Turning On Borrowed Time

In my last column, I asked: Why isn’t the United States subcontracting shops using multis? Some of the comments made by exhibitors at Italy’s 24th BI-MU machine tool exhibition in Milan added some good reasons why, if you have a shop full of two-axis production lathes, you may be living on borrowed time.

 

In my last column, I asked: Why isn’t the United States subcontracting shops using multis? Some of the comments made by exhibitors at Italy’s 24th BI-MU machine tool exhibition in Milan added some good reasons why, if you have a shop full of two-axis production lathes, you may be living on borrowed time.

These guys have to sell machine tools, we know this. If they can sell you a $200,000, or even a $500,000 machine, they go home happy.

Officine E. Biglia of Incisa Scapaccino, Italy, used to sell thousands of two- and three-axis (X-,Y- and C-axis) production lathes to the automotive, aerospace and general manufacturing industries. Today, about 6,000 of these machines are installed throughout Europe and the United States. Of these machines, around 70 percent are in subcontracting shops.

What I saw very little of at the busy Biglia booth at the show was the two-axis lathe. “Our European subcontractors are looking to reduce costs,” the company said. “They want process integration. They want to produce finished components in one hit and reduce handling as much as possible.”

One of the more popular machines at the booth was a 14-axis multifunction turning center—the B765-Y3—with three Y-axis movements on its turrets. Visitors crowded around another new machine that had a toolchanger—the result of a marriage between a machining center and turning center. I thought it was significant that Biglia had supplied so many 2/3-axis lathes to Europe’s subcontractors and now the company is in competition with Index and Nakamura, offering multi-axis CNC lathes to give Europe’s subcontractors what they want.

Biglia also commented that the U.S. market had changed dramatically in recent years. “We have seen a big drop in demand for commodity machines, while there has been no drop in demand for advanced turning centers.” Indeed, 2/3-axis lathes now account for less than 5 percent of total machine tool output from Biglia.

Another busy booth at BI-MU was that of the Swiss turning machine tool builder, Tornos Technologies. I spoke with multi-spindle product manager, Rocco Martoceia, who has spent some time in the United States and had experience with the Asian markets, too. He agreed that the trend was leaning towards more multi-function and multi-tasking machines. He said the idea is to do follow-up operations, such as grinding and deburring, on one machine. Yet, he believes there is a growing market for speciality 2/3-axis machines for particular tasks.

Tornos has introduced two such machines: one for the computer disc drive industry and one for the watch making industry. These machines produce small, relatively simple, high specification parts less than a few ten-thousandths of an inch (or less than 10 microns).

Meanwhile, Europe’s subcontractors want even more accuracy with machines that will consistently and reliably machine difficult and exotic alloys. “The medical industry, working in stainless steel and titanium, want to machine complex parts in one hit and add on thread whirling, for example,” Mr. Martoceia said.

He also said the traditional big users of 2/3-axis machines—the Japanese and the Chinese—had shown no interest in multi-spindle machines until now. Space was always at a premium in Japanese job shops, but they have come to realize that one CNC multi-spindle machine can replace five to six single-spindle 2/3-axis lathes.

Mr. Martoccia agreed that the United States job shops are, for the most part, still using three to five machines to complete one job, which is work that could be done on one CNC multi-spindle machine or a CNC multitasking or multfunction turning center. He believes the problem is a lack of qualified multi-spindle machinists in the United States.

CNC multi-spindle technology in Europe, meanwhile, continues to advance. “Where users wanted 20-micron accuracy, they now want 10-micron accuracy,” Mr. Martoccia said.