Hard Targets

Machine Builders Draw a Bead on the Often Difficult to Determine Needs of Their Customers With New Levels of Collaboration and Capabilities

By Jim Montague

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January 2010In the past, machine building followed the old ready, aim, fire scenario. Now it's more like ready, aim — listen, discuss, collaborate — fire. However, the only catch is this newer more cooperative method must be done faster than the old way. 
For instance, there are only so many hands in two-man shops such as Pfeifer Industries in Naperville, Ill. As a result, consolidating its three-machine process into two is a pretty big deal. And then, getting one of the remaining machines to do its own inspections and run unattended is positively huge.

Even though such giant leaps in productivity are rare in manufacturing, Pfeifer's co-owners, Jim Donovan and Brian Nass, recently accomplished it by teaming up with machine builder Mori Seiki USA in Hoffman Estates, Ill. Pfeifer make metric timing belts and pulleys that don't stretch over time and can go on any automotive, machine tool or other drive that  uses chains or v-belts, which do stretch over time.

To make its pulleys, Pfeifer formerly turned them on a CNC lathe, drilled bolt holes on a vertical machining center and hobbed the pulleys' teeth on a gear hobber. To simplify this procedure, Pfeifer implemented Mori Seiki's NL 2000 SMC gantry-loaded CNC lathe just two years ago. NL 2000 includes a multi-spindle, live tool and one standard axis, which eliminates the need for the machining center.

And the good news didn't end there. Pfeifer added Mori Seiki's first HydroGage automated gauging system to its NL 2000 just over a year ago. HydroGage works like an air gauge, but it replaces air with high-pressure, high-volume coolant (Figure 1) and then precisely  checks the fluid's back pressure to inspect Pfeifer's bore accuracy to within 0.0004 in. Another advantage is that Hydrogage's 1,000 lb of outward pressure never allow it to get dirty like other instruments. "We can even set up a low and high tolerance band, such as 0.0006–0.0002 in., and let our NL 2000 inspect its own parts, auto correct itself and run unattended overnight," explains Donovan. "We no longer need a guy to stand in front of the machine and measure every part as it comes out. As a result, Mori Seiki saved us a lot of time and gave us a lot of confidence and peace of mind."

Also, once Pfeifer was familiar with HydroGage, Donovan says he and Nass returned Mori Seiki's favor by showing the builder where some real-world pitfalls might crop up. "Mori Seiki's guys, Greg Hyatt and Nitin Chaphalkar, really helped us with setting up HydroGage, and then took our suggestions for making it into a quick-change tooling device. Now, we can switch it in and out in 15 sec, instead of the 15-20 minutes it used to take," adds Donovan. "Looking at it now, we should have added a y-axis because that would have eliminated the need for the hobber, and we then could do everything in one machine. We'll probably do that in the future."

Zero In

Accurately identifying and meeting the needs of industrial-machine users was never easy, and it's speeding up and getting a lot more complicated lately. Many machine builders that used to simply design, build, sell and provide basic support for their devices find themselves in ever-closer, accelerated and often pricklier relationships with customers, and these longer-term arrangements, often based on total cost of ownership (TCO), can span much of the lifetime of their machines.

Of course, competition and economics always drive manufacturers and their machine builders to improve quality, offer more varied capabilities and do more and more with less and less. However, the recent global recession and continuing lack of credit for operating capital amplifies these forces and puts even more pressure on users and builders, especially those in automotive and related industries.

"Users in some industries have cut their short-term technology purchases, but many still need to produce new products that they can't make on existing equipment," explains Hyatt, who is Mori Seiki's engineering vice president. "In addition, energy and raw material costs are only going to rise, so aerospace manufacturers, for example, need to build more fuel-efficient engines. However, they can't handle many of these new materials, alloys, geometries and tolerances with their existing tools, so they're going to need new machines."

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