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The challenge for Spain: regain momentum.

Cost pressures, falling exports, heightened foreign competition, and the need to upgrade its workforce-the same pressures felt here-are also challenging the Spanish machine-tool industry. Based on a recent tour of the Basque region with its heavy emphasis on machine tools and manufacturing, this challenge is being met by aggressive efforts in automation, research, and training.

Spain, which is fifth among machine-tool producers in the European Community and ninth in the world, for the past decade has exported 46% of its machine-tool production to 120 countries. The US has traditionally been its second largest market (France was last year), behind West Germany. AFM member companies produce 93% of Spanish machines, and these are not simple commodity machines: 50% are CNC.

Alberto Ortueta, general manager, Spanish Machine Tool Builders Association (AFM) hopes AFM members can regain momentum they had in 1990 in the US market. AFM's primary competition in standard machines comes from Taiwan, and, in sophisticated machines, from Italy, France, Japan, and Germany.

AFM's Ortueta is confident Spain can match Germany's best machine tools. "Germany is our largest market and has been for the last ten years. We have quite a good image there, especially in more sophisticated machines, and they are buying more and more every year." Though AFM started in the US selling simpler, standard machines, which people here tended to equate with those from Taiwan, Ortueta says that, in time, the more sophisticated machines will be brought to the US market.

Putting education first

With Spain's 15% unemployment and burdensome taxes and social-security costs, AFM members place a high priority on automation and making the most of their employees. Ortueta is proud of the Experimental Institute for Machine Tools that opened for classes in September. Located in Elgoibar, in the heart of Spain's machine-tool industry, it will provide a broad range of technical training for 600 students everyone from neophytes coming into the industry, AFM employees upgrading their skills, to engineering graduates seeking a master's degree in machine tools. It was financed half by the Basque regional government, a quarter by AFM, and the remainder by local governmental bodies.

AFM companies will lend 14 leading-edge CNC machines to the institute for two-year periods, so that students learn on the most modern machines. Training includes working with CNC machines, CAD/CAM, conventional manual machines, controls, metrology, metallurgy, electronics, and servomechanisms. Professors will rotate between industry and the institute to maintain good ties to actual practice. Pupils also work in AFM companies to gain experience while training. They had no problem coming up with 600 students-they were able to select one of three candidates.

Research efforts

The Basque region has five research centers, cosponsored by industry and the Basque government. Two of these are devoted primarily to the machine-tool industry, the others partially so. All do machine-tool application research on a contract basis.

One of these is Fatronik, a cooperative effort of 16 machine-tool companies. Fatronik has three areas of activities: 1. Contract machining of parts on an advanced flexible manufacturing system, their major R&D project. The idea is to prove that FMS is truly profitable, competitive with other machining methods. 2. R&D projects, based on the needs of the group: integration of CAE/CAD/CAM; static, dynamic, thermal, and noise analyses; intercomputer communications; programmable robots; management of flexible manufacturing systems; shop-floor machine-tool diagnosis; integrated tool management, and design and manufacture of high-speed spindles. 3. A commercial activity, based on R&D project results and developments in other countries, that offers technical hardware and software solutions to member companies and outside companies, both in the Basque region and the remainder of Spain.

Fatronik competes with a nearby R&D group, Ikerlan, sponsored by the Mondragon cooperative. This means some duplication of effort, admits Fatronik's Inaki San Sebastian, "That is a pity, but our two groups represent more than 60% of all the machine-tool activity in Spain. Clearly, the FMS is our most important project, possibly the most complex in Spain. We have been doing very good work with it for three years now."

Meanwhile, the Ikerlan research group is also working on contracted projects and generic ones funded by the Basque government. These include: sensor systems, artificial intelligence, multiprocessing systems for real-time control, local-area networks, process modeling and simulation, high-payload (2000 km) AGVs, and dynamic stabilization of machine-tool and robot vibration.

One Ikerlan project was the integration of machine vision into a robot end effector.

In another project, an FMS reacts to parts randomly arriving via conveyor. It uses video to identify the part, and the system then selects and assembles the correct robotic gripper to grasp the part and load it into the machine and the right turning-center chuck to hold it for machining. After machining, the part is automatically unloaded and inspected. An important factor here was a compliance feature designed into the robot gripper to allow for slight misalignments that could otherwise jam up the whole process.

"Our philosophy," says Ikerlan's Jose-Luis Arroiabe, Ikerlan international relations coordinator, "is to select generic projects that will become viable contracted projects in two or three years time. That is the way to do it, not stay with a generic project for years and find the opportunity has gone. In three years, we have to do something with it."

Milling machine mix

Says Miguel Ajubita, subdirector general of Lagun, a major machine-tool builder in Elgoibar, "Our factory started in 1959, making conventional universal milling machines. Then we bought a plant in Vitoria and began making Bridgeport-type machines. We have since sold that plant, but it will continue making machines (250 machines/month) under the Lagun name for the next eight years and sending a lot of Bridgeport-type machines to the US.

"The Bridgeport-type machine is not popular in Spain, and I don't know why. It's a typical American machine," he laughs. "In Europe, it is very difficult to sell.

"We changed our production to CNC machines in 1981, and today, our leading market is Germany, followed by France, Sweden, Italy, and Portugal. Last year, we exported 85% of our product."

Lagun also makes universal machining centers with automatic tool changing and incremental head positioning. "These are sophisticated machines," he notes. "They are popular in large industries, but not in the smaller ones. The reason is you must buy at least two of them to enable one worker to operate two machines (and eliminate one worker)."

Appliance reliance

For Fagor, a leading Spanish manufacturer of appliances, metal furniture, automotive parts, and the heavy metalforming equipment and stamping presses those industries require, a big decline in their domestic market has been partly offset by improved exports, particularly a new multilingual 32-bit CNC.

One of the largest members of the Mondragon cooperative, Fagor's emphasis on plant automation is now clashing with the long-term promises it made to its workforce. The much admired cooperative concept not only guarantees employment for life, but retirement at full salary. With slowing growth and profits, those promises are becoming hard to keep. Factory workers move from heavy industrial tasks automated away (dirty and dangerous, but curiously more interesting) to clean (seemingly dull) environments assembling electronic controls. Meanwhile, to reduce the total workforce, Fagor is offering veteran workers early retirement at 62 at 80% of salary and doing very little hiring.

The Mondragon cooperative is very large (140 companies), but few individual companies are large. Most are relatively small with as few as 40 people. The key financial benefit is their pooling of resources to form their own bank. "In my opinion," says AFM's Ortueta, 'it is good to be part of such a big group. When the market is down, you can get better support from this bank than a normal bank." Each member company is totally responsible for all their own benefit programs. They do not draw on the resources of others, other than through bank loans.

Yet, at the moment no companies are joining this cooperative. Companies are willing, but the cooperative isn't. Two recent applications were turned down because the companies didn't look good enough to the group, either financially or competitively.

Aerospace ace

Ernesto Echeberria, general manager, DYE, was previously an aeronautical engineer at CASA, the Spanish government's aeronautical group, much like our NASA. MASA (Mecanizaciones Aeronautics, S A) belongs to the DYE Group and was created eight years ago as an auxiliary to CASA to do contract machining of complex aerospace parts, primarily in light aluminum, steel alloys, and titanium.

As Echeberria demonstrated, MASA's primary work during our visit was carving tail section spars for the A-300 Airbus. They also do work for the Boeing 757, McDonnell-Douglas MD-11, Northrup's F-18, preliminary prototype work for the EFA European fighter plane, the ERS earth-resource satellite, and an antenna for the Hispasat Spanish satellite. With Spain guaranteed 12% of all Airbus work, DYE knows it will get a large share of this business.

MASA has a dozen multiple-spindle milling machines (many are five axis) with a total of 40 high-tech milling heads. They are particularly proud of their in-house developed automated system for managing 30,000 cutting tools. A robot automatically assembles each tool-the collet, nut, cutting tool, and toolholder-and a second robot stores and retrieves tool elements and assembled tools in a series of drawer cabinets, and gathers tools to build kits for specific machining operations. A computer handles all tool-management functions, including monitoring tool life. The only human involvement is the regrinding of returning tools before they are returned to stock. Tool setting is not critical because all spindles can make quill adjustments for actual tool length, based on a machine touch-probe measurement.

"This is one major way we increase productivity," says Echeberria. "This also greatly reduces the chances of human error in using the wrong tool and ruining a very expensive part." Their scrap rate is a very respectable 1%, he adds.

They are not believers, however, in tool-breakage detection. They insist on always having an operator present at each machine-too much is at stake with these complex, expensive parts. "There are many systems available, but not one that is 100% safe," he explains.

MASA evolved from DYE's experience building these high-tech milling machines for the aerospace industry. They simply felt they could do better with their own machines than their customers can. This enables us (DYE) to get direct feedback on how our machines are operating and know firsthand which improvements we need to make to achieve better efficiencies. Normally, when you deliver the machine tool to an aerospace customer, you never know how well it is working. That customer doesn't allow you to make tests or modifications to the machine."

Most machine-tool builders, he notes, have two distinct types of milling heads: one high-rpm, high-torque head for aluminum, and one much lower rpm, high torque for titanium. "These machines," he explains, "are bought by both private and state-owned companies who don't mind spending too much money on machine tools-one for steel and one for aluminum.

"The problem of being a subcontractor is that we never know which kind of work we will be getting two months from now-aluminum or titanium. So we have developed a head to cover our full range of milling requirements: very high torque at low rpm (85 rpm) and reasonable power and torque at 4000 to 5000 rpm. What counts is cubic centimeters removed at the end of the day. If going to 6000 rpm means taking a smaller depth of cut, what have you gained? We feel that 4500 rpm is more than enough for big cutters, especially for roughing cuts."

By Eugene Sprow Special Projects Editor
COPYRIGHT 1991 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Sprow, Eugene
Publication:Tooling & Production
Date:Dec 1, 1991
Previous Article:Pattern for progress: a small shop moves up to fast track CAD/CAM software.
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