Viewpoints: A New Role for System Suppliers
Looking ahead to the time when vehicle production stabilizes, it's evident that vehicle producers will want greater support from manufacturing-system providers. Financial independence and stability, R&D commitment, global presence, demonstrated problem-solving capability, process expertise, local production and service, qualified personnel, and a proven ability to meet the customer's total-cost-of-ownership requirements will top the list of desired characteristics.
All this represents a tall order, and will become even more critical.The stakes are too important for vehicle producers to simply pick the least-costly machinery. Cycle times and process capability should be of paramount concern.
The first vital requirement is local production and service.
Our company realizes that building in North America helps keep its costs competitive, reduces shipping cost, and shortens delivery times. In global terms, the US is currently a relatively low-cost country. And when you consider Michigan's skilled workforce and the euro/dollar relationship, US-based manufacturers gain a cost advantage over offshore competitors. This works directly to the benefit of our customers, who get respected German machine tool technology in reliable and maintainable systems designed and serviced by Americans.
To produce machining centers, our company sources a substantial portion of the necessary machine components and subsystems in the US, primarily in Michigan and Canada. One of the effects of creating a regional supplier network in this time of recession has been the employment of more than 800 Michigan-area skilled personnel through these companies.This is the personnel part of the package that a supplier must bring to the vehicle manufacturer.
Then there is project management. Systems are complex. Managing the design, engineering, machine building, integration, and installation of these complex system components is a key competency of successful manufacturing system providers operating in Europe, Asia, and South America, as well as North America.
System providers must be experienced at taking on globally based full turnkey projects for the creation of sophisticated machining systems, from raw-part machining through preassembly. The reduction in manufacturing engineering and project management capabilities at the OEMs and Tier One suppliers will make this service more essential going forward.
As the automotive world evaluates suppliers, several factors relative to vehicle production are not likely to change.
Vehicles will be produced in the millions. There may be greater variation in the types of vehicles produced, but the volumes still exemplify high production. This requires production flexibility and an optimized process.
Process engineering and project management, planning a project from raw parts to finished components or products, will become even more important. To provide this essential service, system suppliers must start with simultaneous engineering to optimize process capability and production efficiency during the planning phase, to smooth the path at startup. The process must be proven. To accomplish this task, suppliers will compete for engineering personnel, as systems suppliers take on more responsibility for delivering production.
Piece cost will also remain a key concern. Manufacturing system suppliers must be able to bring simulation capability to OEM and tier producers that can predict process stability, cycle times, and piece costs—before any production begins.
Local service support will be vital. Parts producers are less able to troubleshoot systems and, due to lean production, downtime in any plant will not be tolerated. Again, systems suppliers will take on greater responsibility for delivering production.
Assembling machines within a market ensures part producers of rapid response to their requirements. If system suppliers want to sell here, they must be able to build and service here. The vehicle production industry will always require that kind of close support.
With deep engineering expertise, system providers should also be able to modify machines to better handle workpieces. For example, we put an A-axis trunnion on heavy-duty machining centers being built to machine large engine cylinder heads; other builders would have used a B-axis fixture, standing the part on its end. Our approach keeps the part horizontal and low on the table, supporting part stability during cutting.
As the industry returns to a more stable level of production, vehicle builders are going to expect more from their suppliers than ever before. Going forward, the most capable suppliers will be even more essential to the success of vehicle makers. This situation spells great opportunity—and great responsibility— for those system suppliers that are up to the task.
This article was first published in the August 2009 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.