Pinning down an industry

Pinning down an industry

Workholding manufacturers get a grip on slippery issues challenging industry.

Workholding manufacturers get a grip on slippery issues challenging industry.

Robert J. Allen
Production Dynamics
General Manager

Spencer Hastert
NorthTech Workholding Inc.
President

Brian Lane
Logansport Matsumoto Co.
Vice President/Gen. Manager

Scott Looney
SMW Systems, Inc.
V.P. Special Products

Rod Nelson
Vektek, Inc., Senior V.P of Marketing & Sales

Richard C. Sp
Powerhold, Inc.
President & CEO

A. James Storms
ITW Workholding
Director of Sales

Jonathan Weber
Positrol Workholding
Director of Engineering

Workholding Product Group (WPG) of The Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT) was formed in 1992 to act as a voice for workholding manufacturers.


As manufacturing technology in 21st century advances, economic pressures are changing the priorities and demands of end users. This was one of the overriding themes of a workholding roundtable AMERICAN MACHINIST held in concert with a meeting of the Workholding Product Group (WPG) of The Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT). Editor Thomas Grasson gathered together workholding manufacturers to delve into market trends, end user issues, and technology developments impacting their industry.

Formed in 1992 to act as a voice for workholding manufacturers, the WPG promotes programs that increase communication within the workholding industry and that serve and educate customers. The group also develops strategies for global competitiveness. The roundtable questions, therefore, were crafted with these WPG missions in mind, and forum members shed light on economic and market trends, customer-demand and educational challenges, and automation and high-speed machining advancements for workholding.

Market trends
In regard to economic and market trends, workholding leaders described the future of sales and marketing, the potential for consolidation within the industry, and the impact of the Inter-net. Understandably, the workholding industry is not alone when citing economic uncertainty as its greatest sales and marketing challenge.

President of Kitagawa-NorthTech Workholding Inc., Spencer Hastert, said September 11, 2001, added a new uncertainty to the already-weakened manufacturing economy. "Prior to September 11, there were some positive signs on the horizon. We were anticipating a recovery in the upcoming months. Now, all bets are off. The economic signals are all over the board."

Bob Allen, general manager at Production Dynamics was also less than optimistic about market conditions, saying, "Workholding sales closely track new machine tool sales. For this reason, most workholding companies struggle to remain profitable in a period of declining sales."

An uncertain economic environment often leads companies to look for new solutions, such as buying, selling, or consolidating firms and divisions. Every roundtable participant had witnessed this kind of industry consolidation, and all agreed more was coming. In fact, Powerhold Inc. President, Richard Spooner, felt that the size of workholding companies made consolidation inevitable.

"The typical workholding company has approximately $3,000,000 in annual sales and 25 employees," Spooner explained. "With the industry demanding more flexible designs, greater accuracy, distortion-free clamping, extended warranties, and turnkey solutions, it is easy to see, from a purely economic point of view, the need to consolidate. The expense to develop these technologies will be too great for smaller companies."

When asked if the Internet played an important role in sales and marketing, the group was split virtually 50/50, with half feeling it is both a useful information tool and a valuable means of communicating with the customer. Rod Nelson, senior vice president of marketing and sales at Vektek Inc., said the Internet was serving an important customer-service role within his company.

"We provide customers with product information, CAD files, and technical information immediately, on demand, and on their schedule. They can access available information 24/7."

But Hastert at Kitagawa spoke for the other 50%, saying that e-commerce doesn't always "fly well" in a customer-oriented and application-specific industry.

"A few years ago, most in the workholding industry felt that e-commerce would be an important factor. Today, that initial enthusiasm has waned. One concern involves our distribution networks. Most companies have taken years to build a reliable, effective distribution network and aren't willing to cause damage to the network."

End users
Topics related to reaching end users led to deeper discussions about specific end-user trends, which included increasing customer demands, expanding education challenges, and introducing standards to help end users. According to forum members, the primary customer demand in the new century is cost justifi-cation. While that may seem like a non-revolutionary revelation, leaders explained that customers are no longer looking to expand capabilities as they had been in the 1990s. Now, customers need to reduce costs.

Interestingly, end users are not demanding cheaper workholding tools to keep costs down; rather they want turnkey solutions to their workholding problems and more advanced workholding to reduce overall manufacturing costs. In addition, they demand workholding devices that change over parts quickly while ensuring tighter part tolerances and improved repeatability; more advanced, versatile workholding designs; and more durable workholding equipment.

Although many customers place educated demands on the workholding industry, manufacturers feel that many more lack the training to improve applications. Industry leaders warned of three common end-user mistakes — using standard chucks when specialty workholding increases output, using the correct workholding device incorrectly, and improperly maintaining workholding equipment.

Scott Looney, vice president special products at SMW Systems Inc., elaborated on some of the more common mistakes: "Too many machines are purchased today by small shops that are un-aware of what's available. They simply use a single vise on their new machining center or the standard three-jaw chuck that comes with their new lathe for all of their work. There are many better workholding tools available, but they don't know that. As a result, their new machine, while very productive, is only half as productive as it could be."

So manufacturers need an education in the field of workholding. But who is responsible for educating them? Much of the responsibility is placed on the WPG, which co-hosted the roundtable. In an effort to help end users, the WPG recently published a Workholding Glossary of Terms, which assists in the use and understanding of workholding devices and components. The group has also established the Workholding Standards Committee to help write ANSI/ISO standards. These standards give end users a way to evaluate workholding products and determine suitability of these products for specific applications.

Companies are also doing their part with tradeshows and trade-press articles. Positrol Workholding director of engineering, Jonathan Weber, discussed how his company and other manufacturers are helping end users.

"Many in our industry are exhibiting in tradeshows to educate end users in the latest technology. Our company also gives a seminar, available to anyone, on the theory and selection of workholding devices with a project, which entails the selection of a chuck given a particular part and operation."

A. James Storms, director of sales at ITW Workholding, said his company is becoming more deeply involved in end-user applications. "We work with end users on prototype workholding to learn more about the machining of a part prior to the purchase of the actual end workholding product."

Technology
Despite these efforts to educate end users, manufacturers, and associations alike, still have the tough job of continually educating consumers about the latest workholding technology. As machine tool technology becomes more advanced, workholding technology will closely follow suit.

But Brian Lane, vice president and general manager at Logansport Matsumoto Co., feels a lack of funding for workholding-technology re-search is stalling progress.

"The evolution required to meet future needs requires sophisticated technical advancements. The engineering staff and development tools required represent a significant investment for companies our size. Workholding companies individually, and the workholding industry as a whole, are small in comparison to our largest customers and U.S. manufacturing. Even at the university level, manufacturing projects face an up hill battle for research dollars."

With or without these research dollars, the workholding industry is advancing its technology to accommodate automated production and high-speed machining. New technologies include robotic integrators, automatic-lube systems, air and coolant-blast systems, air-detection systems, and other sensing devices.

In terms of automated machining, leaders feel workholding is ready for the challenge. For instance, self-centering chucks properly locate and grip the workpiece without operator intervention. Similarly, air-detection systems or proximity switches verify workpieces are properly clamped during automated production. And to machine different parts in an automated cycle, shops have several methods to reconfigure workholding devices.

Lane at Logansport Matsumoto elaborated on these methods. "In some cases," he says, "top tooling is contained in a receiver plate mounted to a chuck that is automatically switched out by the machine tool's autoloader. One plate is staged for each different workpiece the system accommodates. There has also been interesting work done with long-stroke power chucks. These units, driven by electric or hydraulic servos, are amazingly quick at changing from one size workpiece to another."

High-speed machining offers different challenges than automation, but the workholding roundtable says it has addressed these developments. Each of the leaders pointed out different challenges involved with high-speed machining including workholding device weight and size, jaw-force loss from centrifugal forces, and balance considerations.

Vektek's Nelson, explained that device size matters because "Device size and the resulting weight become a critical factor when addressing high-speed machining. Proper selection of workholding from a vendor that has selected lightweight, high-strength materials and is capable of higher pressures and forces is important."

Storms at ITW Workholding pointed to jaw-force loss as his major concern, saying, "We have to make users aware of actual jaw-force loss due to centrifugal forces at high rpm."

Powerhold's Spooner points out the example of a 1-lb top jaw positioned at a 6-in. radius. Spinning at 10,000 rpm would increase its weight to 17,040 lb. These high speed conditions make it even more critical to "educate users about the dangers chucks impose if not properly applied."

And Weber stressed the importance of balance, "In high-speed machining, balance becomes all-important. Most near-net-shaped parts are not symmetrical. Thus, the part's center of gravity doesn't coincide with the centerline of the machine spindle, and the chuck must compensate for this imbalance."

After discussing all the industry and end-user trends and sharing thoughts about new and existing technologies, the workholding manufacturers were asked what they would say to AM readers as a final thought. They all expressed similar advice — take time to really consider workholding carefully in regard to the application.

Allen at Production Dynamic remarked, "To obtain full benefit from your new or existing machine tools, give careful consideration to workholding equipment. Work with your machine tool distributor or directly with a workholding company to ensure you achieve the highest productivity your equipment can deliver. Typical workholding costs are less than 10% of the total machine tool value, but properly selected systems often provide a rapid payback by delivering reduced cycle times and parts that meet engineering specifications."

Looney of SMW Systems agreed, adding that shops should consider workholding when purchasing a new machine. "Quite often," he said, "there is a better, more productive solution versus the one you already employ or the one that comes standard on the machine."

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