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Get an Edge with Multitasking


Re-think your business approach to maximize overall benefits


By Jim Destefani
Senior Editor


By now, the production-oriented benefits of multitasking machine technology are pretty well known. Completing complicated parts in a single setup on one machine reduces work-in-process inventory and lead times, cuts labor costs, and boosts part quality by eliminating multiple fixturings. 

In a broader business sense, multitasking machines can lead to even more profound changes for many shops. Achieving the full advantages of multitasking, however, may require a thorough re-examination of the way you market your shop's capabilities, the way you quote jobs, how you handle inventory, and the way you schedule production.

For example, multitasking technology can create a more even flow of shipments by allowing you to machine in ship-sets. More even shipments can result in more consistent cash flow, a big business-oriented benefit for shops large and small.       

According to machine builder Mazak Corp. (Florence, KY), one of its customers produces all three components of an assembly consisting of a shaft, collar, and flange on one of its Integrex multitasking machines. The "all-in-one" machining and assembly cell allows the shop to ship completed assemblies several times rather than once a month. Although the individual components might be machined faster using stand-alone machining and turning centers, the benefits of more even throughput, shipments, and cash flow override the importance of machining cycle time.

Following are some ideas from multitasking machine builder Mori Seiki (Irving, TX), as well as a more detailed case study from Mazak, that illustrate how multitasking capability can reshape the way your shop does business.

Market Speed. Multitasking can have a profound effect in terms of lead time reductions, and you must market the new-found speed of your business, Mori Seiki says.

The basics of participating in a market-any market-are defined by the five Ps: product, price, prompt, promotion, and place.

  • Product: The correct product must exist, in this case fast part delivery.
  • Price: A price must be established, in this case including a premium for rush service.
  • Prompt: The product must be timely with the demand for it; in this case, your customer must know about you at the same time they need your services.
  • Promotion: The market must know about the product's availability. In this case, you must let your target audience know that you can deliver faster than anyone else.
  • Place: The product must be available at the prospect's location. In this case, your sales force must close the sale.

If any of these five ingredients is missing, you can't sell effectively, because you're not establishing your place in the market in which you sell.

Shops can take advantage of their ability to provide quick turnarounds by asking how much extra a customer will pay for rush service and by actively seeking out special opportunities where speed is important: These may include emergency orders, JIT production runs, part prototyping/rapid development, and real-time production adjustments.

Emphasize Customer Service. Conduct a new market analysis to see how multitasking can solve challenges in your customers' businesses, Mori Seiki suggests. Again, this approach is based on employing some basic marketing principles and research.

To start, you need to develop a hypothesis regarding your customers' business--in other words, guess what their pain points are. Next, perform some research within your target market to determine what the pain points actually are--in other words, validate or disprove your hypothesis.

Now you can develop a product or service specifically to address your customers' pain points. Research will validate whether or not the product/service actually addresses the pain points. At this stage, you are ready to start selling your new product or capability, then go back to the beginning and start over again.

The major benefit of this approach is that it mitigates risk. You are not guessing what your customers may need from you; they're telling you what they need. By presenting your new capabilities to your customers and intimately working with them during product development, you have the greatest opportunity to win the business once it moves to the production stage because you have formed a relationship.

You also may be able to get some of the prototype work, which again plays to the strengths of multitasking machines. Also, customers who work with you to design their parts will design parts optimized for manufacturing on multitasking equipment.

Managing Raw Materials Inventories. By seriously looking at the products it manufactures, a shop can often reduce their raw material needs by as much as 50%, according to Mori Seiki.

An example of this is a manufacturer who dedicates a group of parts to a machine. Say, for example, that 75% of these parts are produced from round bar stock less than 3" (76 mm) in diameter. There may be completely square parts in the family; the key is that they can all be made from one size of raw material.

For smaller parts, material cost goes up. But, because the parts can be manufactured in small lot sizes on demand, the value achieved is higher than the added material cost. By only purchasing one size of raw material, the raw stock inventory can be reduced and managed more easily. Inventory space and lead time are reduced, and in some cases a discount can be arranged with your raw material supplier if you purchase only one specific size of material at a managed rate.

Fixturing and Tooling Reduction. Because a multitasking machine can produce complex milled shapes out of round bar versus flat stock or square bar, a standard three-jaw chuck can replace multiple fixtures in some cases, Mori Seiki says. The part may require machining away 95% of all material, but the overall savings on fixturing, especially if the part is revised, is greater than the additional material costs. A new set of jaws is much less expensive than a complex rework of a fixture to machine a five-sided part.

Similarly, by loading the magazine of a multitasker and trying to maximize utilization of one tool across multiple parts, shops can reduce tooling costs. Tool management is simplified, because fewer tools are required in the shop. Once tooling inventory is at a reduced level, tool life can be predicted. Ultimately, tooling inventories can be reduced further through the use of more advanced functions like tool life management and load monitoring.       

One shop that has taken advantage of multitasking capability to change the way it does business and separate itself from the pack of competitors is Sheffer Corp. (Cincinnati).

In the business of manufacturing hydraulic and pneumatic cylinders since 1952, Sheffer has grown to 135 employees at two manufacturing plants in Cincinnati and Atlanta. The company produces more than 150,000 cylinders a year for fluid- and pneumatic-power applications in virtually every industry.

Recently, the highly competitive nature of the cylinder business led company managers to develop a production challenge: for orders on standard cylinders from customers in the company's free-membership Gold Program, it's "three or free." This means Sheffer basically guarantees shipment within three days of order receipt or it's free.

This is no small challenge, as Sheffer's cylinder product lines can be configured to produce upwards of eight million variations. Not all possible configurations qualify for the "three or free" program, but even standard features on most cylinders require machining expertise.

Chamfered ends, for example, are machined into the end of each piston tube to facilitate field maintenance and repair. If the piston and rod need to be removed to repair seals, for example, the chamfer physically compresses the seal into the piston when the piston is pushed back in. Most cylinders also are produced with four full wrench flats, meaning most cylinders present a flat for installation or adjustment with normal tools.       

Given increasing competition and its own "three or free" commitment on many products, Sheffer launched a lean manufacturing initiative in mid-2003. "Business has picked up quite a bit, but mill prices are up, and pressure to reduce prices from customers is constant," says President Jeff Norris. "Actually, price pressures have been ongoing for quite a while, but in the past year, price-reduction demands from customers have been anywhere from 5% on up."

The company's goal is to move away from batch manufacturing, which involves constantly staging a certain amount of work-in-process inventory on the production floor, to a make-to-order system, where plant production is efficiently manufacturing for orders already received. Completing this transition (and making a profit while doing so) requires the ability to respond and produce quickly.

Reconfiguring existing production lines into quick-response cells yielded some benefits for Sheffer, but the biggest roadblock to continuous improvement was setup time, according to Norris. And, although "three or free" proves the company can respond quickly on orders for standard configurations, so can the competition. In Norris's view, the biggest opportunities lie in orders for specialty cylinders--a fraction of the company's business at present, but an area Norris believes will play an increasing role in driving revenues and profits.

"On our specials, we felt we and our competitors were in the same boat," he says. "No one was distinguishing themselves on performance. Even for a single one-off specialty cylinder, a six- to eight-week lead time is average. We saw this as a great opportunity to attack setup and lead time."

Producing even a single specialty cylinder involves making anywhere from seven to 10 components, each requiring four or five operations. Cylinder head and cap bodies, for example, may require turning, machining on multiple faces, holemaking, and threading on multiple faces, followed by finishing.

Sheffer had been investigating multitasking machine tool technology, which would allow turning, milling, drilling, threading, and finishing in a single setup on a single machine, for several years. In 2002, Mazak Corp. (Florence, KY) introduced its mid-sized Integrex 300-IISY multitasking machine, and Sheffer jumped.

The multitasker could machine parts complete in a single setup, enabling cost reductions in labor, fixtures, and tooling while improving quality. If a turned part needs machining on its back side, for example, the machine automatically transfers the part to the second spindle for additional processing without operator involvement.

According to Norris, making specialty cylinder components on the Integrex machine cuts at least two full weeks out of the lead time for specialty cylinders while matching the output of four separate machines. "Not only do we reduce work-in-process, we are cutting out what we call quality gaps because the part isn't repositioned three or four times on separate machines," he says. "I wouldn't look at another separate lathe and horizontal machining center setup for new equipment unless business absolutely dictated it."


This article was first published in the May 2004 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. 

Published Date : 5/1/2004

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