Contract manufacturers, aka job shops, are the heart and soul of US manufacturing. Their survival and success are imperative. Ensuring this hinges on a willingness to embrace productivity-enhancing technologies that will foster growth and differentiate them from the competition.
For many big OEMs and suppliers, the latest technologies center around highly sophisticated machine tools and systems, monitoring capabilities and automation. But do these same high levels of technology apply to smaller job shops?
Most people would agree that the needs of a five-person shop with three machines and a high mix of low-volume jobs will vary greatly from those of a huge production facility with over 50 machines. And, all those systems are fully automated, connected for process monitoring and running job contracts that involve hundreds, if not thousands, of parts and that span several years.
There is a need to shift more focus on the job shops and supply them similar advancements but scaled to their facilities and individual manufacturing needs. To accomplish this, many of today’s manufacturing technology suppliers offer all-encompassing—but scalable—technology platforms that take into account the needs of both large and small shops.
When we speak of advanced machines and systems designed specifically for job shops, that by no means involves the dumbing down of technology. Instead, it translates into affordable and effective solutions.
Case in point are the simple yet innovative machines designed and built at our plant in Florence, KY. These machines offer job shops capabilities ranging from full simultaneous five-axis milling to complete multitasking with twin turning spindles, milling and Y-axis off-centerline machining.
These are the same capabilities found on the industry’s more sophisticated machines, Mazak’s included. But through component engineering and redesign, we were able to develop cost-effective machines without sacrificing performance or reliability.
Probably the most effective way high-level advanced manufacturing technologies make their way to smaller shops is through machine tool CNCs. Today’s controls are more powerful and capable than any of their predecessors. They provide small shops numerous advanced capabilities, including connectivity and real-time machine monitoring without the need of any additional special equipment.
Shops need simple solutions that drive productivity and minimize downtime. They want to proactively monitor machines for preventive maintenance so that when a machine is down, it was expected and planned for by shifting work to other machines.
Ask the manager of that five-person shop with the three machines how he or she monitors their machines, and the most likely response would be that they open their office door and look out at the machines on the shop floor. But ask them if they know when a bearing is going to need replacing or when a spindle will have to be rebuilt, and that’s not something sticking their head out the office door is going to answer. Machine monitoring will.
Also consider lights-out, untended operations. For those applications, the basic technology involved with networking and digital connectivity in the form of machine CNC-based systems would be beneficial. Such systems could send the shop owner/manager an alert via his or her smartphone or tablet when there are problems and show the machine’s actual display screen on those devices as well. Shops get actual machining process data from the machine’s control—and without the use of any sophisticated, cloud-based Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) network.
Automation is yet another example of high-end technology being tailored to job shop needs. These smaller shops typically lack the floor space—and the number of actual machines for that matter—to accommodate and justify the incorporation of expansive, multi-level palletized automation systems with rail-guided vehicles and stockers that store hundreds of pallets. But they would, however, benefit greatly from the latest in single-machine automation solutions.