Bar Feeding: Keeping The Edge In Technology

The past 15 years have seen a steady stream of innovation from the bar-feeding manufacturers that have addressed the varied needs of the production machining industry.

Twenty years ago, as a freshly minted machine tool salesman, I witnessed my first magazine bar feeder in action while on a sales call at a Chicago job shop. It was a 12-foot German model on a Japanese fixed headstock lathe. The shop’s European owner was clearly ahead of his time, for this was the era of the Gatling gun, hydrodynamic tube feeder. Many U.S. manufacturers were still loading one bar at a time, regardless of production quantities, as the storm clouds of competition from emerging economies were on the horizon. Clearly a ripe opportunity awaited the bar-feeding industry.

The past 15 years have seen a steady stream of innovation from the bar-feeding manufacturers that have addressed the varied needs of the production machining industry.

Twelve-foot magazine bar feeders became the norm in one of the fastest growing segments in the machine tool industry—Swiss CNC lathes. The Swiss lathe’s advantages in producing long parts complete in one setup with fast cycle times necessitated magazine feeders. Double pusher designs shaved 4 feet from the overall footprint of early 12-foot magazine models and features like hydrodynamic support, remnant retraction, bundle capabilities and fast change-over times made bar feeders an integral part of achieving unmanned production and maximum productivity.

Fixed headstock lathe producers have increasingly developed models specifically designed for production bar work. Here too, the bar feeding industry has met the challenge by providing magazine feeders that supported high speed machining of larger-diameter bars up to 80 mm and the accompanying material handling challenges. Space saving, short bar feeders have become an ideal match for lower production quantities, fast change-overs and some high rpm applications, while 12-foot magazines met the needs of more production-oriented work.

The recent success of 6-foot magazine bar feeders is an example of bar feeder innovation that has met a very specific challenge in production bar work. CNC lathe design has seen headstock lengths shrink from an average of 48 inches down to 36 inches or less. Because the maximum length of the raw material cannot exceed the length of the headstock when using short loaders, manufactures sought a magazine feeder that could feed a 6-foot bar regardless of the lathe headstock length (thus generating only two remnants), maintain a small footprint, and perform other functions such as retracting large-diameter remnants so they don’t damage tooling or the chip conveyor. Six-foot magazine bar feeders have been a success. They are an established, bona fide new product segment because they achieved all of these objectives.

All of the bar-feeding products I have mentioned have one thing in common: They are all affordable and easily deployed tools of automation that effectively increase productivity and unbridle skilled labor for higher value- added tasks. For this reason alone, the future of magazine bar feeding in the United States should be bright.

“Only the paranoid survive (now more than ever)” is the well-known mantra of Andy Grove, former chairman and CEO of Intel. Having seen a good portion of the U.S. metalworking industry be hollowed out by low-cost producers abroad, the precision machined products producers should already be operating their businesses with a heavy dose of paranoia. I believe the paranoid will have an advantage because they never feel comfortable with the status quo, and they rely less on the value of existing precedence. As the pace of change accelerates, this mindset will become even more critical.

For manufacturers, this might mean going the extra mile to seek out new, productive ways of processing parts. Too many manufactures remain underexposed to products that can help them compete. Whether it is a new concept in tooling, a machine tool accessory or an effective enterprise resource planning (ERP) system to automate supply-chain management and back office functions, companies must challenge their own accepted ways and get out of their comfort zones. We all agree that the Internet is an efficient tool to research machine tool products, but nothing can replace the power of actively visiting machine tool shows to stimulate ideas on how to be more productive. Ironically, the attendance at trade shows has been low during a period when companies should be seeking out every possible advantage.

Speaking of change and shaking up the status quo, Hydromat’s successful 20-year relationship with an Italian bar-feeder OEM came to a close at the end of 2005. On January 1, 2006, we launched a new company called Edge Technologies with a mission to be a new kind of bar feeder and productivity solutions provider. Our new business model will allow us the flexibility to offer a suite of products strategically chosen from leading bar feeder and machine tool OEMs to address specific needs in the marketplace. I guess you could say we are leaving our comfort zone. And you know what? It feels good.