Technology takes centre stage

2019 is a milestone for tooling specialist M.A. Ford. Not only does it mark its US parent company’s centenary year and 21 years since the formation of M.A. Ford Europe, it also heralds the official opening of a new Headquarters and Technical Centre in Derby. Dave Tudor was on the guest list for a celebration event held in June.

2019 is a milestone for tooling specialist M.A. Ford. Not only does it mark its US parent company’s centenary year and 21 years since the formation of M.A. Ford Europe, it also heralds the official opening of a new Headquarters and Technical Centre in Derby.


Dave Tudor was on the guest list for a celebration event held in June.

It’s easy to gloss over time; one year rolls into the next and before you know it, the years become decades and the decades become centuries. When you just stop and think for a minute – M.A. Ford’s origins reach back to just a year after the end of the First World War. Puts things into perspective doesn’t it?

However, tooling wasn’t on the agenda back then. Located in Davenport, Iowa in the US, the Packsnug Equipment Company was formed by Matthew Ambrose Ford and early successes included being awarded patents for a foldable barbecue grill and a luggage rack accessory for the running boards of early motor vehicles.

It wasn’t until 1925, following an approach from John R. Brooks, a well-known maker of rotary files, that the innovative pair collaborated to form M.A. Ford Manufacturing Co – focusing on the production of hand-cut rotary files. In 1938, the company added tungsten carbide burrs to its portfolio.

John R. Brooks

The years passed along with relentless technological advances. Bob Hill, the current CEO of M.A. Ford and a company veteran of 39 years is under no illusions on the reasons for the organisation’s success and longevity: “Without doubt, it’s all down to the fact that we’ve had some really good people working for us throughout our long history, “ he enthuses.

“The company has had to reinvent itself several times since its inception but through it all it’s our people that have designed and created the innovative products our customers need to make their businesses successful. M.A. Ford has a longstanding pedigree in innovation – and that continues to underpin and drive the business today.”

Managing director of M.A. Ford Europe, David Ward, who has been with the company for 14 years, concurs: “M.A. Ford is all about establishing partnerships – not just with our own staff but also suppliers, distributors and customers. We really don’t regard ourselves as sales people – we’re consultants and problem solvers – helping our customers improve their processes and make them more successful.

“Our forte is showing our clients how to high-speed machine tough materials and we’ve been doing that for the past ten years. We’ve developed custom tools for specific customer projects that have been so revolutionary that we’ve introduced them to our standard range.”

Building blocks

A large part of the celebration day in June was to commemorate M.A. Ford Europe’s move to new headquarters in Derby less than a mile from its former premises. At 8,700ft², this is more than four times larger than the former site and will operate as the company’s stock, distribution, and technology centre.

Importantly, the warehousing and storage capacity has more than tripled in size to 4,000ft² which enables a wider range of tooling to be held in stock and allow rapid despatch to meet customer orders.

All customised products manufactured at M.A. Ford’s sister site in Leeds (the company merged with Ashton Tools in 2012) will be distributed from the new HQ as well as standard products from the US. Geographically the new site will serve the entire European region.

The Technology Centre aspect of the Derby facility is brand new and has prompted a significant £200,000+ investment in a Spinner U630 universal machining centre from Whitehouse Machine Tools.

With its large 630mm X-axis stroke length and 4+1-axis simultaneous machining capability, the machine can accommodate workpieces up to 500mm x 500mm x 500mm. Featuring a direct drive rotary table and Siemens Sinumerik 840DE SolutionLine CNC software, the U630 will earn its keep carrying out R&D and project work internally and on behalf of customers.

M.A. Ford CEO Bob Hill (left) and David Ward, managing director of M.A. Ford Europe with the new Spinner U630 universal machining centre

“It’ll also be used for training employees, distributors and customers, not to mention suppliers, as was the case with our CAM partner Open Mind who used the machine for training their own customers on hyperMILL,” Mr Ward adds.

As a distributor for Rego-Fix toolholding products, M.A. Ford has also invested substantially in the Swiss toolholding expert’s equipment in the new Technical Centre – particularly its powRgrip system

The official inventor of the ER collet – now an industry standard of course – Rego-Fix knows a thing or two about toolholding technology. The objective here is to remove the risk of tool pull-out during high-speed machining applications whilst guaranteeing exceptional accuracy and precision – exceeding the performance of hydraulic and shrink fit systems.

powRgrip is a collet holding system comprising three elements – press fit assembly mounting units; collets and holders. Tool changes can be executed in less than 10 seconds and accuracies of less than 3µm TIR can be achieved. The gripping forces at 1,100Nm are outstanding.

“The relationship with Rego-Fix is really important for us,” Mr Ward reveals. “We believe, bar none, it’s the best toolholding system on the market – which is why we’ve invested heavily in Rego-Fix equipment in our own Technical Centre. There are no moving parts so there’s nothing to wear out. I’ve seen collets inserted and extracted more than 20,000 times with no impact on gripping forces.”

Global reach with family values

Although a global concern – it employs 400 members of staff worldwide – M.A. Ford feels very much like a family business. It’s apparent that that the relationships between staff, suppliers, distributors and customers is strong. Indeed the celebration event in Derby was attended by all of the above, including five presidents and vice-presidents from the company’s US facilities.

This close working approach to business also extends to product development as David Ward explains: “The US headquarters in Iowa hosts a ‘New Tool Committee’ meeting on a monthly basis which the various sites around the world feed into. Here in the UK, we have a team of four people that sit on the committee.

“These are controlled, minuted meetings and are a fantastic platform for floating ideas and concepts for new tools and processes that ultimately form the basis of our tool development programme for the next 12 months. We’re very close to our customers so their input is vital in this process.”

On the subject of products, M.A Ford is best known for its high performance, solid carbide rotary tools – with end mills and drills being the primary product ranges, and to a lesser degree, countersinks, reamers, taps, thread mills and reamers.

It’s expertise lies in the high-speed machining of difficult materials and helping customers machine more efficiently and productively. It has a number of specialist tools at its disposal including software that deals with the science of machining dynamics and finding that ever elusive ‘sweet spot’ between machine, tool and workpiece.

M.A. Ford’s new headquarters in Derby

The software pinpoints and eliminates the dynamic frequencies and vibrations that limit milling operations and generate chatter – enabling the operator to increase feeds and speeds and drive the process harder. M.A. Ford is constantly pushing the machining envelope. “The tougher the machining challenge, the better for us,” Mr Ward states.

“I know that if we can get to a machine and physically prove the effectiveness of our tools and high-speed machining processes and strategies, we nearly always win the order. In fact, I really can’t remember the last time we lost an order or project on a milling application that we were involved with.”

For this reason, the volume of custom, special tooling – manufactured at M.A. Ford Europe’s Leeds site – is ramping up meteorically. David Ward refers to this as ‘engineered solutions’ and it highlights M.A. Ford’s skill and expertise in delivering customised, tailor-made solutions to specific manufacturing conundrums.

“On a recent customer project, we were able to slash a whole hour off the machining cycle time on a component,” Mr Ward affirms. “This has now developed into a long-term partnership with the customer and the process we’ve developed will be rolled out globally. The client is absolutely delighted and that’s what we’re good at; that’s our differentiator in the marketplace.”

Brand new developments

A brand new product unveiled by M.A. Ford that both David Ward and Bob Hill are particularly excited about is the Series 380 XT9 end mill. This is a shining example of how a product that started life as a ‘special’ has now been developed as a standard tool.

“This is a coated nine-flute, differentially spaced end mill that machines tough materials like Inconel at unbelievable speeds,” David Ward acclaims. “With a major aerospace customer, we were hitting 60-90m/minute speeds with up to an hour contact time. Conventional slotting speeds are around 25m/minute.”

Series 380 XT9 endmills were designed with difficult materials like Inconel, stainless and titanium in mind. Featuring a new heat resistant ALtima Xtreme (AX) coating, these tools come into their own on high-speed machining applications – and they can be used dry.

The uneven number of flutes reduces harmonics to produce stable machining zones and a wide range of diameters – from 8-20mm – with varying overall lengths, flute lengths and corner radii are available.

The fact that these tools will be manufactured at the Leeds site is excellent news. M.A. Ford will be giving the XT9s a big push at EMO Hannover in September and MACH next April.

Another growth area for M.A. Ford is the development of ceramic tools which, of course, have been around for a long time but were always challenging to produce because of the geometry/substrate combination.

“Over the last couple of years, new substrates have been developed that are truly game changing,” Mr Ward advises. “Traditionally, ceramics were incredibly difficult to grind but now, with the development of new SiAlON (silicon, aluminium, oxygen, nitrogen) substrates, we believe this will be a massive growth area for us.

“The real advantage, because of their inherent capability to withstand heat, is phenomenal with material removal rates up to 10x faster than conventional tools – and they’re used dry,” he adds. “We’re currently developing a standard range of ceramic tools which will also be manufactured in Leeds.”

M.A Ford www.mafordeurope.com

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