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Viewpoints: Boost Spindle Use to Increase Profits

 Jim King


By Jim King
President & COO
Okuma America Corporation
Charlotte, NC
Web site:
Twitter: @jkokuma

In the past three years, we have seen our industry live through one of the toughest downturns in history. However, we have recovered faster than any experts forecasted and, hopefully, from the depths of dispair will come great innovation. Our industry has been given a chance to perform better than any other in the world. The innovation, productivity, drive and creativity of the skilled machinists, programmers, operators and engineers could lead us to be better than we were before the downturn.

Looking into the future of manufacturing, we see several new trends. One is the need to increase the flexibility of manufacturing techniques and become more efficient with the use of technology. As an industry, we need to focus our energy on helping manufacturers become more competitive. We need to challenge each other to provide better solutions to solve the toughest manufacturing challenges. Among them: How can we do more with existing machines, or, when we add capacity, how do we make sure it is flexible?

Regardless of the success of the operation, there are always opportunities for improvement. Every organization has worked hard to build a great business, but if you walk through most shops today, you’d find areas within existing processes that are either inefficient or not cost effective. We see tremendous overlap in the challenges faced by manufacturers.

Take the time to think about all of the tasks the set-people and operators perform today. Consider the degrees of risk and cost associated with these tasks and consider if technology could reduce or eliminate some of these tasks. Key areas of focus are improved spindle utilization, reduced cost of ownership, labor costs, operator errors and tooling costs.

Increasing spindle utilization can have the largest impact to the profitability and competitiveness of any manufacturer. In fact, many spindles often sit idle. Low spindle utilization can be caused by a number of possible reasons:

  • Long setup and changeover times, which is an even bigger problem if you run low-production lot sizes
  • Limited skilled labor availability
  • Bottlenecks in first-piece inspection or inspection in general
  • Operator errors causing part quality problems or crashing machines, causing idle time while the machine is repaired
  • Cutting tool failures
  • Delays in identifying problems in real time, which becomes even more important when running small lots of parts

The industry "gold standard" for spindle utilization is 80–90% per day based on 24 hours. But we’ve found these problems cut average spindle utilization in most plants down to 30–40%. This can be addressed through advanced technology.  

Real-time data is critical in determining actual spindle run time. Alarm history, setup and changeover, machine downtime, and even field service response time all must be tracked to get a true picture. This technology is available, if only manufacturers would use it.

Today, control technology exists that lets one use third-party hardware and software to eliminate operator intervention that leads to quality problems and tool life management issues. An open-architecture control allows one to hook up off-the-shelf gauges to automatically make adjustments without needing operator input, reducing the chance for error.

Something as simple as a pallet changer can make a big difference. Take, for example, a typical vertical machining center with one table. This configuration requires that the operator load and unload the work piece while the door is open and inoperable—meaning the spindle is idle. If a pallet changer were incorporated, the operator could load and unload the workpiece outside of the machine’s enclosure. In this scenario, the spindle will be idle only during the brief time that the pallet changer is exchanging the pallets, potentially enabling the operator to man multiple machines.

This is not new information nor is it earth shattering. But it is important. We must continue to find ways to incorporate and use technology. With the lack of skilled labor, we need to focus on spindle utilization as one way to keep that competitive edge. It will take discipline by all parties, but it can be done. ME


This article was first published in the June 2012 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF


Published Date : 6/1/2012

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