When they were asked recently to take a global view of the competitive landscape, several executives at multinational industrial machine-building companies provided perspectives as varied as the machines they sell and the markets they serve. Some common analytical threads were evident, though.
From a technology perspective, the high-performance materials used in newer machines are driving the need for higher performance in machine controls. Customers are demanding more intelligence and diagnostic capabilities in controls.
Geographically speaking, the level of machine control intelligence is driven by varying demand for customization in different markets. Generally, North America is highly innovative and entrepreneurial; Europe is R&D-intensive and more likely to use a consortium approach to manufacturing complex products; and Asia remains more volume-oriented and price-driven. The executives indicate that North America, Europe and Asia generally represent a declining order of machine sophistication and customization.
Global quality standards and currency valuation are just two more factors in the international business environment that potentially pose challenges for machine builders. The executives argue that, in their experiences, third-party global quality standards usually represent a “lower bar” than local and market-driven quality standards. As for the challenges that various countries’ monetary policies and currency valuations present, some companies have reacted by diversifying their manufacturing capabilities so as to meet the demand for customization and insulate themselves from varying and volatile currency valuations.
In short, machine builders’ strategic approach to serving various international markets must be as customized as their machinery. More than ever, adaptability is critical to success.High-Performance Materials, Smarter Controls
To Richard Curless, chief technology officer in the Mag Americas division of Mag Industrial Automation Systems, Sterling Heights, Mich., the biggest change driving the company’s machine controls is more common use of composite materials in equipment for markets that are being greatly impacted by energy costs, such as aerospace and automotive. The company is composed of a group of machine tool and systems companies serving the durable goods industry in North America, Europe and Asia.
“In the past few years there has been a significant change relative to materials,” says Curless. “In aerospace, there has been a leap into composites. It all comes down to the consumption of energy, which is becoming very expensive.” He adds that the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner—which is designed to be 20% more fuel-efficient than comparably sized aircraft—will have a primary structure with up to 50% composite materials. “In the automotive world, it’s been a shift from aluminum to CGI [compacted graphite iron] for engine blocks and heads. You’re starting to see composites in automotive; it’s going to be a whole new world out there.”
The demand for high-strength, lightweight materials also has exploded, says Curless. “When you’ve got a lot of interfaces to deal with and you need structural strength that’s not composite, you need a structural part that you want to use to make up the bulkheads, the landing gears, whatever,” he says. “There’s a tremendous move to titanium and over the past three years, the demand for titanium and titanium machining has just proliferated. There’s not enough equipment in the world today to meet the demands that are coming in the aerospace world for titanium.”
Curless reports that this shift has had a major impact on machines. “New materials are driving the demand for our automated equipment these days,” he says. “We’ve had to develop new tooling, new pieces of equipment that can handle these materials much more readily. Linear motor technology continues to be more capable, so we can have lighter, faster machines with less wear. We started off with linear axes with linear motors. Now we offer a new head design with linear motor technology applied to the A axis and C axis of a head so that there are no gears to drive it. We have new demands for spindle speed, so we’re coming out with higher-speed spindles and more power.”
The changes in machines are, in turn, driving advancements in machine controls, Curless points out. “We just developed a new titanium head and spindle that allows us to have high torque and large tools for stiffness to be able to move titanium,” he says. “We are seeing more-complex axes. There are more five-axis machine tools and a lot more multitasking.”
For example, says Curless, Mag machines use new heads that rotate in the A or C axis; linear motor technology eliminates the need for worms and gears in those head stocks so they can go faster without contact. The result is longer life. Another innovation, adds Curless, is the use of compact motor/drive systems using permanent-magnet motors to generate more torque and power. The use of digital technology in the controls gives the operator better control of dynamics across the entire speed range of machines, he says.
As a result, he says, controls have to get more intelligent than ever. “We’re starting to use laser trackers to calibrate our machinery,” says Curless. Laser trackers capture distance and angles, so the operator can calculate the precise position of machine components throughout its entire range of motion. Curless describes this evolution as a conversion from linear accuracy measurement to volumetric accuracy measurement. Instead of calculating errors on multiple axes, he says, the operator can use the laser tracker to calculate machine component position on any given axis, which drastically reduces calibration time and boosts machine uptime.