Sometimes, even toolmakers need to ‘tool up’ in order to meet demand, and that has never been truer than now, as the canmaking supply chain races to keep up with the sector’s expansion.

To cite just one example, Hyperion Materials & Technologies may have its can tooling centre of excellence at its fast- growing plant in Barcelona, Spain, but it is also busy bolstering its presence in South and – especially – North America.


As segment manager for can tooling Lluís Miñarro explains, the boom in the metal packaging market since 2020 means that Hyperion’s capacity has seen double-digit growth in the intervening period. “But orders have been growing even faster,” he tells The Canmaker.


The group has increased the capacity of its tool shop in São Paulo, Brazil, but the biggest change has come in North America, where Hyperion acquired Pennsylvania- based Aggressive Grinding Services (AGS), at the end of 2021. “What is really important, is that AGS will start supplying US canmakers with tooling, certainly by the end of this year,” says Miñarro.


A robot, named Giorgio, handling tooling at Imeta

Pressed to invest
Equally important is the degree of direct control that the group has over its supply chain. In Europe, it has its own carbide powder manufacturing facility in France, producing mostly tungsten carbide. Then, in Barcelona, Hyperion produces the tungsten carbide blanks through chemical, physical and thermal processing, and machines the blanks for finished tooling.


A parallel raw materials stream now exists in North America, where Hyperion’s Michigan plant produces the carbide powder and sintered blanks which will be worked on by AGS. “We have a very good supply chain for the US market,” says Miñarro.


Alongside carbide, Hyperion supplies canmakers with steel and ceramic tooling, where these are considered the best materials option. The company specialises in tooling for D&I cans, it says, with carbide generally used for cupping and bodymaking, and ceramic for the necking stage.


Others offering ceramic tooling include Italy’s Euro Tecno Tool, with its focus on aerosol, food and general-line cans, as well as easy-open ends. Like others in the supply chain, general manager Rocco Mancini reports increased demand for tooling in general, but also growing interest in ceramic options in particular.


As he explains, ceramic tools have been most common in the beverage can industry, but in recent years have also – quite literally – made their mark on the food can process.


“We supply seaming rolls, spin flangers, diablo rolls, seaming plates and other tools made from high-quality ceramic,” he says. “Its main feature is a better resistance
to wear, with a longer product life than hardened coated steel or carbide.” He also points out that ceramic avoids problems with corrosion or reactivity to electricity.

“The process of [ceramic] toolmaking is similar to carbide,” Mancini says. “We buy a raw, sintered blank and grind it to ensure it has an accurate surface finish.”


The Parma-based company will be starting construction of a new factory later this year, but in the meantime, has been investing in new in-house processing equipment in a bid to keep pace with demand. “We are waiting for two new state- of-the-art machine tools, before the end of the year, with two more already ordered for 2023,” he reports.


At the same time, the company says – without giving too much away – that it is investing in other new technology to make its “internal processes” more responsive and independent.


For some, keeping up with a more dynamic marketplace has meant the introduction of new types of automation. At fellow Italian manufacturer and seaming specialist Imeta, sales manager Roberto Baroni points to increased demand for seaming chucks and rolls. “Our latest investments in specific machine tools, such as our ‘Giorgio’ robotised production unit and automatic polishing machines, allow us to meet this demand and even reduce delivery times for large batches,” he says.


But investment is not just about production capacity. “We have also created a room dedicated to seaming roll assembly, equipped with all the necessary tools, such as torque wrenches, presses and keys, with controlled temperature and insulation from possible external contamination such as dust,” says Baroni.


Other changes add to customer convenience and efficiency. “A new laser marker has also been implemented to allow the writing of all the information necessary to identify each piece and facilitate reordering,” he explains.


Laser marking of Imeta tooling



Market imperatives
Meeting demand, for its part, from both Europe and North America, Wallram Group has manufacturing sites in Germany, Poland and the US – as well as a heritage that stretches back more than a century, says vice president and plant manager


for Wallram USA Scott Pearson. “Having multiple manufacturing locations allows us to proactively address customer and market conditions,” he tells The Canmaker.


The broad trends affecting metal packaging have fed through into the tooling supply chain, he confirms. “The beverage industry in the last few years has introduced several different can sizes,” Pearson points out. “This is requiring [can] manufacturing plants to be very flexible and efficient with their can line size changes.”


This increase in the number of can sizes has had a direct impact on tooling, materials and lead times, he claims. Other considerations playing a prime role in shaping tool design include demand both for longer-life tooling and for higher levels of dimensional accuracy, according to Wallram. “To address both these trends, Wallram invests significantly in both equipment and personnel,” says Pearson.


In fact, the business lists the experience of its international technical and R&D teams, as well as its mentoring programme for developing new talent, among the key ways in which the company adds value for its customers.


Pearson sees the sector using as many as three material types for tooling, “with ceramic and tungsten carbide being the primary two of interest within the can tooling industry”.

He adds: “Wallram has a wide range of different grades and sources to ensure a secure supply tailored to the specific needs of the customer. We are able to utilise our Global Technical Group to offer our suggestions, when asked by customers, regarding material choices.”


As Miñarro makes clear, R&D, testing and consultancy are equally essential
to Hyperion’s success, sitting as they do alongside manufacturing at its Barcelona plant. He characterises the work of the Product Management and Technology group, which he heads up, as “ensuring the tools we supply are capable of making good cans”.


When it comes to Hyperion’s ceramic tooling, blanks may be sourced from a range of suppliers, the company says, and can be analysed in the company’s R&D labs to verify their properties and as part of the approval process for those suppliers. Similar recommendations can be made regarding tooling based on carbide, and as explained earlier, here Hyperion has more direct control over the materials it uses.

“Carbide can exhibit many different mechanical properties,” says Miñarro. “We can advise accordingly on the best material for a given task.”


So, for example, very different carbide grades would be used in can tooling for punches and rings. A range of parameters, such as hardness, wear-resistance, density, corrosion resistance, brittleness and toughness have to be taken into account, he says.


To illustrate the thinking that goes into tooling and materials innovation, Miñarro gives a couple of examples.


The company’s DZ18 carbide material, introduced five or six years ago, combines improved wear-resistance with a 15% weight reduction, compared with standard options. “When you’re seeing thinner and thinner can walls, ensuring the punch is well-aligned is extremely important, and here, lighter tooling helps,” he explains.


Secondly, launched at around the same time, was the C9M grade. “Here, the aim was to reduce the thermal shock where there might be a lack of lubrication on redraw dies,forexample,”Miñarrosays.“Giventhe amount of heat generated, the material has to be resistant to this.”


The same – or similar – grades of carbide would be used in aluminium and tinplate canmaking, Hyperion adds, but with adaptations to the geometry and surface finish.


Investment in the Barcelona plant has mostly consisted of new grinding equipment, but also metrology such as co-ordinate measuring machines for verifying tooling specifications. “In Barcelona, we’re now investing in capacity expansion for our sintering furnaces, though that will not only benefit can tooling,” Miñarro adds.


The tooling production operation at Wallram



Contingency plans
If you were looking for the main reason why there is so much investment in tooling manufacture, one answer might be: current lead times. As a result, Hyperion is among those suppliers saying they prefer to emphasise ‘delivery security’ rather than ‘delivery times’.


Tooling companies are working hard to reduce longer lead times, and trying to accurately predict, at least, when the new tooling will arrive at the customer.


From Hyperion’s perspective, there are currently no issues with raw materials supply. On the ceramics side, Miñarro claims, there were some long delivery times around six months ago, though not any more.

But each tooling manufacturer has its own supply chain, its own experience and its own response. For Euro Tecno Tool, at least up to mid-September, upstream delays for its ceramics and for other chemicals used in processing seemed to be heading in the wrong direction.


“Delivery times have been getting even worse; up to five months for our supply of raw blanks,” Mancini reports. “So we are studying, together with our supplier, a different strategy of stock management in order to limit delays on the customer’s side. We’re talking about a high-quality grade of Nilcra Zirconia that we selected over the years as the best performer for the metal packaging industry.”


The finished article: punch tools produced by Hyperion


Equally, Wallram has seen disruption and delays in the supply chain between tooling raw materials and the canmaking customer. As a result, it has put in place its own contingency planning or, as it puts it, a ‘just-in-case’ supply philosophy, rather than the ‘just-in-time’ approach that was once in favour.


“This is an area of focus for Wallram,” says Pearson. “We are currently running a significant investment programme to ensure enough capacity for the growing market. With the industry performing more frequent line changes, the spotlight will continue to increase in this area.”


Imeta, too, has found itself caught between spiralling demand and challenging upstream supply chains. “To cope with the scarcity of materials and the volatility of the sub-supply market, we have stocked up on a large quantity of bearings, oil seals, steel rods and Stellite castings,” says Baroni.


Meanwhile, despite the investment currently going into manufacturing equipment at the various tool-making businesses, Hyperion is among those arguing that this is only one part – and not necessarily the most critical part – of the story.


“What’s really important are the people: having competent and experienced personnel to finish a part to a very tight tolerance,” says Miñarro. “So, investment in people is vitally important.”

Formerly owned by Sandvik, Hyperion became a stand-alone company in 2018 and, with private equity backing, has been extending its reach ever since.


Although it supplies hard and super- hard materials and tooling for a range of industries, from oil and gas to automotive, can tooling is one of the company’s two largest product segments and accounts for more than 10% of revenue. “It’s the end- market that’s been growing fastest over the last two-to-three years,” he says.


In fact, most tooling suppliers are likely to share a similar view of canmaking markets, certainly encouraging investment in order to shrink lead times, but also R&D, NPD and a stronger consultancy role in order to differentiate themselves from growing international competition.