Staying Competitive Is A State Of Mind

Aug. 7, 2007
Competiviteness in today's world requires more than just new machines.

To be competitive, or even to just survive in today's global economy, machine shops need to produce better parts faster and at a lower cost.

The shops that are thriving, the shops that are successfully competing with shops across the street and across the oceans are successful because they are able to turn the pursuit of higher productivity into a culture, a never-ending quest instead of a one-time event. That quest usually starts with a new machine because today's machines are inherently several times more productive than machines that were sold 10 years ago or even five years ago. But buying a new machine is not the goal, it's only a step toward the goal of increased productivity, and sometimes it is not even the right step.

"To be competitive in this business, you have to stay on top of the technology, and that costs time and money," said Jon Polliard, senior manufacturing engineer at H.M Dunn ( engineering and manufacturing company. "We are successful because we constantly work to stay on top of the technology. Just buying new machines isn't enough. You usually have to learn a whole new way of working. There were two companies a few blocks from us that bought new machines but didn't learn how to use them properly. They used the new machines like they did their old machines, and that was like buying a Ferrari to plow a field."

Start by matching the machine to the application. The machine manufacturer or distributor will work with you to make sure the fit is right because their reputation and future business depends on your success. The manufacturer/distributor is also the primary source of information and training on how to get the full potential from a new machine. This information normally comes in the form of on-site training, but can also include connecting new users with existing users to share experiences. Even with all of that information, there is still a period of trial-and-error when learning how to maximize the use of a new machine.

Along with the new machine comes the need for new software and new tooling, failing to invest fully in any one of those elements can quickly hobble the ability to get maximum productivity from a new machine, but those elements too are just more pieces of the puzzle. Buying a new machine and learning how to use it properly will undoubtedly make a shop more productive, but will it make the shop productive enough?

If you have a machine that must be tended by an operator all day long, installing a new machine that makes an operator X times more productive is a productivity improvement, but you still have an operator and the cost of the operator. With the obvious exception of machining activities such as prototyping and one-off/ two-off production runs, a machine that requires the full-time attention of an operator is simply not costcompetitive in today's marketplace. That is why the ‘lights-out, ‘round-the-clock, seven-days-a-week' operation has become the holy grail. It eliminates, or at least greatly reduces one of the primary cost elements that puts American shops at a competitive disadvantage – labor.

"I opened a moldmaking shop two years ago," said Doug Noxell from SurKut Machine Technology Inc. ( in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. "If you know about the moldmaking business, then you know that that was not a particularly good time to open a new business, but I looked at the technologies available and realized I could use them to be successful. We run lights-out four out of five days a week, and if we didn't have unattended machines, we couldn't stay in business."

According to noxell, the biggest challenge in setting up unmanned operations is developing the confidence to walk out of the shop and know that the machine is going to work right. "Having the right programming system and the right tooling presets was the key," said Noxell. "You work at developing an elaborate tool database with feeds and speeds, and you really get to understand the tools and toolholders. Also essential is using laser presets or at least having a strategy to see if a tool is broken, having a programming strategy that makes sure that there is no excess stock in the corners because a tool broke and went undetected. You develop a history of what works, what feeds and speeds you need to run at, and you keep at it until you know your operation is right.

The technologies Noxell is talking about include automation and robotics, multi-tasking and multi-spindle machines and the software to drive all of it.

One of many examples of powerful new machines is the miyano AbX-64TH2 super Turning center. Equipped with two spindles, three turrets (with live tooling) and two Y axes, the center is capable of processing high-end parts efficiently in one setup.

This machine can turn, mill, drill, ream, scribe and do many other machining tasks with no operator intervention after setup. The machine is inherently productive, but what supercharges that productivity is its ability to integrate with a barfeeder to get raw stock into the machine and automation to remove and deliver finished parts to the next stage in a manufacturing process.

Also, automated pallet systems, robotic arms and automated inspection stations can be wrapped around a machining center to produce a continuous flow of high-quality parts that can give a shop a quantum jump in productivity. Peer Inc. ( did just that when they developed a productive work cell that produces more than 250,000 high-precision parts per year with less than one operator per shift.

The shop holds tolerance at 10 m to 15-m part lengths with 100 percent inspection. Peer cloned its original cell, so it now has three similar cells.

Peter Ronge, director of manufacturing at peer, attributes his company's success to the team of experts from suppliers that itwas able to assemble, led by its automation integrator Matrix Automation, Inc. ( (see a related story, "'round-the-clock high-precision work", American machinist, February, 2007, pg. 36.)

In addition to the big-ticket items – the machines and the automation – there is a wide assortment of new and maturing technologies that can offer significant productivity gains for less money.

The key to making these technologies a success also is in thinking of ways to replace manual processes with automated, more reliable processes.

In a recent American Machinist webcast, "best kept secrets of minimizing downtime," Mark Brownhill, cnc productivity solutions product manager for Ge Fanuc Automation (, said, "Today's machine tool probes are very reliable and very fast, certainly faster than a manual operator doing the same job, and can eliminate the opportunity for a manual operator to make a mistake that can result in unscheduled downtime. Or consider using tool presets with memory chips embedded in the toolholders. The preset machine can store all of the tool's data in the chip and then the machine can read that data when the tool is loaded. This completely eliminates all of the possible manual operator errors in that process."

There are numerous emerging and maturing tools and technologies that can be used to enable the major productivity gains shops need to find and develop to be competitive in today's global economy. But the most important tool, the most powerful tool, is still an open and inquisitive mind. A mind open to entirely new ways of doing the same old job, a mind seeking to find and adapt those new ways to the existing business operation. Shop – and machine – operators who adopt that mindset are much more likely to not only stay in business, but also to prosper no matter how tough the competition gets.

A fully automated material handling system designed to feed metal sheets to a laser cutter and then remove and separate the parts and scrap can easily cost a million dollars or more. employees at a trailer hitch manufacturer in Kansas designed and fabricated a fully automated system using conveyors and other parts bought through ebay for about $25,000. The result isn't pretty, but it works.