Everything You Need to Know About Live Tooling

Many machine shops use live tooling to make it possible for their lathes to do more than turn. It increases a shop’s capabilities and allows it to do more work under its roof. However, manufacturers should understand the proper specifications for their turrets and machining applications before purchasing a live tool. They should also ensure the holder can accommodate their desired coolant and withstand high psi for working with exotic alloys.

What is a Live Tool?

A live tool, also known as a driven tool, allows CNC lathes to perform milling and drilling operations without removing the workpiece from the machine. It can reduce cycle times and the need for multiple setups, making it a valuable addition to a CNC lathe. A live tooling lathe is manipulated by the computer-numerical controls (CNC) and turret of various spindle and powered sub-spindle lathes to perform milling and drilling processes.

At the same time, the workpiece remains in alignment with the machine’s main spindle. Often, they are customized for the turret assembly per the machine tool builder’s specification and can be purchased from several suppliers, including BMT, VDI, and Heimec.

Some of the most important considerations when choosing a live tool supplier and system are the types of work you’ll be performing, the product families you’ll be machining, and your shop’s long-term flexibility. For example, if you’re considering a quick-change adapter system, ensure it can accommodate the variety of live tools your lathes require and will support the tool styles you’ll be using. Also, if your processes require the conveyance of coolant through the live tooling, be sure the holders you choose are rated to withstand a high level of coolant pressure—particularly when working with exotic alloys.

Additionally, consider a holder system that supports offline tool presetting and simplifies manual adjustments for less-experienced operators. It can further improve your shop’s efficiency and reduce downtime.

What are the Benefits of Live Tooling?

The biggest advantage of live tooling is that it reduces the machining operations required to produce a part, saving time and money. It also eliminates the need to move materials from one machine to another, reducing the opportunity for error and increasing accuracy. In addition to reducing the overall number of operations, live tools can help shops reduce their material handling costs by allowing them to complete drilling and milling on the same machine instead of moving the workpiece between devices. It can save a significant amount of money on handling and storage costs.

When choosing a live tool system, shop owners should consider the type of material they will be cutting because this will impact the demands on the equipment. For example, suppose the workpiece is made of an exotic alloy that requires precise finishes and tolerances. Choosing a system with high rigidity and stability is important in that case. In addition, if the workpiece needs to be cooled, it is important to ensure that the live tooling can accommodate this requirement.

What are the Disadvantages of Live Tooling?

Live tooling increases a CNC machine’s cutting options by enabling machinists to perform operations other than turning. However, this technology can also bring new challenges and additional maintenance requirements. Unlike static tools used during a standard turning operation, the devices on live-tool lathes move and rotate. Often customized for the machine tool builder’s turret assembly, live tools can be used to mill, bore, tap and drill while a workpiece remains stationary in the main spindle of the Lathe.

Because these tools move, they can be subject to vibration, impacting machining accuracy and cutter life. They can also become contaminated or overheated in high-cycle, long-cycle applications. It can result in offset deviations, reduced tolerances and frequent and costly maintenance that reduces productivity.

For these reasons, it’s important to implement sound machining practices and routine preventive maintenance. Keep a tool stick out to a minimum since a cutting tool extending three to four times its diameter can overburden the relatively small spindle bearings within the live tool holder. Utilize a quick-change system.

Shops should also consider the overall economies of a changeable adapter system on their live-tooling equipment, especially if they plan to use it for large families of products or in situations where online tool presetting is necessary. Finally, any live tooling system must be able to convey the pressure of coolant required to support the processes being performed. Some exotic alloys, for example, require coolant pressures of 1,000 – 2,000 psi.

What are the Best Practices for Live Tooling?

Most new CNC turning centers will come with a small assortment of live tools. When purchasing a new lathe, it is important to consider your needs for live tooling as carefully as you did when evaluating the machine itself. Talk with your machine and tooling suppliers to determine the best options in work holders for your application. What you are cutting and how you cut it will define the type of live tooling required. Ensure your live tools are plumbed for coolant, as with any other tool holder. It is especially important for exotic alloys that may require high coolant pressures.

Ensure the live tool head is rated for the off-center operations you intend to run and your highest spindle speed. Finally, follow sound machining practices to maximize your live tool system’s service life. Proper coolant care is the only controllable variable in this regard, and shops conduct routine inspections of their live tools at least every three months. It helps to ensure part accuracy, increases the service life of the tool holders and improves productivity. In addition, a regular preventive maintenance program dovetails nicely with shop-wide OEE and Six Sigma practices that will enhance the efficiency of the entire operation.