Viewpoints: Metalcutting Innovations Support Energy Industry
We are living in an age where innovation and ingenuity are accelerating at such a rapid pace that the global energy landscape has been forever changed. Like the aerospace and medical industries whose booms preceded it, the energy industry is ruled by the maxim that speed is king. From downhole tools to oilfield valves to threaded pipes, manufacturers are challenged to produce increasingly complex parts with smaller lot sizes, quickly, efficiently, and at minimal cost. Achieving these objectives requires that companies look beyond traditional manufacturing approaches to advanced solutions like multitasking machine technology.
When multitasking technology debuted in the early 1980s, the production of complex energy components was as time-consuming as it was costly. The manufacture of a single part could require the use of three, four, or even more machines. Operators were required to complete multiple setups and changeovers of fixtures, tools, and programs, which resulted in low levels of productivity. On the surface, multitasking equipment may have seemed like a good solution, but early machines were lathes with limited milling capabilities that suffered from some lost performance in cycle times. Implementation was simply cost prohibitive.
After 20 years, multitasking machine tools have entered an era of few compromises, and as machine designs evolve, they are expanding opportunities. Going well beyond milling and turning to include drilling, tapping, boring and other peripheral operations, a single machine now turns like a turning center, mills like a machining center, and sometimes eliminates costly operations such as grinding, drilling, threadmilling, and hobbing. These improvements, as well as the inclusion of five-axis simultaneous machining, have allowed for the elimination of tolerance buildups and improvements in throughput, as well as faster machine travel, greater horsepower, better torque characteristics, and higher spindle speeds. Low and high-volume producers alike can now machine parts of varying size and complexity out of hard materials and special alloys like stainless, titanium, Inconel and Hastelloy—all in one setup.
But the benefits of multitasking to the energy industry do not begin and end with done-in-one machining. The technology is also a significant boon to lean manufacturing, a method of thinking and producing that leads to an increase in profit and growth. What is more lean than completing a part in a single setup without the inherent costs of moving the part from machine to machine? Benefiting from a reduction of non-value-added time and accelerated inventory turns, companies can streamline production, increase throughput, and improve efficiencies.
It has not been long since a boom in the energy business shook oil and gas equipment manufacturers out of a 20-year slumber. With the demand for new and refurbished land and offshore rigs showing signs of continued growth, manufacturers must keep pace by producing parts in days, not weeks or months. Multitasking machine tools enable producers to react and respond quickly when parts need to be developed.
Slated to join oil and gas as the world's largest sources of power generation in the coming years, wind energy requires the production of large structural components like towers, blades, and turbine housings.With deliveries on wind turbine orders stretching into 2012, producers that can continue to increase throughput will see significant competitive advantages. As a result, there is high demand for the development of large multitasking equipment that can help manufacturers meet this challenge.
Though all aspects of the energy industry are seeing widespread growth, some may believe that the current economic slowdown presents too great a risk to warrant investment in new machining processes. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Companies that invest in new processes have a step up in manufacturing's natural selection process. These manufacturers will be able to speed delivery while providing the quality and precision demanded by the energy industry. They will also be able to reduce inventory as they produce the broad product mix demanded by their customers. And unlike those that wait for the storm to pass, the energy equipment manufacturers that choose to grab the bull by the horns will own a significant competitive edge not just today or tomorrow but for decades to come.
This article was first published in the January 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.