Somta Tools to celebrate its 60th anniversary in 2014

A company that began business manufacturing chisels, toolbits, reamers and twist drills with a complement of about 20 employees is now a specialist in the design and manufacture of high performance, standard and custom carbide and high speed steel cutting tools for the industrial market, serving local and export customers in over 70 countries worldwide, is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

The company name Somta is an acronym for Samuel Osborn Mushet Tools Africa, which resulted from the Sheffield, England company Samuel Osborn Ltd, through two of its subsidiaries – Osborn Steels and Osborn Mushet Tools – establishing Africa’s first cutting tool manufacturer in 1954.


Some of Somta Tools’ range

Somta continues to operate from its original site on Moses Mabhida Road (formerly Edendale Road) in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu Natal. From humble beginnings in 1954 with 20 employees, Somta has grown into one of the largest cutting tool manufacturers in the southern hemisphere, operating from offices and modern manufacturing facilities laid out over three hectares with a complement of over 400 employees.

The factory manufactures 25 000 standard items and a further 6 000 made-to-order items with the capability to supply these tools ex stock to the local market within 24 hours. Product categories can be summarised as drills, cutters, reamers, threading tools and toolbits, which are made in a wide range of sizes using various materials (high speed steel and solid carbide) and Balzers PVD surface coatings to extend wear life.


A tool in action

One of Somta’s claims to fame is that its former parent company produced the first twist drill made from high speed steel. Prior to 1870, twist drills were made from a flat piece of steel and then physically twisted, hence the name. Thereafter the flutes were produced on milling machines until the grinding method arrived.

One milestone worth a mention is that Somta purchased a Hertlein drill flute grinding machine in 1963, even before the parent Sheffield company bought one. This machine is still in operation today and grinds the flutes of a drill (up to 13mm diameter) in one pass in a solid hardened blank. This was unheard of in those days.


Some of the earlier management team, left to right Pat o’Dougherty, Gerry Nocholls, Vernon Potgieter, Jack Dalton, Joe Aszalos and Charles Severn

During the period of 1963 to 1979 Somta gradually grew in both output and number of employees. Numerous products were added to the range during this period. In 1979 Haggie Ltd, one of the largest steel rope manufacturers in the world, purchased the company. The South African mining sector was their biggest market.

Growth at Somta in the 1980’s continued, with Haggie as its owner, and accelerated with investment in capital equipment and by acquisition.

The introduction of friction welding for manufacturing the HSS body with an EN9 shank in 1980 saw Somta become the first cutting tool manufacturing company to do this outside of the UK. The acquisition of CNC grinding machines in this period ensured greater consistency in quality and enabled Somta to enter and compete in world markets.


The picture says it all


Imagine having to work with these in the modern era

Somta acquired Clarkson Tap and Die South Africa (conveniently located next door) in 1982 and Mitco Tools Pietermaritzburg in 1984. Clarkson had about 60 employees and Mitco about 160. The Mitco premises were closed with all of the employees and machinery moving to the present Somta site in Edendale Road.

Working space was at a premium with so many more people and additional equipment. Management decided to extensively add factory space and at the same time to establish separate factories for product types, for instance steel stock and blank preparation, drills, taps and end mills.

Each factory had its own manager who was responsible for hiring staff, training, quality, cost controls and stock holdings. This occurred in 1986 and this concept remains today. In essence the employees in each factory became product specialists.

Change of ownership – 1999 to 2003
In 1999 Haggie decided to ‘unbundle’ its non-core or non-mining related companies, of which they had quite a few. Brooke Industrial Holdings, a company based in the UK, then purchased Somta. Unfortunately Brooke ran into difficulties in 2003 and went into liquidation. Somta then underwent a management buyout largely funded by the SCMB (Standard Corporate Merchant Bank).


The Walter Helicheck Basic 3, a 4-axis CNC measuring machine for non-contact complete measurement of rotationally symmetrical precision tools with complex geometry

Immediately after the buyout in 2003, Somta made a substantial investment in a state-of-the-art Balzers PVD Rapid Coating System plant, which was integrated into its manufacturing programme. This enabled the company to offer the innovative range of Balzers BALINIT® high performance coatings on all cutting tools and to compete with the very best high tech tool producers in the world.


A general view of some of the machines involved in manufacturing the company’s tooling

The Balzers coating plant has also allowed Somta to successfully enter the tungsten carbide tool market with coated drills, end mills and special tools, as well as offering recoating capabilities.

Machine development
One of Somta’s strengths is its ability to design and develop its own cutting tool manufacturing machines in-house, originally initiated because of a weak Rand and long delivery times from machine tool manufacturers. There are obvious competitive advantages of in-house machine building.

Employees 7.5% stake
In late 2010 Somta Tools launched an empowerment initiative through the establishment of the Somta Employees’ Trust, which gave the company’s employees a collective 7,5% stake in the company. This all came about when management purchased and restructured the company from its main shareholder, SCMB (Standard Corporate Merchant Bank). The deal was part of the company’s broad-based black economic empowerment strategy in its attempt at initiating its own “African Renaissance” with the aim of making employees feel like they are part of something great.

Carbide production facility expansion
In 2012 Somta invested over R10 million rand that year alone in state-of-the art CNC equipment, which saw the company quadruple its carbide tool manufacturing capacity, thereby improving delivery times.

Included in this investment was a Walter Helicheck Basic 3 CNC measuring machine for non-contact complete measurement of rotationally symmetrical precision tools with complex geometry, which significantly improves quality and inspection procedures, as well as further CNC grinding machines.


What the machine shop looked like some years back

To accommodate these new machines and allow space for further expansion, the carbide production facility was extended from 130 m² to 418 m². This expansion allowed for a dedicated test and training facility which included the addition of a Haas VF-3YT CNC vertical machining centre, to test, run and enhance current and new tool designs, as well as for training purposes.

Somta can now utilise its state-of-the art R&D facility to find solutions to difficult machining applications or material types and is able to simulate the production conditions so that their customers no longer have to break into critical production lines to conduct testing. No other facility on the African continent boasts the combined manufacturing, measuring, coating and testing capabilities.


More modern equipment is used these days

To support this investment, Somta this year established the Somta Spindle Solutions team aimed at providing technical support at the machine spindle. The express focus of this team is to see how they can add value for end users by reducing cycle and set up time, as well as tooling cost per component.

The company is now positioned to offer a solution for any cutting tool application as it is also the agent for the exciting new Ceratizit range of carbide insert tooling.

The company was ISO 9002 certified in 1991 and ISO 9001 in 2003 and 2008 and has retained this certification to date.


With the increased demand for product Somta Tools now have a number of ANCA CNC grinding machines. This one is equipped with a 20kW motor and a robotic arm

In line with its goal of continuous improvement, Somta Tools has been certified as a Level 6 B-BBEE company.

International exposure
Somta Tools has been a regular exhibitor at the world’s largest metalworking exhibition EMO, which takes place in Europe every second year, for over 30 years. It uses this exhibition as an excellent base to launch new products, meet with new and existing customers and suppliers, and gauge new technology developments in the market.

In 2013 the company sent a team of six people to EMO, which was held in Hannover, Germany, in order to achieve its objectives and believes that the show was particularly successful for several reasons.

At EMO 2013 Somta took the opportunity to launch some of its new high performance solid carbide ranges for hard steels up to 62HRC, aluminium, stainless steel and titanium. These new ranges attracted substantial interest from some of the world’s leading industrial distributors and end users.

A new initiative to establish a ‘Somta Europe’ hub in Stuttgart, Germany was officially launched at EMO. The hub ensures that, because of the extensive stock holding in Stuttgart, companies in the EU region purchasing Somta tooling will receive their orders within 48 hours. The hub also offers an excellent technical support system.


All new tools are well complemented by the introduction of the latest coating technology for carbide tooling in association with Swiss partners Balzers

“Substantial testing in the company’s new R&D centre showed many of Somta’s tools were outperforming the world’ s leading brands. Evidence of this was available through world class video footage supporting the company’s claims,” said Somta’s MD Allan Conolly.

“It is very easy to feel intimidated by the 538 competitors exhibiting in your field, many with huge stands and an endless array of tooling options. But we were encouraged by feedback from several customers that the tests they had done with some of our new carbide tools yielded better results than with any other tools they had tried,” said Conolly.

“In reference to Somta’s new patented solid carbide Varicut end mill, one large European distributor stated: “We have been looking for a tool like this around the world for over four years and finally we have found it – we salute you!”. Feedback like this was encouraging and a first for Somta.”

“It was also interesting to note the reducing amount of high speed steel tooling on show even though there remains a significant demand for such tooling. It appears that there are a diminishing number of high quality HSS tool manufacturers worldwide and as such we had a fair amount of interest in our HSS tools on show. As a result we expect to generate some new business from this.”


In the early days

“There was some fantastic technology on display and if you want to manufacture world class products then you need to invest in such technology. Our technical and production team visited many stands studying the latest technologies and Somta has now invested in some new equipment. This will help to boost the company’s ability to manufacture world class tooling, and to do so cost effectively.”

“A visit to a show like EMO is such a powerful reminder that the world is a big place with lots of opportunities for those who can innovate, produce a quality product and back it up with good service and support. We in South Africa are in danger of being too local in our mindset and I would encourage as many manufacturers as possible to make the investment in attending an exhibition such as this. It will change your thinking and yield a valuable return for you in time. Once South Africans have the benefit of better understanding and the opportunities the world has to offer they will see that they can compete and make inroads into these areas and should certainly not be intimidated by leading competitors.”

“A final important component was the team building and fun that was had in the evenings, with many dinner table discussions filled with laughter and crazy new ideas about tool designs and business opportunities!”

“This was a very valuable show for Somta Tools and we have already received some substantial new orders as a result and are looking forward to more. We will be back at EMO in 2015 and hope to see more South Africans exhibiting and visiting the show.”

The book called Tool Story
To celebrate its 60th anniversary and to commemorate this milestone, a book on the history of the company has been written by Charles Severn, a recently retired Somta Director, who was with the company for 43 years.


“The book, called Tool Story, begins as far back as 1826 when Samuel Osborn started his tool and steel business. His son grew the company to become the leader and largest tool steel manufacturing company in Great Britain by the turn of the 19th century,” said Severn.

“Somta Tools has such a rich and interesting history having been founded by the Sheffield steel company, Samuel Osborn & Co. with the mandate to use as much Osborn steel as possible. The book deals with a chronological account of each decade with details of Somta’s growth, acquisitions, the changes in ownership, the purchase of equipment, product development and marketing. It also mentions its personnel with amusing stories and anecdotes.”

For further details contact Somta Tools on TEL: 011 390 8700 or visit