A Wall Street Journal article this month gave a good introduction to the basics of equipment ROI, at least for those outside the manufacturing world. These are machines for business. Rationality rules--usually, at least. The article helps clear up a few misconceptions out there, especially when it comes to manufacturing’s image. Not every plant out there uses the latest and greatest equipment, especially when there’s no need for it. Old iron dies hard. If you want to make a lot of something, some machines have been fast enough to meet demand for years or decades.
What’s driving new equipment investment these days seems to not be capacity issues. Sure, a laser can cut twice as fast, but if you don’t have more press brakes to carry the load, what’s the use? Moreover, if those brakes sit idle much of the day for changeovers, the breath taking speed of the laser cutting head doesn't help the shop ship more parts in less time.
When it comes to new technology, some of the most effective seem to promote fast changeover and, more broadly, the speed of processing and filtering voluminous amounts of disparate information, so that the right part revision lands on the shop floor.
Consider Tyrous Ward at Cumming, Ga.-based Accufab. His small shop has some old brakes, but also two new systems that have cut changeover times between bending jobs to less than 15 minutes. He also has a panel bender that, for the right parts, can process a batch of one, and then change over tools in seconds to bend an entirely different part.
The general business press tends to cover some pretty flashy stuff--3-D printing, nano-manufacturing, and the like. But the people who’ve spent hours changing over a press brake are just as impressed by some of the fast-changeover technology and intelligence built into modern machine tools.
The small job shop makes up the majority of U.S. manufacturing, and the small shop usually performs a plethora of changeovers. Fast automation is fascinating to watch, but an old trusty machine, even with a longer cycle time, may be more than enough to meet demand. Quite often it's been the fast, and sometimes nearly instantaneous changeover that has been changing the manufacturing world.