By Kip Hanson
Shop Metalworking Technology has published its fair share of articles and product announcements over the years extolling the virtues of modular workholding. Way back in 2013, there was a roundup of offerings from Carr Lane, Hainbuch, Forkardt, and others, all promising reduced setup time and greater throughput through flexible, usually quick-change workholding systems.
In 2017, when life was simpler and we’d never heard of COVID or Murder Hornets, BIG Kaiser product manager John Zaya wrote an excellent article on multi-axis machining and the company’s Unilock system. There was a 2018 announcement by vise manufacturer Kurt informing the world of its then new DockLock Airline system. One year later, Röhm introduced the Easylock, and most recently, there was news from Royal Products about the Z-Lock.
As you might have seen in my previous articles, I’m a huge fan of modular and especially zero-point workholding, which helps explain my enthusiasm when describing them. My only burning questions now are A) should zero-point really be hyphenated, and B) why aren’t more shops using these systems?
Back to Basics
And yet, the machining world still needs flange nuts. It also needs fixture keys, eye bolts, rest pads, washers, studs, and dozens of other tooling components that most writers (myself included) tend to overlook in favor of the sexier workholding listed just now.
Darin Wion doesn’t mind. A regional sales manager at TE-CO Workholding, he and colleagues Jeff Barker (vice-president of sales and marketing) and Scott Johnston (also a regional sales manager) will tell you that at least some of these hardware items can be found in the clamp kits sitting on workbenches everywhere. They’ll also tell you that sales volumes of these and other essential tooling components remain on an even keel, despite the short shrift by manufacturing writers like me. “Shops are still building jigs and fixtures and clamping vises to tables, and that’s not going to change any time soon,” says Wion. “That’s why we’ll continue to support this fundamental need for the long haul, even as we promote the ‘sexy stuff’ you mentioned a moment ago.”
Johnson seconds that statement. “Many of us got our start running manual knee mills, which often have a Machinist Clamp Kit filled with T-slot nuts and step blocks hanging from the side. These remain very necessary components—not only on milling operations, but also for assembly jigs, welding fixtures, and for use on coordinate measuring machines, where they can be combined with modular base plates and fixture towers to streamline inspection work.”
Barker is quick to point out that these products also complement more advanced workholding, such as the company’s line of Raptor brand five-axis workholding systems and quick-change Toolex vises. As with tombstones, columns, and plates, these must be attached to the machine table before use, preferably in a methodical, well-planned manner that promotes standardization throughout the shop.
To support these efforts, the TE-CO and Raptor websites provide 2D and 3D CAD files for their products, but more importantly, the company offers technical support. “Given the huge number of different workholding products available today, developing an effective strategy can seem overwhelming,” says Barker. “We have years of experience and encourage our customers to reach out to us with their application questions or just to bounce an idea off us. That’s what we’re here for.”
Mike Antos, product manager at Jergens Inc., agrees. “Many shops struggle with this. Maybe they’re looking at a modular fixture plate for one of their machining centres but then wonder if it’s the best approach, what components they can use with it, whether it will work with their legacy tooling and other machine tools, that sort of thing. And that’s where our people in the field can help, plus we have applications engineers on staff who can help customers design these kinds of workholding solutions.”
One area where shops often need help is in maximizing their available workspace. National sales manager Joe Farkas notes that the fixture plate just mentioned is a great place to start. Shops can fill it with zero-point receivers and then attach the mating pull studs to their existing chucks, vises, and fixtures, greatly reducing setup times while minimizing additional investment.
It also opens the door to automation. “Jergens is known for its Ball Lock mounting system, which has been available for several decades now,” he says. “And while it remains a great system with an attractive price point, our newer ZPS zero-point clamping modules are faster, more accurate, and can be activated via pneumatic or hydraulic pressure. That makes it a slam dunk for robotic machine tending, or any other application where a customer needs to actuate a clamping module remotely.”
As anyone who’s kicked the tires on a zero-point system knows, they’re not inexpensive. A single Piranha clamp or ZPS chuck costs roughly the same as a 6-inch Machinist’s vise, and when you consider that at least two such chucks are required to hold a typical workpiece, many in management might say, “Let’s just stick with what we already have.”
That attitude might be fine for long-run jobs where no automation will be used, but in today’s high-mix, low-volume, can’t-find-anyone-to-work-here environment, zero-point and modular workholding systems are the clear path to unattended machining with minimal setup times.
When asked what advice he would give shops that are just getting started down this path and wish to avoid an expensive mistake, Antos and Farkas both reiterated what their counterparts at TE-CO suggested: don’t be afraid to ask for help.
“You almost have to look at these platforms as a blank canvas, but at the same time, recognize that they don’t restrict you in any way,” Antos says. “If you want to keep using your 6-inch vises, no problem—just stick a set of ZPS retention knobs on the bottom. The same goes for any legacy fixtures, rotary tables, collet chucks; you name it. Once you do this, you not only save huge amounts of setup time, but can maximize the available machining space through high-density workholding. That means faster ROI, better machine utilization, increased flexibility, and when coupled with a hydraulic or pneumatic zero-point system, the possibility of automation.”
Adds Farkas, “So going back to your original question about traditional workholding components, I agree that they’re never going away. However, shops shouldn’t limit themselves to the traditional way of thinking that too often goes with them. There’s lots of great tooling out there, and the most successful manufacturing companies are the ones that leverage it to the fullest.” SMT