Halfway Through

Turning Point

It’s July, and we’ve managed to put half of 2013 behind us. By all reports, U.S. manufacturing is still moving forward in a positive direction.

While we can’t be as optimistic about much of the rest of the world at this time, we can take solace in the fact, relatively speaking, we are doing pretty well. Our manufacturing environment seems like the place to be relative to other places in the world.

However, I wish it felt like we were standing on firmer ground. Maybe this is the “new normal.” I hope not, but it seems like there are reasons to believe it may be so. 

As I write this, the news is good for domestic manufacturing. Housing is up and is strengthening, interest rates are still low, Ford is talking about cancelling its summer shutdown because of high demand, the energy industry is booming and work is streaming back from overseas. It appears that reshoring is real and being felt by an increasing number of businesses.

The down side is unemployment, which continues to be too high. While manufacturing has been touted as an important driver of a nascent recovery, jobs for the most part are not part of the equation.

I know there are many jobs available, but the problem of matching needed skills to these jobs, specifically in manufacturing, is a nagging problem for the economy.

I know of one shop that recently held a job fair to try to find people for its operation. More than 100 potential candidates showed up, and of them, only three made the first cut. That’s not a good ratio. In lieu of the ability to make a match between jobs and skills, manufacturers are turning to other means of getting the work done.

I see many shops investing capital in various types of automation. Some of these technologies are new, but many are just better applications of older ideas. Regardless, the goal of these investments is to reduce direct manufacturing costs, and an effect of that is that much of the traditional use of labor is being made obsolete.

This puts tremendous pressure on training for the future direction of manufacturing rather than waiting for what was to come back. It will not. Think of agriculture.

At the turn of the 20th century, a significant percentage of our population farmed. I’ve heard estimates upward of 70 percent. Today, it’s 2 percent of the population, and we produce more food than ever.

Yep, improved tools and processes have made this possible. I believe such labor-saving tools and process improvements are likewise changing the landscape of manufacturing. 

Two of this month’s feature articles cover examples of similar sea changes that are occurring in manufacturing. Neither of these tools is really new or particularly earth shattering, yet when well applied, each has had a significant impact on process, production and cost reduction as well as quality in the shops where they are used.

There is a wonderful democracy when it comes to making things. So many ways to accomplish the task, and everyone has access to the necessary tools that can make it happen.

Our first article focuses on an old technology that, using innovation, has become a more efficient production tool for many applications. The vertical turning center has been around forever. In the 1980s, Emag came up with the idea of inverting the conventional VTL spindle and using it as a self load/unload device.

It works very well, and this article shows it in action and in production. Instead of having to load parts, this machine loads itself. 

The second article looks at the application of a generic gantry loader. It is made by Bucci Industries and has been available for a few years.

In our story, the gantry is used on horizontal turning centers and provides the flexibility of manual or automatic loading. Access to the machine is clear because the loader is overhead. In addition, the unit is free-standing, so no vibrations are transferred to the lathe.

Let’s hope the second half of 2013 continues with more good news for manufacturing.