Super-Cooling To Chill Competitors

August 2, 2002
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WALKER — At a time when overseas competition is getting tougher and tougher for small machining firms of all sorts, a small firm has added a gimmick that it thinks will help.

So says Frank Kruzel, the founder-owner of a job shop called Precision Wire located on Three Mile Road.

Kruzel says he is offering mold and die shops a process called cryogenic tempering, a means of extending the life of steel-cutting tools as much as five times beyond their normal life.

“When some of these guys hear it, they act like they can’t believe it. I was just talking to a client this afternoon, and he was saying, ‘I’ve got this $500,000 tool and you’re telling me that by spending $2,000, I can make it last five times as long?’”

That’s what Kruzel is telling them.

Kruzel, who founded Precision in 1991, explained to the Business Journal that he was just as skeptical at first.

He said that before introducing the process to his customers, he treated tools in his own shop with the process. Precision specializes in EDM wire cutting and water jet cutting for manufacturers, toolers and stampers. Precision works primarily for auto industry suppliers, and suppliers of aerospace and medical equipment.

Kurzel said tempering tool steel normally entails heat-treating in the range of 1,800 to 2,000 degrees.

What Precision Wire does, he claims, is take that same heat-treated cutting tool (now back at room temperature) and slowly cool it — an eight to 10-hour process — until it reaches 300 degrees below zero.

The tool is held at that temperature for eight to 10 hours, and then slowly — again over eight to 10 hours — is brought back to standard temperature.

The cooling agent is liquid nitrogen, the same super-chilled gas that dermatologists use in infinitesimal amounts to destroy and remove certain skin lesions.

But Kruzel said long-term exposure to the coolant produces longevity in steel and some plastics and rubbers.

And he told the Business Journal that he believes cryogenic tempering restores a competitive advantage to local machining operations.

“I don’t think this is our whole solution to overseas competition and high steel prices,” he said. “But I do think it’s a piece of the puzzle.

“The Chinese don’t have this yet, and they won’t for a while. And once they do get it, it’s going to take them a while to learn how to use it.”

He explained that you don’t just dip a tool in liquid nitrogen, in the manner that you try to temper a chisel in water or oil. “If you do, it’ll probably snap in half the first time you use it.”

What cryogenic tempering does, he explained, is complete what heat-treating leaves undone. He said 10 percent of the substance of a heat-treated steel cutting tool is useless. Cryo-tempering, he said, produces a finer, stronger and more uniform grain in the steel and aligns all the atoms in the tool instead of a mere 90 percent of them. 

“If a tool lasts five times as long,” he said, “that’s that much less you have to spend for new steel, that much less time you have to spend changing out broken or worn cutting tools, and that much less downtime you have to worry about.”

The downtime he speaks of, he said, is not only the time that a production stamp is out of action, but the contractual $60,000 an hour which GM exacts from a first-tier supplier when it’s necessary to stop assembly production because certain components don’t arrive on time.

“Cryo-processing results in significant savings for many industries, especially the tooling, stamping, milling and welding industries,” Kruzel said, adding that it also now is used for nearly every kind of brass musical instrument, plus strings for guitars.

Other devices in which cryo-treating is useful, he said, is in dental and surgical equipment, rifles and race cars, not only because of the strength that the treatment imparts but also because it makes the steel more corrosion-resistant.

He said that although cryo-tempering’s effect on the structure of metals is subtle, it makes most manufacturing materials work better and last longer.

A study by Louisiana Polytechnic Institute, Kruzel said, indicates that deep freezing can extend the life of high carbon-chromium die steel more than 800 percent.

Kruzel said his own firm’s focus is on providing tempering to mold and die shops and machine builders.

According to Kruzel the biggest tool Precision could treat would be 45 by 45 by 60 inches. “And than would be an awfully, awfully big tool. Most of them are pretty small, because we’re only treating the cutting tool itself.”

Kruzel said he believes his is the only job shop in town that offers cryo-tempering. “I know of one firm that does it for one client. And I think there’s a company in Traverse City with equipment that can do this. There might be some others, but so far, I don’t know who they are.”

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