here’s a change in nomenclature at this year’s IMTS: Attendees looking for what was the Alternative Manufacturing Processes pavilion will be directed instead to Metal Forming & Fabricating/Laser. These processes include metal forming, fabrication, waterjet and laser-based machining, welding, metal treating and marking. In broadcasting, "alternative music" was a catchall term for musicians that had a following but were deemed outside the mainstream; that label became less meaningful once so-called "alternative" groups such as U2 and REM began appearing on TIME magazine covers and headlining stadium tours. Similarly, the manufacturing processes championed by the companies in this pavilion have moved beyond the status of upstarts with only cult followings: they’re all proven mainstream successes.
The competitive landscape and still-slow economy requires continuous innovation and creativity in order to stay at the top of the charts. Tim Dining, president of hydraulic press maker Greenerd Press & Machine Co. (Nashua, NH) sees reason for some optimism: "As we enter mid-year 2012, the US manufacturing sector continues to experience slow but steady improvement," he notes. "The Purchasing Managers’ Index has stayed above 50 since August 2009 and has been steady around 53 for nearly a year. North America has also been benefitting from ‘reshoring’ activities while the Chinese economy continues to cool down."
"For more than a year now, we have been seeing
customers invest in
The economic improvement has allowed Greenerd customers to be willing to invest in new technology, Dining says. "For more than a year now, we have been seeing customers invest in productivity improvement in both metalforming and compression molding processes. We are seeing the most activity in automotive, appliance, aerospace, and medical device markets. Our customers are showing increasing interest in automation, quick die change, remote machine communications, and RFID."
Greenerd will focus on custom solutions at IMTS 2012. In addition to showcasing the company’s extensive hydraulic press capabilities—their presses range from gap frame and straight-side to die-spotting and forging presses—company application experts will be available at their booth to discuss specific user applications and press requirements.
Recession Ripples in Waterjet
In the waterjet cutting field, as in the larger fabricating arena, "there is a desire to respond to increasing business and, at the same time, a concern about increasing capital spending," notes Flow International (Kent, WA) vice president Chip Burnham. "The reverberations of the last recession still echo, so the capital equipment upswing has been slow. The job shop business is an interesting barometer of the North American fabrication sector: Those shops that have been willing to aggressively add waterjet equipment have been rewarded, and in the short time since the recovery began, some have even returned to buy additional equipment."
Among Flow’s customers, the trend is to go with one of two approaches, Burnham says: "The value-priced equipment approach, where capital spending is minimized, and the ‘all in’ approach where sophisticated and highly advanced waterjets are purchased with 3-D cutting capabilities and enormous cutting envelopes."
At IMTS, visitors to Flow’s booth will see equipment appropriate for either approach. The company’s Mach 2 Essential Waterjet line of classic waterjet machines process flat plate material up to 6" (152.4 mm) to "good tolerances at reasonable cutting speeds," Burnham says. At the other end of the scale, the new Mach 4 machine tool provides bevel and 3-D capability with an optional large work envelope, and superior productivity and precision. The booth will also showcase a learning center, "where users can educate themselves on how waterjet works, the different pump technologies available, [and] how to program this incredibly versatile yet easy-to-use system," Burnham says.
Pump technology is a major focus at Omax Corp. (Kent, WA), according to the company’s president and CEO, John Cheung. "Direct-drive pump technology has doubled operating life compared to earlier Omax designs, makes for faster part processing, lowers operating costs and allows for easier maintenance," he says. "While Omax was once the only company to utilize direct-drive pump technology, today more and more abrasive waterjet manufacturers are recognizing that the benefits of direct-drive technology significantly outweigh those of intensifier pumps. We continue to focus on leading development of new innovations within the technology." Cheung points to the company’s latest EnduroMAX direct-drive pumps, as an example, for their ability to deliver "more power to the cutting nozzle, where it matters most. While some people think higher psi is the key to better performance, it’s actually high hydraulic horsepower that drives raw cutting power."
Another trend within the waterjet industry involves developing new ways to make manufacturing operations easier and more precise while also reducing the need for secondary operations, Cheung notes. His company’s response includes a new version of their Intelli-MAX Software that is focused on improved cutting strategies, including a feature that makes the company’s A-Jet articulated cutting head suitable for fully automated taper compensation. "This means the A-Jet not only makes angled cuts and bevels, but also automatically corrects to eliminate the taper normally found in an abrasive waterjet cut," according to Cheung.
At IMTS, Omax will feature the A-Jet as well as the premium 80X JetMachining Center Series and the MAXIEM 1530 and 0707 JetCutting Centers. Version 18 of Intelli-MAX software will be featured on all machines at the show, Cheung says, noting that the latest software upgrade features system monitoring that provides machine feedback throughout the cutting process.
Citing Sources in Laser
An important trend in the laser field is the increased number and type of laser sources available for materials processing, according to Terry VanderWert, president of Prima North America (Chicopee, MA).
"This includes lasers with ultra-short pulse lengths—to femtosecond—and lasers with shorter and longer wavelengths than those of lasers that have been the ‘workhorses’ of the industry," VanderWert says. "The wide range of laser choices available today allows users to select laser sources that are optimized for the materials to be processed and for the nature of the process or processes for which the system is to be used, whether it be cutting, welding, drilling, micromachining or a combination of these."
At IMTS, the company’s Prima Power Division, which is responsible for laser and sheetmetal machinery, will highlight its 2-D and 3-D laser cutting, drilling, and welding systems supplied to automotive, aerospace, sheetmetal, agricultural and construction equipment, medical device, precision instruments and other manufacturers. Featured will be the Laserdyne 430, a three or four-axis laser system for precision cutting, drilling, and welding of small-to-medium size parts. The Prima Electro Division—responsible for laser sources, electronics, and motion control products—will highlight the new, modular OPENcontrol CNC and servo control products. "Prima Electro will also present for the first time its OEM laser sources from Convergent, which has a history that can be traced to 1961," VanderWert says. "Until recently, these laser sources were supplied only within the Prima Group but are now available to laser system manufacturers outside the company."
A Green Tightrope
Green concerns are also making an impact in this field, according to Jeff Hahn, laser product leader at MC Machinery Systems Inc. (Wood Dale, IL). "Industrywide, there’s a push to be more eco-friendly. This means using less input material and less assist gas, using less energy to operate, or taking up less of a physical footprint. But in doing so, there can’t be any loss of precision, performance or production. In fact, there’s an equal push to be more precise, more productive," notes Hahn. "It’s a constant tightrope walk, but it’s paying dividends."
In laser, concern about how the industry impacts the natural world is concurrent with concern about how the natural world is in turn impacting the industry. Specifically, Hahn points out, there is a diminishing global supply of helium—a component of laser gas: "Given the short supply, the price is skyrocketing—some might say back to its real value—and because helium is nonrenewable, there’s going to be no going back." MC Machinery systems will display several new technologies and product lines at IMTS 2012, including the company’s new wire EDM cylindrical drive technology, waterjet series, and its milling line.
The Prod of Productivity
Industry demand for productivity improvements remain an impetus for change, observes Deanna Postlethwaite of The Lincoln Electric Co. (Cleveland, OH) Automation Div. "The manufacturing industry is challenging traditional fabrication methods more than ever to find productivity solutions, to improve quality and to reduce overall costs," she notes. "Many unique applications are being considered for automation and robotics. New technologies are also gaining acceptance. Laser welding and cutting technology is making amazing advancements, driven by manufacturing demand."
"There’s a push to be more
eco-friendly [and] an equal push
to be more precise, more productive.
It’s a constant tightrope walk."
Workforce development needs are also bringing pressure to bear, says Postlethwaite. "Industry is working with a vengeance on the challenge of the lack of skilled workers. Many fabricators are working directly with schools in their area to define needs and skills for employees. Larger manufacturers are implementing in-house screening, evaluation, and training programs to raise the skill set of their existing workforce." By implementing robotics and automation, the manufacturing industry can complement training efforts to raise efficiency and productivity, she says. Lincoln Electric will feature a robotic welding education cell at IMTS as well as new products, including an advanced robotic welding power source, Power Wave R500; Guardian fire-prevention solutions; and the company’s VRTEX 360 virtual reality welding system, which will be enhanced with a software release providing aluminum GMAW, video replay, and learning levels. ME
This article was first published in the August 2012 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.