EMO Behind The European Scene


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During the EMO international machine tool show held in Milan, Italy, this October, the European ‘umbrella’ association of machine tool manufacturers, CECIMO, revealed a taste of some of the results presented by a European Commission-sponsored initiative. The initiative had been given the task of examining how product innovations in the automotive and aerospace industries are likely to affect the future demand and specifications for machine tools.

We all know that today’s automobiles and aircraft—in terms of fuel efficiency, performance, comfort, diagnostics and (mostly) reliability—are way, way ahead of any product you spent your dollars on in 1970. Many of these product innovations have had the unfortunate effect of chipping away at the demand for screw machine parts.

Some would say that the commercial arrival of the digital drive and its ongoing improvement and power rating has had a ‘dramatic’ effect on demand for gears, gearshifts, bearings and spacers. Obviously concerned by such trends, the still powerful European machine tool industry has begun to ask what lies ahead for it in the future.

Consequently, 2 years ago, CECIMO, with financial backing from the European Commission, set up one of its Manufacturing Technologies (MANTYS) initiatives, “Product Innovation by End Users.” Of particular interest was getting to know the timing of any such change and how it might affect machine tool demand and specification. There are already some concept and prototype cars with higher voltage on-board electrical systems running around. We, as trendy car users, are not satisfied with air conditioning and power seat adjustment, steering wheel setting and windows. We want coolers for the driver’s and passengers’ beverages. The passengers are bored with looking out of windows: They want TV screens, audio and visual systems. All these gizmos demand more power, which the traditional, time-tested 12V battery just cannot deliver. But generating 36V or 42V in a car is a problem.

One angle is to produce an even more efficient engine which, I am told, cannot be readily done using a mechanical camshaft to actuate the engine valves. But, applying an electrical actuator—such as a solenoid—to move a valve, and having it controlled by a PC that sets valve events according to whether you’re driving up a grade in Yosemite or being chased by a traffic cop will ensure that you get maximum engine efficiency!

Suddenly, a machine tool market is lost. No one wants camshafts and associated camshaft drive and bearings anymore! That extra engine efficiency—instead of keeping you ahead of the traffic cop—can be used instead to give you a 36V or 42V system, which you needed anyway to power the servo-actuated engine valves.

Having such a system on board means that the vehicle designer can now consider replacing the mechanical and hydraulic systems, such as steering and brakes, with electronic/electro actuators linked by ‘wires’ to a PC and fingertip controls for the driver. All the metalcutting operations associated, say with a hydraulics system, won’t be entirely balanced by the metalcutting requirements for servo system components.

So when could these developments take place? The MANTYS report (and I have to confess, I was the task leader in all this), which included a variety of sources, suggests 2007-2010. Unfortunately, no automotive OEM is going to tell you when such a change will occur. My own feeling is that it will happen. Exactly when, one can only speculate.

We have already seen once familiar machine tool companies disappearing in the face of technological change during the last two decades. There were more absences at this year’s EMO. My own bet is that change has only just begun. The fuel cell will have the biggest impact on metalcutting requirements. When will an affordable fuel cell-powered car appear in the shopping mall? At least one OEM told me it could be sooner than you think!