Key Cutters: The Futura Is Now

Oct. 2, 2020
How an automotive locksmith decided to cut into his retirement savings and is glad to have done it.

Before German vehicles switched to sidewinder keys, a competent locksmith who had an inexpensive key machine could make a key for almost any car on the road. Even Mercedes, BMWs and Porsches could be impressed fairly easily. When Asian vehicles started “going sidewinder,” adding to those from Europe, locksmiths had to make the choice of buying a laser-cut key machine, expensive programmers and stock, or being phased out of the automotive key industry.

While building my commercial accounts, I languished for years while originating and copying milled keys with an old Framon Sidewinder and depth key guides. Still, for me, it wasn’t worth spending upwards of $4,000 to save a little time each month. With so many cars and trucks now using track keys, I finally robbed my individual retirement account and made the leap to an “automatic” laser-cut key machine.

After considering a half-dozen choices, I chose the Ilco Futura Auto, partly from my own research and partly from the recommendation of a trusted supplier.

The Setup

The Ilco Futura Auto comes with a separate Lenovo tablet, and if you can’t figure out the tablet, you can’t use the key machine. However, after spending several thousand dollars, you will learn how to use the tablet, even though there basically is no instruction manual. Ilco provides valuable videos online, and their tech support is patient and friendly. The supplier who sells the key machine also might provide some tech support. Because I had no one to show me how to use the machine, I watched the videos a half-dozen times, then called tech support several times to get the machine up and running.

The Lenovo tablet can be mounted on top of the machine or removed and set on the workbench. Other than registering the machine and tablet online so you can get code updates, there’s no loading of software or discs. The tablet connects to the Futura via Bluetooth, so as long as the tablet is near the machine, the two will connect automatically.

It’s interesting to note that the brain is inside the key machine, while the controls are on an app on the Lenovo tablet. The app runs the machine, and other than an on/off switch, there are no controls on the machine itself. Even recalibration of the machine is performed through the tablet.

The tablet seems to have much more capability than simply running the Futura Auto, but because I am computer challenged — like many locksmiths — I leave the other options alone and rejoice in the fact that the tablet runs the key machine. The screen on the tablet asks for a vehicle make, model and year, and when the “card” comes up with all the specs and key blanks, you then have the option to make the key in several different ways, such as by code, direct cuts or partial cuts.

The Futura Auto comes with four cutters and two vises — one vise for track keys and a four-sided vise for edge-cut keys. The screen on the tablet tells you which to use. The cutters and vises can be changed in about 30 seconds, with no adjustments. The machine calibrates itself to every key by electronically “touching” the cutter to the key blank before actually cutting the key. In fact, if you use a plastic or aluminum key, the machine won’t work.

The vises seem particularly heavy duty and solid, and for the laser-cut keys, the vise clamps the key along the neck, by the bow, eliminating the necessity for the vise to clamp the edges of the blade. Technically, by the time you cut an externally milled key, there isn’t much of an edge left for the vises to hold, so Ilco’s solution works well.

The Payoff

Cutting Tibbe keys using my old Framon #2 is a task that I never will look back on with fondness. I don’t miss cranking the spacing and depth wheels back and forth to get a vague starting point, then hoping for perfection while cutting four different sides of a key. In fact, the Futura’s optional Tibbe vice, which I purchased, makes cutting Tibbe keys so easy that I’m sorry there aren’t more Tibbe locks. The guesswork is gone, and creating a Tibbe key by code or direct cuts takes about two minutes.

The Futura Auto also decodes edge-cut and milled keys — internal or external — just as fast as it cuts them. After a customer’s key is clamped into the vise, the Futura Auto decodes it and stores the info, then asks whether you want to copy the key. Take the customer’s key out of the vise and put in a blank, and the Futura Auto then cuts it.

Because the machine decodes — rather than copies — the existing key, it cuts the new one to original factory specs. I assume that if the customer’s key is worn badly enough, the machine might have trouble decoding it, although the app has options for compensating and adjusting for worn keys.

The Futura Auto comes with a one-year subscription to Instacode, which provides not only codes for every auto, truck and motorcycle you could think of, but it also provides “in-fill” cuts and codes. For instance, if you decode a Ford door lock and get six of the eight cuts, Instacode will give you all the codes for Ford locks that have those six cuts. Of course, you have to know what position the tumblers are in (1-6, 2-7 or 3-8), but a book such as Mike Hyde’s “Auto Smart” will tell you exactly where the tumblers are in every make and model. After you type in your partial cuts, Instacode will provide you with choices. Typically, it’s only one or two codes, but sometimes it’s as many as four or five.

One small drawback for the Futura Auto is that it won’t recut keys to a deeper depth. You either have to use a file or depth keys to make a deeper cut, or you can stick a new blank into the Futura Auto and let it cut the key. This, however, goes against the rule: “Never waste a key blank — it’s like throwing away a quarter.”

With the Futura Auto, I feel more competent as an automotive locksmith. Instead of dreading track keys, I’m looking forward to the next opportunity to cut one. I bought the Futura Auto specifically for milled keys, but I’m using it for all my automotive keys, even older Fords and Chevrolets. It seems that I can put away my well-worn automotive depth keys, and, hey, who needs a boat or a trip to Hawaii when you can have a new key machine?

Mike Tritel is the owner of Lively Locks & Deadbolts in Meadow Vista, California.