In today's business environment, landing large capital equipment orders is no easy task. End users and manufacturers are under such intense economic pressure these days that it creates a very unrealistic environment. I know it's harder for us to have an honest dialog with our customers because many of them don't want to hear that it's going to take longer than the time they budgeted to build, deliver, set up, and train their staff on a new machine. As a result, schedules leave little time for proper planning and foresight, and unrealistic budgets or "budgets by subtraction" have everyone expecting equipment that needs to do everything but is insufficiently funded.
We design and manufacture standard and custom three-, four- and five-axis CNC machine tools, high-pressure water deburring machines, and automatic tool storage and retrieval systems. We qualify our proposals with realistic, accurate cost estimates and long-enough lead times, so our customers can plan properly and budget for machine purchases. However, more and more, it seems Tier 1 and Tier 2 suppliers pursue long-term contracts at prices that will land the order, but without a true cost picture. Later, they're forced to back-calculate the available or leftover funds for capital equipment once other costs are subtracted.
In a new twist, during a recent, nine-month effort to secure an order, we also got caught in somewhat of a corporate civil war. It pitted one facility against another, each in different states, competing for the same project. We began presenting at one facility, but six months in, the project was moved to the other facility. Our sales effort had to restart from square one. We had to rebuild trust and confidence. It also meant we had a whole new set of hoops to jump through because the new team members had an entirely different idea of what they wanted and a different budget.
Larger users often have many internal groups to satisfy and many more technical resources at their disposal. Each of these groups serves different functions, often with priorities that are at odds with the others. This internal friction impedes rather than speeds up decisions. There are groups that represent safety, facilities, IT, tooling, production, etc.—all with input, requirements and concerns that need to be addressed. It's hard for everyone to balance doable vs. economical, but smaller organizations often seem able to make choices more efficiently.
For instance, we recently worked with a small aerospace parts manufacturer to add RFID capabilities to our new X-Flex two-zone, vertical milling machine, which features reconfigurable work tables for manufacturing both small and large parts. We offered new machine functionality for aircraft manufacturing by adding six pallet-and-receiving stations into a 20x20x240 in. work cube. This allows users to load any of 30-40 work-holding devices to any of the six pallet receivers. Each work-holding device is a special-purpose fixture needed to manufacture specific parts of 30-40 part families.
In the middle of this project, the customer decided to increase the functionality of the machine, so we added the ability to quick-change long, 20x120 in. T-slot tables into the machine, as well as a large, 80 in. long, fourth-axis, under-hung trunnion, CNC contouring table. This ability to reconfigure quickly greatly helped this customer's manufacturing process. It also met the corporate definition of lean manufacturing because the customer could buy one machine to replace two smaller machines, and do long-part machining as well. Our aerospace parts maker ultimately decided it needed an RFID system on the machine as well.
Initially, this customer also thought it needed elaborate, one-off, proprietary job management software estimated at about $300,000. Instead, we found the right people to listen, and convinced them to implement a simple match-code program software instead. This software took only about 150 hours to develop, so we were able to do it for only $15,000-$20,000 extra. We used existing tools, some CNC software, and collaborated with our user, who provided many good ideas that we were able to incorporate as a pragmatic, affordable solution that could be quickly implemented.
Richard Bertsche is founder and president of Bertsche Engineering (www.bertsche.com) in Buffalo Grove, Ill.