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14 BIMU show machine tools in Italy.

Originally my plan was to go to the 14th Biennial Machine Tool Exposition in Milan, Italy, under my own cognizance, as a side trip from a vacation that my wife would plan and categorize as "much needed." I'll go anywhere if she plans the trip.

Happily, some sort of divine intervention interceded to my benefit. This took the form of an invitation transmitted through the Italian Trade Commissioner in Los Angeles, on behalf of the Italian Institute of Foreign Trade and the Italian Machine Tool Builders' Association (known as UCIMU), to join a group of American metalworking magazine people in "fact finding" at the exhibitio.

At the time I accepted I was unaware of an advantage that their hospitality would provide me. When I am at machine-tool shows on foreign soil under my own steam, I suffer from a lack of fluency in any other language except the brand of English spoken in Ohio. I am embarrassed by the fact that most foreigners nowadays speak enough English to get me where I'm supposed to go, and I'm not gracious enough in return to even say thank you in their native tongue. I get by with the universal language "Is Okay" which, depending on inflection, can be a question, an exclamation or a statement.

The level of my embarrassment, however, has never risen over the threshold of study it would take to gain a speaking knowledge of another language.

Insofar as my symptoms are common to a fair share of American industry, this malady could be one of the causes of our nation's balance of payments problem.

It would have been impossible for UCIMU's International Marketing Manager Dott Ing (that must mean he has a doctorate in engineering) Stefano Bianchi to have known all that about me in advance. Yet he had arranged for me to be treated in a manner that seemed perfect for overcoming my shortcomings and making me feel at ease in his country and at his show. This was done without a hint of condescending to my inadequacies.

The most effective part of his strategy was to have three of us from the USA with close interests grouped with one interpreter who had been briefed with a list of exhibitors who wanted to show their wares to the US metalworking press. Less cumbersome than the press conferences, these meetings were small enough to yeild give-and-take conversations--people who live machine tools talking with people who live machine tools.

Surely the "delegations" from everywhere were getting this same kind of treatment, but it seemed so personal, and was so unexpected, that I felt at the time it was all for me.

These people didn't really get going in the machine-tool business until 1958. Their growth was characterized as tumultuous through 1963. Italy had massive growth in the production of household appliances and motor vehicles. This added backlogs to their domestic machine-tool orders and caused growth in imports. In the 1964-1967 period, domestic demand fell 60 percent and builders started paying serious attention to foreign markets. This led to a surplus of the trade balance in their machine-tool sector. They have maintained that situation ever since.

Subsequent cycles of appliance and auto investment in plant equipment, problems stemming from the energy crisis, pressures to pay higher wages, and the recent recession, all sound familiar as complicating factors in trying to even out machine-tool production.

In the 12 halls of this exhibition, the upbeat word was recovery. The Italian domestic market got a shot in the arm by their Law No 696, which grants up to 32 percent subsidies for the purchase of new technology by small- and medium-sized companies. They note that "old" technologically obsolete machinery cannot but manufacture "old" noncompetitive products. Therefore, if production means are not modernized, first profit margins and then market shares are progressively lost.

The export market has improved (up 70 percent in the first half of '84) with the investment recovery in the USA leading the main European countries where the trends are described as more vague. They rank themselves in the world machine-tool market as follows: Production--fifth major manufacturing country at 5.4 percent of the world; exports--fifth country at 7.4 percent; imports--ninth country at 2.3 percent; consumption--sixth country at 3.3 percent.

To put all this in dollars is not that easy since the exchange rate goes up and down on a yo-yo like the investment cycles. Best set of figures seems to indicate an export rate of $550 million--about $45 million of that to the USA. That must be amended by the announcement made while we were in Italy that their largest machine-tool builder, Comau, had just closed a $100-million order from General Motors for welding and assembly lines. While we were there the exchange rate went from 1865 to 1925 lire to the dollar. Their three-percent gain was my three-percent loss. There is certainly more to look out for than the price of steel when doing business in international markets.

With the word recovery setting the mood, the words high tech set the pace of the products shown. Most everybody who wanted to show us their wares had flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) as the buzzword of their presentation. Many lumped the words productivity and flexibility into the systems pitch. Their credible logic is that they have served the European market where production quantities are generally lower than in mass-production plants in the USA, and they have specialized in designing machines to fill that market niche. So now that everybody is faced with shorter product life cycles and the need for more flexible automation, they have the know-how to build those kinds of machine tools on a single-order basis.

Many of the 450 machine-tool builders in Italy are Mom & Pop shops that buy many of their components from other shops. These builders see their expertise as designers and builders of what the customers need rather than mass producers of standard machine tools. While the little guys may not be financially up to handling a sizable FMS project--to the extent that they can comprehend the CNC, robotics, and integrating software--they can be suppliers to the big guys who get the FMS orders.

During the recent worldwide recession, the UCIMU people rethought the approach to the USA market they launched in 1978. It is clear that metalworking companies in the USA will be looking for more high tech in the machine tools they buy. The Italian's share of that market will depend to a large extent on their ability to be innovative in designing and building machine tools suited to the customer's specific production needs.

Such equipment must be sold and serviced by people resident in the marketplace. Comau's man indicated they had 150 people in the Detroit area doing proposal work on automotive applications. Apparently you can do the final engineering work across the pond after you have the order, but you better have somebody knowledgeable in the customer's backyard ready to talk at any time if you expect to get the order.

In the exhibit halls, the terminology of what is a cell and what is a system soon added another story to the tower of Babel. We started to ask exhibitors where they draw the line after one enthusiastic owner stated flatly that he makes production cells, but would never sell an FMS. Yet his audiovisual film showed three CNC machines tied together with handling devices all under computer control. One of my countrymen was willing to settle for a definition that said: Three or fewer machines working together is a cell, while three or more machines working together is a system. His willingness went on the wane when it became clear that three wasn't only the indecisive number in the definition, but was the most popular number on the floor. Even the man who was adamant about not selling an FMS admitted that he would sell one of those things shown on his film to people who called it an FMS, if they were willing to pay for it.

We pursued this line of questioning for most of the next day and learned that to many of the experts the number of machines is not the qualifying criterion. Concerns for the degree of flexibility, and the question of computer integration, are more important than simply counting units. (Can it really handle a broad variety of parts? Does the software really tie it all together into a functional system?)

There was a strong opinion at one stand that a cell designates limited tooling flexibility--that the equipment can't do truly random workpiece production. The nomenclature is further expanded by use of the term subsystem, and in one place a designation of AFS to represent automatic factory subsystem. Subsystems, and sometimes cells, are referred to as basic modules for a FMS.

I personally hid behind journalistic immunity in this matter, refusing to take a stand on the grounds that it is my duty to report on such matters and not to decide them. Certainly a good case can be built for the old argument--by definition a system is a collection of parts working together. This takes in everything from a butt hinge to an automatic factory. Yet here in a show that brought in almost 100,000 businessmen, 10 percent of whom were from foreign countries, the line between the named levels of high tech is broad and fuzzy. Hopefully individual companies, from whatever land that negotiates state-of-the-art machine-tool systems, will be able to at least clearly agree among themselves what the seller is going to furnish. For in the long haul, if the equipment doesn't do what the buyer thought it would do, it doesn't matter what the thing is called, he is not likely to buy another from that source.

Probably the most prevalent, yet unseen, force of the high-tech panorama is the software category. One does not just plug X number of devices into some computer hardware and zappo, the whole system makes widgets. Interfacing the hardware and writing the necessary software is the highest of the high-tech talents. To be truly flexible, an FMS must be capable of doing things that are not yet required of it. Computer people, the world over, are quick to say yes when asked if their system can do thus and so. Their hardware is certainly capable. They are just programming hours away from having it running on the most complicated sequences you can imagine. The true test of such performance is not seen on the floors of exhibition halls. It is what happens on the shop floors that really counts.

Clearly, one comes away with the sense of Italian determination to work on the shop floors of the world.
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Title Annotation:Biennial Machine Tool Exposition
Author:Keebler, Jim
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Jan 1, 1985
Words:1789
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