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Looking beyond the auto industry: GKN Sinter Metals' industrial products group demonstrates role for powder metallurgy in industrial applications. (Materials).

For virtually all of its 75-year-plus history, the powder metals (P/M) industry has focused much of its attention on the automotive sector and for good reason. The auto industry accounted for about 75 to 80 percent of all P/M parts sales, according to industry sources. In addition, the high volumes, long lead times (from part design to actual production) and multiyear life cycle of parts so common in the auto business, matched the capabilities of an industry dominated by small, often family-run, single-facility companies. With a few contracts, a P/M plant could operate profitably with a modest budget for equipment maintenance while employing minimal engineering support.

But things have changed. Globalization of the auto industry and the related trend of OEMs to shrink the supply base, push engineering down the supply chain, and focus on those Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers with the ability to deliver to world markets, have had a profound impact on the P/M industry. Significant consolidation and attrition have taken place over the past decade.

Specifically, GKN plc, a U.K.-based, global engineering firm focused on aerospace and automotive-related industries, has emerged as an industry leader through its wholly owned subsidiary, GKN Sinter Metals. Since 1997, the Auburn Hills, Mich., powder metal components manufacturer has acquired more than a dozen companies worldwide, amassing significant market share, manufacturing capacity, product capability, and technical knowledge in the process.

With more than 30 production facilities on five continents, GKN Sinter Metals has positioned itself to meet the needs of the global automotive industry. But along with its investments for the automotive sector, GKN saw in its expansion of P/M capabilities an unprecedented opportunity to hunch a concentrated effort at penetrating non-automotive markets in North America.

The company commissioned industry research to identify concerns of industrial users and purchasers of P/M parts. Particular focus was on quality, delivery and other service-related issues. From the non-automotive customer base, one message came through loud and clear: the non-automotive segment wanted to receive the same attention P/M parts manufacturers give to the largest automotive OEMs.

GKN Sinter Metals' response has been the recent formation of a North American Industrial Products Group (IPG). Lance Harris, vice president & general manager of IPG and the person charged with overall responsibility for building and growing this business unit, is quick to point out that the company's efforts are not simply window dressing.

"The organization we're building is not a reshuffling of resources already in place," said Harris. "We've spent months looking at the manufacturing, technology, sales and customer service-related needs of our current and future industrial customers, and have designed an organization to address those needs."

To start, GKN Sinter Metals dedicated five plants to produce P/M products primarily for industrial customers: DuBois, St. Marys and Kersey, Pa.; and Owosso and Zeeland, Mich. In addition, plants in Worcester, Mass.; Conover, N.C.; Emporium, Pa.; and Menomonee Falls, Wis., now also have lines devoted to non-automotive P/M components.

"For the first time," said Harris, "design and project engineers, purchasers and other OEM specifiers of non-automotive companies can go to a powder metal parts manufacturer that has the capability to handle a wide range of (part) complexity; deliver a complete product range; balance capacities across multiple facilities; provide back-up production resources when demand requires it, and offer full-service engineering support."

He notes that while IPG's piece price, in some instances, may be higher, over time the overall cost to users of the company's products will be lower.

With GKN Sinter Metals selling engineered components as opposed to off-the-shelf products, technology work is ongoing and critical. Terming IPG's approach as "forward engineering," Harris explained that his technologists won't be found in research laboratories, but rather work at the plants, in concert with GKN sales engineers and customer design teams. There is a dual focus, on applied technology to improve product performance, and on process technology to take costs out of actual production.

The company placed one of its key operations managers, Dr. Utpaul Gangopadhyay, in charge of IPG's technology function. "With his extensive background in metallurgical science, and his working knowledge of the P/M manufacturing process as applied to industrial customers, 'Dr. Paul' is uniquely qualified to build the kind of technology function required by our customer base," Harris said.

Technology in GKN Sinter Metals' North American Industrial Products Group entails a front end, covering product applications engineering and costing, and a back end, dealing with program management of new launches as well as transfers.

According to Gangopadhyay, "The quality of customer interface at the front end is critical to effective and cost efficient new product development. Once production begins, we're into the back end, where our technicians are constantly working at continuous improvement of both the product and the process by which it is manufactured."

On the back end, noted Gangopadhyay, IPG's technologists may not be working with the customer on a day-to-day basis. However, each member of the technology staff realizes that GKN's products operate in concert with other components, and do not function in a vacuum. "It's important, therefore, that we have an ongoing, two-way, customer-supplier communication channel if we're to fully leverage our technical expertise," Gangopadhyay said.

"With an overwhelming majority of the powder metal industry's business in the automotive sector, it's not difficult to see why most P/M companies have been geared toward selling to automotive customers," said Kathy Sample, sales & marketing director, GKN Sinter Metals North American Industrial Products Group.

Sample noted that industrial users of P/M components differ from their automotive counterparts in that they require faster product development lead times; place orders more frequently; require lower-volume production runs, and purchase a greater number of different products. Simply put, they buy smaller quantities more frequendy than traditional P/M customers. "In the formal research we commissioned as well as from dialogues we opened with our customers in various industry sectors, we learned that these differences translate into a greater need for customer-supplier interaction and a more directed and hands-on approach to production issues," she said.

To address the need for greater customer-supplier interaction, IPG created a dedicated Customer Service Team comprised of representatives at all eight GKN Sinter Metals plants that are producing industrial P/M components. Its members may serve as a customer's single point of contact, even when parts are produced in multiple locations. Quicker response time to requests and continuous improvement in customer support are two key team objectives.

To address the need for a more directed and hands-on approach to production issues, IPG has been hiring dedicated product engineers who have specific knowledge in serving the industrial customer. Specific customer-oriented enhancements being brought on line include complete three-dimensional performance modeling, finite element analysis, and rapid prototyping -- to match existing features that include design support in any CAD language, simultaneous engineering, and materials development and analysis.

While Harris is quick to note IPG's relative autonomy from the automotive side of GKN'S business, he is just as quick to detail the advantages of being able to leverage for his industrial customer base the breadth of operating experience and depth of technical expertise gained through GKN Sinter Metals' work on behalf of automotive OEMs and Tier 1 suppliers.

"We tell our customers that they not only have the dedicated resources of IPG, but -- if and when the need arises -- they can rely on our full, global resources to help provide solutions to their production issues," Harris said.

IPG has already taken manufacturing practices developed for the production of automotive customers and adapted them to industrial applications. For example, by employing a multiple material P/M technology, IPG is able to vary material content in different areas of the same component, using the most cost efficient and operationally effective combinations depending on stress loads, temperature swings, and/ or friction levels in a specific location.

In another example, GKN Sinter Metals-Radevormwald, Germany pioneered a warm compaction and green machining process that is gaining popularity among industrial P/M component users. With "regular" sintering, powder metal is compacted, sintered in a furnace to a net or near-net shape, and then machined as required. In contrast, to support the green machining process, powder metal is heated and compacted while "warm." This produces a near-net shape component with a "green" strength sufficient to be machined prior to sintering. Cost-saving advantages include:

* More efficient, in-line processing and faster machining.

* Elimination of lubricants and coolants.

* Substantial reductions in tool wear.

While it has customers in numerous industries, GKN Sinter Metals' North American Industrial Products Group has concentrated primarily on a handftil of non-automotive market segments, which include lawn, garden & outdoor power equipment; recreational vehicles & small engines; power tools, compressors and hydraulic applications.

Its customer base consists of leading names within each of these sectors -- John Deere and Tuff Torq; Polaris Industries and Briggs & Stratton; Copeland and Skil-Bosch, and ICP and Zebra Technologies, to name just a few.

For Harris and IPG, this goal is to become "an accommodating organization for customers to deal with." He said the pieces are falling into place and customers are beginning to take notice -- something that bodes well not just for GKN Sinter Metals and the P/M industry, but for the customers it serves.

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Publication:Diesel Progress North American Edition
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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