Niche marketing brings "down-under" firm up top

Feb. 1, 1998
By concentrating on flexible-machining systems for niche automotive markets, an Australian company has joined the global, metalworking mainstream.

By concentrating on flexible-machining systems for niche automotive markets, an Australian company has joined the global, metalworking mainstream.

Through Kirby's distributed digital CNC, operators can control each station independently, and switching one off or on does not affect other parts of the manufacturing system.

Five of these Kirby-built systems are currently producing automotive brake components at a rate of 25,000 pieces/day.

A 17-station, dual-line Kirby system machines 37 different steering-pump housing models across three component families.

Both right and left-hand steering knuckles make the rounds through a Kirby rotary system that does five-sided machining with a single part clamping.

From a base of zero exports a decade ago, Kirby Engineering expects to rack up more than $100 million in worldwide export sales this year. The secret, according to Ken Johnson, group manager of Kirby, has been a focus on one market the company knows well—automotive power-steering components.

Kirby, based in Australia, makes high-volume, flexible machining lines, and 95% of its production is now exported to North and South America, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific. The engineering firm got its start by designing and building special purpose machines and FMSs for both the Australian auto industry and companies manufacturing refrigeration compressors. But extensive work for allied Kirby-held firms manufacturing automobile rack-and-pinion steering gears provided the thrust for an entry into the global market.

Vertical integration is typical in Australia, says William Beck of Kirby USA in Statesville, N.C., because manufacturers firmly believe this strategy improves quality, keeps costs in check, and speeds delivery. Besides, when a sister division is the firm running the part, good outcomes can benefit the group as a whole. That is why Kirby developed the habit of not only studying complete manufacturing processes, but also understanding product issues involved.

For example, it is not surprising for suppliers to the Australian auto industry to produce a family of parts for Ford one day, and a different family for GM the next day, and on down the auto-maker line. To survive in this type of market, Kirby had to construct systems that could pump out half a million units/year while being flexible enough to handle part variations among the different auto companies.

The Australian market taught Kirby to solve problems by thinking in terms of flexibility and high-volume together in an economical package. The firm has been able to implement this with such things as standard modules that can be mixed and matched for various systems, as well as by using controls that handle more than just the main aspects of the line.

Kirby starts by analyzing customer part geometries, specifications, and tolerances. It evaluates all possible configurations to determine the most efficient system, which can include in-line, multiple stations, rotary units, or single-station systems. Together with the customer, Kirby then prepares a system layout, starting with programmable multiaxis modules.

Each module optimizes specific machining processes through such features as motorized spindles, linear motor drives, servo feed-out heads, and multiaxis technology. To accommodate whole part families and changing part sizes, modules can vary in dimension, features, and models. Operators engage a simple menu command at the console and enter machine data when introducing a new module model to the system. Kirby also speeds up module output by adding peripherals such as multitool turrets and tool-changing units.

Distributed digital CNC oversees all system modules. It creates a compact, optimized cell of flexible machining units with the high-speed transfer qualities of an in-line or rotary system.

Through CNC, operators can control each station independently, and turning one off or on does not affect other parts of the system. CNC also increases the number of system configurations possible because modules can run as stand-alones.

Onward and upward
In 1989, Kirby had what it calls its first U.S. success. The firm built a valve-balancing machine for an automotive steering-gear manufacturer. The system drills and pins torsion bars at a zero-torque setting, essential for even power distribution between left and right-hand turning. This venture was just the beginning, says Beck. Now, Kirby systems produce 33% of the world power-steering valve output.

More recently, Kirby made five flexible machining systems for a first tier, U.S. automotive supplier. The systems, all at the same plant, run 10 models of cast-iron brake components. Kirby 3-axis modules with dual rigid spindle configurations take up to a 30-hp cut, and each of the eight-station systems cranks out a finished part every 11 sec.

Combined, the five lines turn out about 25,000 pieces/day, with each system producing 1.3 million parts/year.

Another recent Kirby system not only is one of the largest machine tools built in Australia, but it is flexible enough to run 37 different steering-pump housing models across three component families.

The dual-line system has a 17-station, in-line flexible machining system with 86 CNC axes on one side and a 14-station system with 84 axes on the other. A complete servocontrolled, synchronous pallet transfer/return system does away with any mechanical switching problems. Gantry units quickly and accurately move parts between return and loading stations, as well as to mid-stations for washing and marking.

System diagnostics track each pallet and display types of faults or stoppages, along with their locations. All stations are independently leak proof because of aboveground coolant networks. With this dry-floor system, the customer avoided factory modifications and costly floor excavation. Both pump-housing lines completely machine a part in 5.75 sec. in either cast iron or aluminum and right or left-hand configured.

For yet another steering component, Kirby engineered a rotary system for five-sided machining with a single part clamping. Twin indexing planetary tables hold both a left and right-hand steering knuckle as they are simultaneously machined. A 3-axis module and a 4-position, heavy-duty, servoturret unit are mounted on the servo axis tables. The units are strong, capable of 20 hp through the spindle and traverse speeds up to 40 ft/min. In addition, quick-change, modular fixturing accelerates change over among different components.

According to Kirby, the Australian "give-it-a-go" approach played a big role in his firm's becoming successful in building flexible systems. The company is not afraid to push the envelope and be innovative because, according to Beck, over the past 20 years they've learned the technology by making the mistakes that today's conservative builders aren't willing to risk.

"From every customer we've sold, we get repeat orders," adds Johnson. But, this was not always the case.

Some companies are hesitant to buy, says Beck, because there's a perception that Australia is a long way away. Kirby is constantly battling this and has found that resting on their laurels isn't enough. So it now has 24-hr on-site support positioned globally and responds by phone within 2 hr. Modem links can also directly connect Kirby engineers to a customer's system programs and diagnostics for immediate assistance.