Pick-Up A Revolution

Machine tool "revolutions" do not happen very often. One could argue that the last major machine tool configuration innovation was when the Milwaukee milling machine company introduced its Milwaukee-Matic machining center in the 1960s. I saw my first one in 1966 at an exhibition in Earls Court, London.

Machine tool "revolutions" do not happen very often. One could argue that the last major machine tool configuration innovation was when the Milwaukee milling machine company introduced its Milwaukee-Matic machining center in the 1960s. I saw my first one in 1966 at an exhibition in Earls Court, London.

The Milwaukee-Matic was pre-dated by the Mollins System 25—a multi-function machine introduced in the late 1950s. The last one I saw in action was at the Lotus headquarters in Norwich, England, in the '70s. Some would argue that the Brunels built the first flexible machining system back in the early 19th century. It batch-produced a variety of sailboats' rigging pulleys for the British Admiralty.

Why all the history? I ask the question: "Do we have a new machine tool revolution on our hands?" The Emag Group in Germany said in October that there are 7,000-8,000 vertical pick-up spindle turning machines installed worldwide. Emag claims to have built the first back in 1992.

German machine tool builders, such as Emag, Weisser and Hessapp, have shipped around 5,000- 5,500 of these machines since 1993. Emag alone has shipped, and has on order, 3,000 of those.

Emag says German manufacturers have about 3,000 installed. The vertical pick-up spindle turning center can replace the traditional front-loading, twin-spindle chucker, the single spindle CNC chucker (including turning centers), most work involving a mix of machining center/CNC chucker operations, and add-on finish grinding. It can combine hard turning with hard milling and finish grinding.

Indeed, any work that can be picked up in a chuck can be performed in a vertical pick-up spindle turning center. I say we have a machine tool revolution on our hands.

The automotive guys in Europe have latched onto the machines. They are out there milling, hard milling, drilling, boring, reaming and tapping.

The applications of these machines are not necessarily confined to large batch production. Emag acquired the Zerbst facility of the old East German company Wema in 1994. The facility used to build big-size facing lathes with up to a 50-foot diameter.

After acquiring the facility, Emag turned it into a production shop that currently produces some 60 percent of all mechanical parts required by the Emag group. Demand includes parts for the recent Emag/Hardinge joint venture company—Hardinge Emag—in Leipzig, which is building a leaner version of the Emag machines for job shops.

Batches are small at Zerbst—as one would expect in machine building. But five of the Emag VSC pick-up spindle machines are engaged there. Perhaps the most surprising job being machined in two setups in a VSC is the VSC tool turret. Before, the Zerbst plant produced the 12-location tool turrets in six setups—two each—in a CNC turning center, a horizontal machining center and a CNC grinder. Total machining cycle time was 486 minutes. Emag's VSC 400 MT machines the tool turret complete in two setups in 260 minutes.

The MT version features a trunnion-type turret and machining spindle carrier (served by an automatic toolchanger), which swivels from in front to below the pick-up spindle head. Only two have been built so far; the second is with a French user. The requirement at Zerbst is for 40-50 tool turrets of various types each week.

There are two- and three-spindle versions of the VSCs, and they have been joined by the HSC, which picks up and machines shaft-type components. On the Emag "secret list" is a four-station machine that combines press-fit assembly, CO2 laser welding, cleaning and finish machining.

Now what are we going to call these critters? Even an abbreviation—VPSTC—sounds ponderous. Emag refers to the "bells and whistles" VSC machines as vertical multi-function production centers, which could still be confused with vertical machining centers. How ever we name them, I repeat: We have a machine tool revolution on our hands.