, had back surgery and that reduced his availability for few months. However, Alfred doesn’t like sitting still, and his passion for grinding meant he wanted to come back to work as soon as he could. The ANCA technology meant he was able to take the simulator home with him, and run programs while recuperating, enabling him to start working again even as he was still healing physically.
“This was also important for our business as it meant we had our top grinder and all his expertise back with us much earlier than would have been possible without the simulation software,” Baker emphasized.
“I had a spinal fusion that required an eight-hour surgery,” Lyon detailed. “That night I wanted to start working again but my wife wouldn't let me, and I was in the hospital. After coming home, I was immediately able connect everything. From my bed I was able to program jobs for the ANCA grinders in the shop — and was I programming five to 15 jobs a day.
“I would email the programs to the shop,” he continued, “which were loaded onto a USB by a member of my team who would stick them in the machines, and the operators would be able to just hit ‘Go.’
“I wouldn't be as happy with ANCA if their service wasn't as good as it is,” Lyon added. “Because it doesn't matter how great the product is if we don't have support. That can be an issue. I simply email and I will be sent an answer or a technician showing up at our doorstep the next morning. And, that level of service started from when we had one machine ‘til now when we have six. That kind of treatment resonates with me.”
“I’m passionate about our industry. I love our industry, been in it all my life,” Jon Baker summarized, “and there's a great bunch of people out there that love what they do. AB Tools are always looking to the future, and we hope it will include almost all CNC equipment. I say this in view of all the achievements we realized as a result of our first ANCA CNC machine investment. It’s incredible, and that technology will continue to improve, opening huge opportunities.”