Burloak Tool & Die is adding new capabilities to boost part quality and efficiency in a changing manufacturing environment
By Mark Langlois and Mark Shortt
May 9, 2023
Burloak Tool & Die has built its knowledge of tool and die design and manufacturing over nearly four and a half decades. Sixteen years ago, the company opened a production stamping division to serve customers who had challenging parts or didn’t want to outsource production offshore. Today, Burloak continues to burnish its reputation as a dynamic contract manufacturer that readily responds to industry challenges, whether by acquiring new stamping technology, retrofitting machines for the digital age, or engaging new customers in the electric vehicle (EV) industry.
“We started as a tool and die shop in 1979,” said Sean Brown, president and CEO, Burloak Tool & Die, in an interview with Design-2-Part. “That technical prowess in building a die is really the underpinnings of our success as a company.”
Burloak Tool & Die is an ISO 9001:2015 certified manufacturer in Burlington, Ontario, Canada, that combines expertise in tool and die making with production stamping. The company serves clients in industries such as automotive, appliances, heavy-duty trucks, construction, medical, and furniture. One of the markets in which Burloak is currently making inroads is the fast-growing electric vehicle industry.
The company makes a variety of parts for EVs, from clips and brackets to housings, while engaging mid- and higher-tier suppliers that deliver to OEMs. Noting that “there’s a lot of investment happening in EV platforms,” Brown said Burloak is engaged with customers “up and down the value chain.” For more on Burloak’s work in the EV sector, see Industry News, “Burloak Leveraging Tooling, Stamping Expertise to Serve Growing EV Market.”
Stamping Informs Die Making—and Vice Versa
According to Brown, Burloak’s integration of die making with stamping is one of its greatest strengths. The company’s skills in one area inform its skills in the other. When designing a customer’s die, Burloak considers how it will most effectively integrate with a stamping press.
“They feed each other,” he said. “Because we know how to do production stamping, we know how to build dies that run really well in production,” he said. “And because we know how to build great dies for stamping, we’re great stampers.”
Over the past few decades, plenty of manufacturers have outsourced various processes, including die builds, overseas. In many cases, their intent was to save money. Instead, they became vulnerable to problems with quality or precision. Many of the dies that were sourced offshore were not production ready when they arrived from overseas, Brown said.
“You can’t just put them in your press and start making parts. They don’t work in a lot of cases, so we’ve done work to fix [customers’] dies to make them production ready.”
Burloak repairs a steady stream of defective dies that originated overseas, providing its services to customers that are not only on the same continent, but often operating in the same time zone as well. “If they have a problem and they need help, we’re right here,” Brown said.
Brown said that if a stamping manufacturer receives a die from Burloak, they typically don’t go looking to repair or replace the die afterwards. The reason, simply, is because the dies work really well.
“We attribute part of that success not just to the years we’ve been in business, but also to the fact that, because we’re stampers, we understand how to build dies that are going to run for a long time,” he said.
As a production stamper, Burloak operates presses ranging from 40- to 800-ton capacity to produce custom parts in short and long production runs, depending on customers’ needs. It stamps parts like brackets and louvers in a variety of metals, including steel, aluminum, copper, and coated materials. The company also provides added value through subassembly, spot welding, and surface coating, among other services.
In one case, an automotive customer called Burloak on a Tuesday morning to describe a problem with their stamping operation. They were stamping the part themselves, using what Brown called “a really tricky die,” and they were having trouble in production. Production was too slow: They were already two months behind on production, and the hole was getting deeper.
The customer asked if Burloak would accept a permanent transfer of the die to its plant to take over the stamping job. “We talked a little bit, and we said yes,” Brown said. The customer shipped the die Tuesday afternoon. Burloak tested it on Wednesday and, after winning approval, began stamping production parts on Thursday. “You just can’t get that when there’s an ocean in the way,” he said.
New Servo Press Enables Production of Challenging Parts
Burloak said in an online response that it recently increased its production stamping capacity by 70 percent. Anticipating that customers will be requiring higher-precision stamped parts, the company bought and installed a new direct-drive servo press for production stamping. Unlike traditional presses that rely on flywheels and mechanical clutches, the 330-ton press offers direct drive from motor to ram—no flywheel, no clutch. For Burloak’s customers, this means higher-quality stampings, Brown said.
“A good way to think about it is, it’s CNC for a stamping press. It has an incredibly robust spring, very heavy-duty cables on the machine, a very accurate ram head die mechanism system, and various other technologies.”
The servo drive gives the operator complete control of the force curve. This makes possible a wide range of motion patterns, from pulse and double strike to slowing the head at the point of contact to improve a draw. Customers can now produce parts that had previously been problematic or impossible to produce by mechanical stamping, according to a release from Burloak.
“There are various different things you can do,” Brown told D2P. “You never used to be able to do anything with the force curve. But also, the machine itself is very, very heavy and stiff, which, in addition to the servo clamp, allows very precise stamping.”
In a recent press release, Brown said that adding the servo press to Burloak’s existing stamping capacity is “an exciting new option” for its customers. “More than ever before, Burloak can handle their most crucial parts and manufacture them within a two-day truck of half the continent,” he said.
The highly efficient servo press reportedly uses half the electrical power, part-for-part, of a comparable mechanical press and has a bed size of over 68 inches by 35 inches. It is also said to reduce lubricant waste and operate more quietly than its mechanical counterparts.
In-House Machining Focuses on Die Builds
Burloak’s machining department includes CNC mills, lathes, multiple EDM wire cutting centers, and waterjet cutting capabilities.
“We have a complete machine shop that’s very capable, and we make that known,” Brown said. “Not because it’s our primary area of focus to machine parts for other people, although we do that. The primary purpose of our machining department is to do all the machining for the components of the die in-house. Our customers appreciate that because it allows us to control quality and lead times.”
Brown said that by controlling the machining process in-house, the company streamlines the production, fabrication, and assembly of the die. “It makes it all go more smoothly when you control that process,” he said.
Of course, not every tool and die shop in North America does that anymore. But although many outsourced the machining of their hard components overseas, some are starting to bring that work back. Companies that have decided to reshore their production of parts and tooling represent a growing segment of Burloak’s business. The reason, Brown said, is that customers are looking to establish a higher level of trust and engagement with their suppliers.
“I believe that a lot of them, when they started looking for things to be produced elsewhere, found short term economies in doing so. And they’ve started to realize, particularly as supply chains have been disrupted post-pandemic, that they have compromised trust and compromised engagements with their suppliers,” he said. “So they’re seeking to re-establish that trust and engagement, and they’re pleased to find companies like Burloak that deliver that for America’s best brands every day.”
Burloak’s machine shop features state-of-the art CNC machining and turning centers. According to the company’s website, its CNC lathes have bore diameters ranging from 2.5 inches to 6.5 inches. Burloak also operates 3- and 4-axis machines, and is planning to add a 5-axis machining center to further improve its efficiency. In addition to machining parts for dies that it builds in-house, the company said it provides custom machining for customers in industries like nuclear, aerospace, rail, automation, and mining.
A Hub of Automotive Manufacturing
Multi-faceted manufacturers like Burloak Tool & Die typically don’t set up shop anywhere, without regard to location, and expect to be successful. They need to consider proximity to skilled workers so that they can hire team members needed to build tooling and dies, or to program and run advanced manufacturing equipment. They also value proximity to a network of vendors—people who can service an air compressor or come to their plant to register the certification of a crane, for example.
It’s no accident that Burloak is located between Toronto and Hamilton, Ontario, an area with a rich industrial history that includes automotive and furniture manufacturing. The region offers a solid pool of suppliers and workers that Burloak needs to conduct business, Brown said.
“The short answer is that industry is strong here. There’s a phrase that you might have heard, ‘No man is an island.’ And the same is true for companies,” he said.
Brown expanded on his short answer, recounting a brief history of the region’s emergence as an automotive manufacturing powerhouse. He explained that in 1965, the auto markets in the United States and Canada were separate: More than 90 percent of cars sold in Canada were made in Canada. But because Canada’s population was quite low in comparison to the U.S., it was very difficult to build automobiles economically at scale.
The Canadian government, therefore, had an interest in driving the price of automobiles down for consumers. The auto industry, too, was not interested in having high costs of manufacturing cars in Canada, Brown said. That was the backdrop to the signing of a deal called the Auto Pact—the Canada-United States Automotive Products Agreement, or APTA.
The agreement, signed in 1965 by Prime Minister of Canada Lester Pearson and the President of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, “basically got rid of tariffs on cars and auto parts, between the United States and Canada,” Brown said. “But the deal was that Canada would keep tariffs on cars that weren’t from the U.S.”
The Auto Pact “changed the economic face of the United States and Canada, and that became the underpinnings of what we’d come to know as NAFTA, and now, the USMCA (United States-Mexico-Canada-Agreement),” he said. It was immediately successful. Within three or four years, more than half of Canada’s auto production would be exported to the U.S., according to Brown.
So, instead of “making all these different models and all these different parts in Canada,” the automakers, operating in large plants, would make one or two models. Those models would then be exported to the U.S. market, Brown said.
“For 55 years now, this part of the world has been a hot spot for automotive manufacturing,” Brown said. “We have multiple generations of machinists, millwrights, iron workers, die setters, engineers—everyone involved with building a car.”
Technology Offers Window into Manufacturing Efficiency
Highly sophisticated automobiles and other industries requiring precision manufacturing are leading Burloak and other contract manufacturers into Industry 4.0, Brown said.
“What’s happening now is you’re seeing—and I know it’s a catch phrase, but it’s very true—you’re seeing the beginning of artificial intelligence in manufacturing, for the first time. So, information is changing how we manufacture,” he said.
Looking to the future, Brown sees a time when Burloak’s machines will predict their own maintenance schedules to help maximize uptime and efficiency. He said the company has begun this process by retrofitting its presses with controllers. They’ve connected the presses over Wi-Fi to a cloud-based system, which supervisors and managers can access to review the performance of each machine.
“Instead of just saying, ‘We expected X parts per hour, and we got X minus N parts per hour, so something went wrong,’ now, in real time, we can see how many parts the machine produced in the last seven minutes, or yesterday, if we want to,” Brown said.
He added that in some respects, Burloak may look like an older stamping shop because a press can be run for decades before it needs to be replaced. But inside the presses now, the machines are intelligent. “They’re proactively feeding data on their performance to supervising managers, which is the start of something pretty interesting for us,” he said.
Get the manufacturing industry news and features you need for free in a format you like.