Shop Goes From Garage to CNC Tool Grinding Specialist

Launched in Kersey, Pennsylvania, in 1989, AcuTwist is the brainchild of owner Marcus Young. At the time, he was managing an internal machine shop at a specialty subcontractor that did a lot of production drilling in powder metal parts for automotive and outdoor equipment applications. Most of the holes were under 0.438” in diameter with depths typically five to 10 times diameter. The shop used carbide and high-speed steel drills and would go through about 100 drills per day, mostly because of poor drill performance.

According to Young, finding drills that cut to size and held required tolerances was difficult, so the shop resharpened its own drills to size. However, the process lacked repeatability, which prompted Young to propose the purchase of a better resharpening system. The owners of the company were unwilling to make the investment. So Young took a leap of faith, secured a loan, acquired the equipment and opened AcuTwist for business in his garage with one manual tool grinder and a desire to succeed.

The tiny shop was an almost immediate success, quickly picking up several customers after it became apparent that Young’s regrinding expertise resulted in drills with much longer life than standard tools. “I realized that by tweaking the geometry just a bit we could get longer tool life, cut rounder and straighter holes and reduce the size of burrs on the exits of through holes,” he explained.

Business increased, and Young hired a couple of employees – including his now long-time shop supervisor Travis Papa – and purchased another manual grinder. All along Young followed the evolution of CNC tool grinders and was well aware of their capabilities and how they could benefit his shop. So in 1998, Young made another significant leap of faith and purchased AcuTwist’s first CNC tool grinder – a Walter HELITRONIC MINI POWER. He then acquired a Walter HELITRONIC POWER grinder and eventually a second HELITRONIC POWER – all from United Grinding North America Inc. – and moved the shop to its current location in Ridgway, Pennsylvania.

Walter tool grinders feature patented 3D gantry designs that provide the highest possible rigidity and precision. Their grinding spindles ride on massive cross slides within enclosed backwalls, while large C-axes under their workheads allow complete grinding of highly complex tool geometries in single setups. This C-axis design also eliminates the need for rotary spindle axes and further enhances overall machine rigidity.

AcuTwist kept growing, and Young continued to learn and capitalize on the capabilities of his first Walter CNC tool grinder. The shop had expanded its offerings beyond that of just reharpening to include generating a wide variety of tool geometries such as step drills, drill/reamer combination tools, form tools and other specialty tools. To keep pace with increased demand, Young acquired the second Walter HELITRONIC CNC tool-grinding machine at this time.

Because he had never produced a tool on a CNC grinder, Young – from the start – relied heavily on Walter’s tool-grinding software when it came to generating tool geometries and developing machine programs. He progressed from the standard software to CyberGrind software and most recently to the advanced Tool Studio grinding software. With Tool Studio, Young gains programming flexibility combined with very simple operation via the program’s “wizard,” which walks users step-by-step through programming of even the most complex tool geometries. With minimal input of geometry data from users, the wizard function fills in the blanks from its database for rapid programming of drills, cutters, step tools, form tools and other rotary tools.

As his Tool Studio expertise grew, Young discovered that the software enabled him to produce unique geometries beyond those produced using PC-based programming. “With Tool Studio, I can put two drill points together on the same tool,” said Young, “and use as many as six wheels to generate it. Between our HELITRONICS, we run programs for more than 80 specialty tools and over 100 standard tool programs.”

That flexibility allows the company to develop multiple tool geometries tailored especially for machining of powder metal components – a tough job given the hard particles and other challenges that material presents. “In one application, we developed a drill/reamer for a Tier 1 automotive supplier that produces P/M parts,” Young said. “Now we produce that tool in six different sizes for processing timing gears, transmission gears, bearing caps and other P/M drivetrain components. And, tolerances for these parts are often in the micron range.”

According to Young, his shop actually got its start producing specials – a significant portion of its current business – when a customer in the tool & die industry needed a form tool to machine a helical electrode for its sinker EDM.

“They didn’t even have a drawing and simply sent over the tool profile via a .dxf file,” commented Young. “It was a small cutter with its largest diameter measuring only 0.125. But what made it a challenge was that we had to match more than 20 points on the profile, which we successfully accomplished with our Walter grinders.”

Now, AcuTwist produces all types of specialty tools, mainly from carbide blanks ranging in diameter from 0.157” to 0.875” with lengths up to 6”. A tapered end mill with an angular tolerance of +/-0.05 degrees over a 1.500” length, for instance, is now nothing out of the ordinary for the small shop that started out resharpening drills.

To increase output and boost unattended operations, AcuTwist’s HELITRONIC grinders feature Walter ECO Loader Plus and thermal compensation software that together allow the shop to run overnight in addition to the 10 to 12 hours the machines run during the day. The compensation software measures and adjusts for machine growth to ensure consistent grinding precision, while the ECO Loader Plus lets AcuTwist load over 80 tools. Mounted directly on the machines’ workheads, the ECO Loaders take up zero floor space.

The combination of Young’s expertise and advanced CNC tool grinding machine technology resulted in steady growth for AcuTwist, with the exception of the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. But to say business has always progressed swimmingly might cause Young to disagree.

In May 2014, AcuTwist suffered an unexpected blow when the nearby Clarion River overflowed its banks and flooded the shop. “Within hours everything was sitting in three feet of water, including our Walter grinders,” recalled Young. “Adding to the deluge, the floodwaters mixed with several hundred gallons of stored synthetic grinding coolant, while machine motors and other vital components were completely submerged. Three of the five servomotors on each grinder were submerged, but amazingly, after we cleaned and dried them out, they were again fully operational.”

According to Young, United Grinding technicians – through hours of over the phone support – helped the shop get its machines back up and running. The shop’s coolant supplier also stepped up to quickly deliver barrels of AcuTwist’s preferred coolant.

“Even customers pitched in to help,” said Young. “One of our biggest customers called and wanted to know how they could assist us and offered space in their plant for one of our machines so we could continue to meet orders. The hard work from United Grinding, our suppliers and customers had AcuTwist operational again within three weeks after the flood and saved us a lot of aggravation and cost.”

Only a few months removed from the disaster, Young is able to joke about it and take what lessons he can from the event. “One of the things the flood taught us is that grinders make good anchors,” he said. “But really, it taught us to back up files, programs, everything. I had backed up accounting information the night before, and it was stored on a thumb drive I had in my pocket. The drive got soaked, but that data was intact. But we lost a lot of blueprints, both from customers and ones we generated.”

Since then, AcuTwist has tried to go paperless whenever possible and employs multiple data backup strategies, including clouds and an external hard drive. The company also began purchasing tablets, which operators use on the shop floor to access prints and other job data. The information from these tablets is then uploaded into the Walter grinders.

An event like the flood might have deterred some shops, but it didn’t prevent AcuTwist from moving forward. According to Young, the company’s business model is a bit different than many larger tool-grinding companies, and he aims to keep it that way.

“Our niche is rapid turnarounds on relatively small quantities of special tools – anywhere from one to 200 pieces. Plus, we often get projects with turnaround times of a couple of hours,” said Young. “And our HELITRONICS allow us to keep pace and continue to meet and exceed those customer needs.”