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Clues to the Future of Manufacturing

Alan Rooks
By Alan Rooks Editor in Chief, Manufacturing Engineering

What’s the future of manufacturing? That’s not an easy question to answer, but I got some hints during a recent press trip to Japan.

Our first stop was the Mitsui Seiki Kogyo Co. factory at the company’s headquarters in Hiki-Gun, Saitama Prefecture. I had visited the plant 10 years earlier, and on the surface not a lot had changed; however, the reality is that Mitsui Seiki is making major changes in how it designs and builds its ultra-accurate machine tools. Those innovations include low-frequency machining of titanium; new processes for machining blisks and titanium-aluminide turbine blades for jet engines; BlueArc high-speed erosion machining; and dynamic tuning of servos, developed with Fanuc Corp., which reduces both linear and rotary axis servo error by approximately 75%.

Our next stop was Fanuc headquarters in Oshino-mura, Yamanashi Prefecture, near the foot of Mt. Fuji. Fanuc works closely with Mitsui Seiki, supplying almost all of the CNCs and many of the servomotors used in Mitsui Seiki’s machine tools. We saw the factories where Fanuc makes CNCs, servomotors, robots, and machine tools, among other products.

The campus is a showcase of advanced technology, with robots making the products mentioned above—including new robots. The robotic processes at this campus and others are the key to Fanuc making all of its products cost-effectively in Japan. Watching robots make other robots is a bit unsettling, but certainly a trend. As was the robot that effortlessly picked up a compact car, twirled it around, and gently lowered it to the ground.

Our last stop was AeroEdge Co. in Ashikga, Tochigi Prefecture, which makes titanium-aluminide parts for the LEAP jet engine. The shop is incredibly neat and clean, using advanced waterjets to rough billets of titanium-aluminide, which are transferred to a fleet of 25 identical five-axis Mitsui Seiki Vertex machines. While compact, the Vertex vertical machining centers have extremely heavy, stable bases, allowing AeroEdge to achieve tight tolerances. AeroEdge, with its team of young engineers and operators, produces these parts not only accurately, but rapidly and cost effectively—critical attributes in today’s aerospace industry.

On this trip, I was impressed not only with the manufacturing technology, but also with the amazingly smart and talented people making it happen. It’s a winning combination that is setting the course for the future of manufacturing.

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