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Specialization is key to success.

When I look at the machined parts business these days, several industry trends seem very clear. Customers are requiring higher precision and more complex parts at ever lower prices. And more than that, they're demanding much greater product consistency from part-to-part and batch-to-batch.

It seems very likely that these trends will continue. Engineers will keep designing smaller, more complex parts, to tighter tolerances than ever before. And customers' SPC (statistical process control) programs will keep driving the need for greater product consistency. At the same time, there is steady pressure for lower prices.

The question becomes, "How can manufacturers satisfy customers' more demanding quality requirements and still make money in this environment?" I believe the answer is going to be greater specialization. Success will go to those companies that develop a long-term, strategic business plan, decide which markets they want to focus on, and then gear their entire operations toward becoming the lowest-cost, highest-quality producers in that area.

This may seem like common sense to many people, but all too often I see businesses totally driven by short-term, day-to-day profit concerns, rather than focusing on developing and improving a core business. Many firms are trying to be "Jack of all trades," and, as a result, they're "masters of none."

The key to specialization is choosing the right market and then acquiring the most efficient machine tools to serve that market. This means buying the right machine tool for the job.

When considering a machine-tool purchase, you should carefully review the special needs of the market you're going after: the complexity of the parts, the customers' precision requirements, the average volume of the runs. Of course, other factors enter into this decision, too, such as setup and changeover, cycle time, and technological advances in the machine tools themselves.

The technology of lathes far surpasses the current capability of many machines in use today. Single-spindle CNC machines with two to seven axes and the ability to consistently hold tolerances in the 0.0002" to 0.0003" range are readily available. These machines have the ability to turn, drill, mill, and perform other operations on the same machine with a single setup. The savings can be significant: less floor space is required, a reduction in WIP is realized, there are lower scrap rates because of fewer setups and handlings, and lower labor content.

The technology of multiple-spindle automatics has also gone through a revolutionary change. Today, six-and eight-spindle machines are available that can maintain production tolerances of 0.0003" to 0.0005". Another significant development is the introduction of CNC to the multiple-spindle market. Six-spindle multiple-spindle machines are available, either completely CNC controlled with up to 22 axes, or with one or two CNC slides.

Rotary-transfer technology also has advanced. Entry-level machines in this market are simple 6-, 8-, 10-, and 12-station machines that provide an economical approach to primary and secondary operations. Some machines are designed specifically for one product, while others are designed to be changed over easily to support the JIT requirements that are becoming commonplace today. At the top end of the category, full CNC machines with up to 30 axes are available.

To be competitive, the goal is to have machine tools that will allow you to optimize production volume and quality, while keeping scrap and overhead to a minimum. It's always desirable, for example, to choose a machine tool that can eliminate the need to perform secondary operations.

And, of course, you want to have reliable, user-friendly machines that will simplify operator training and require the least amount of maintenance. In short, you need to consider the total, bottom-line return a machine has to offer over its operating life.

By focusing on developing a particular niche market and buying the best machine tools to serve that market, specialist firms can perfect their processes and gain a very powerful price and quality edge over their "generalist" competitors. This type of competitive business approach will serve specialist firms and their customers extremely well as we move into the 90s.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Eckler, Thomas
Publication:Tooling & Production
Article Type:Column
Date:Sep 1, 1991
Words:670
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