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Machine-tool builders cope with change.

In our recently concluded series, Survive-85, we looked at a number of US industries struggling in a fight against foreign competition. What we actually described in these articles was the process of change. Changes--in global economy, in the rate of development and application of new technology, and even in management philosophy of manufacturing companies--have sent industries scrambling to find ways to cope, or perhaps even survive. Most of the industries that we studied were once world leaders that enjoyed superior market positions, and set the tone for product innovations. Not so today. Just look at automobiles and steel.

One of the industries we reported on in our series was US machine tools. (See pg 35 of our June issue.) To say that it is in trouble is an understatement. Recently, however, the US machine-tool industry did something unusual--it decided to look at itself for solutions to its problems. Member companies of the National Machine Tool Builders' Association felt it was time to coordinate talents within the industry and work toward becoming competitive in world markets.

The first step toward this goal was a conference held in Chicago, billed as the First International Machine Tool Research Forum. It was attended by over 250 senior machine-tool-company executives, researchers, and chief engineers. They came to hear their peers, university professors, and representatives of government agencies.

The tone of the forum was set by NMTBA's elected president, James L Koontz, CEO of Kingsbury Machine Tool Corp, who cautioned that this industry must begin thinking less in terms of incremental change. He said, "The US machine-tool industry needs a spirit of imagination to trigger new approaches to the needs of today's factory. This forum is designed to provide that spirit."

The technical presentations focused on advanced technologies, ranging from broad concepts to specific details. Untended machining, machine vision, and factory control systems were some of the subjects, combined with details on machining vibration analysis, cutting-tool monitoring, and precision metrology. There were no surprises.

Observations made by some of the speakers, however, were very telling. They set a theme throughout the meeting that said the business of manufacturing is changing. Forget about traditional approaches to your business or risk being left behind. As Koontz admonished, bureaucratic rigidity must be replaced with entrepreneurial agility. One speaker questioned whether this industry is being helped or hampered by the glut of new technology. Eric Kline, manager, Machine Technology R&D, Cincinnati Milacron, thinks we have an overabundance of solutions looking for problems. His concern is that this condition diverts attention from ordinary problems that plague the machine-tool industry.

Some of the most sharply focused observations, however, were made by Dr Keith E McKee, director, Manufacturing Productivity Center, IIT Research Institute. He said that this industry's picture of itself is too narrow. It should be thinking about ways to combine primary and secondary machining operations, as well as other processes that go beyond traditional metalcutting and metalforming. It may have to consider building special-purpose machines in quantities of one, rather than think only in terms of machines as commodities to be sold in batches of hundreds. He suggested that the industry should call itself manufacturing tool builders, not machine-tool builders. Keith believes that continuing to focus on traditional markets will no longer prove productive, and pointed out that user companies now are spending more money on CAD/CAM than on machine tools.

Finally, we have to ask what this forum proved? Will it bring improvements to the US machine-tool industry? Will machine-tool users ultimately see better products and service?

A spot survey of some of the attendees found much enthusiasm for the idea of collaboration for the purpose of exchanging useful information. One speaker remarked that, only a few years ago, people in the machine-tool industry would never have met to discuss common technical problems. Whether it will benefit the industry remains to be seen. Only the ultimate success (or failure) of member companies will tell.

Success of this forum will be evident when a healthy and progressive US machine-tool industry is totally capable of supplying users with technically advanced, fully integrated, totally reliable manufacturing machines and systems, and be able to service them in an efficient and timely way. If this first forum helps move the industry toward that goal, then more meetings should be planned, held more often than every year or two, and with more focus on solving mutual problems. This may be the only way machine-tool builders can cope with change.
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Article Details
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Author:Green, Dick
Publication:Tooling & Production
Article Type:column
Date:Oct 1, 1985
Previous Article:PC-based CAD-CAM is on the move.
Next Article:Expert systems expertise.

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