During 30 years of consulting with manufacturing companies, I’ve seen a gradual shift in the way capital equipment suppliers view and service their customers. Happily, these changes are all good.
Don’t get me wrong, the machine tools and peripheral products suppliers I know have always had their customers’ best interests at heart. Sure, they want to make a sale, but they also want to help the customers improve their manufacturing capabilities. The biggest difference these days is that OEMs, distributors and systems integrators take much more of a big picture approach to working with their customers.
Whether a small CNC machine shop, a Tier 1, 2 or 3, or the production facility of a mega-corporation, manufacturers want to improve their processes, competitiveness and profitability. For years, the approach was to simply upgrade the customer to a newer machine with faster spindle speeds and feed rates. Today, however, the most professional capital goods providers look at the entire manufacturing process to determine the best overall solution for the customer’s needs. In essence, they’ve evolved from selling a single product into true consulting, often bringing in a team of specialists to analyze the situation.
A good example is a recent customer installation by a long-time machine tool distributor. Their customer, a high-tech job shop, wanted to reduce the cost of machining a family of parts. The simplest solution was to upgrade to a machining center that provides faster cycle times. However, the nature of the aluminum part required a great deal of part handling by the machine operator to load, reposition, unload and inspect the parts, thus idling the machine tool between cycles.
To solve this problem and significantly reduce the labor cost-per part, the machine tool distributor designed an automated cell that includes a powered conveyor system to deliver the castings to the work area and send the finished parts on their way; a vision-equipped robot arm to load, reposition and unload the parts; an integrated gaging system that uses scanning technology; and inspection software that processes the data then works through the machine tool control to make any necessary offsets. It all happens automatically and with no operator intervention. The result is a 50-percent reduction in labor cost-per-part, and a machine operator who spends less time on tedious tasks and more time applying his skills to managing multiple work cells.
As this solution demonstrates, advancing technologies in machine tools and accessories can often greatly improve productivity, but they need to be applied appropriately. That’s where applications expertise and experience gained by OEMs and distributors comes in. Sometimes, the solutions involve more sophisticated fixturing or the elimination of multiple fixtures by moving to a multi-axis machine. Often, the applications people can create more efficient tool path programming that helps make setups and change-overs faster and easier.
Likewise, chip conveyor companies help customers reduce costly bottlenecks and maintenance by matching the conveyor capabilities to the material used and machining operations performed. Variable, high-pressure coolant delivery can be programmed to maximize cutting performance while minimizing coolant use. Ethernet-based communications systems enable bar feeders and turning machine controls to work together to speed up change-overs. These systems also reduce material costs by monitoring barstock usage and calling up programs to make parts out of what would otherwise become a remnant.
Capital equipment providers also collaborate with experts in various specialized areas, such as cutting tool makers who help users optimize cutting performance while better managing tool wear. OEM and distributor applications specialists advise customers about working with difficult-to-machine materials such as titanium and complex alloys, or how to adapt to material changes such as moving from leaded to non-leaded brass.
This evolution from simply selling a machine tool to providing comprehensive solutions is part of the overall shift in the relationship between buyers and sellers. As stated by marketer Lester Wunderman, “The call of the Industrial Revolution was manufacturers saying, ‘This is what I make, don’t you want it?’ The call of the Information Age is consumers asking, ‘This is what I need, won’t you make it?”
Hats off to the manufacturing equipment suppliers who get it.