Time To Look At Sliding Heads


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Have you installed that CNC sliding head automatic yet? Three years ago, I reported in Production Machining that sales of CNC sliding head automatics in Europe were climbing. The subject came up again this March when a number of journalists were invited to see the recently expanded UK premises of the Japanese automatic lathe producer Star Micronics. (A few weeks later, Star Micronics GB announced that its March Open House had sold $1.8 million worth of CNC sliding head automatics to seven UK subcontractors, a significant deal by UK standards.)

Present at the press event was Tomohiko Okitsu, general manager of Star’s Machine Tools Division, and Hiroshi Tanaka, executive manager of sales and marketing. They told Production Machining that Star has streamlined production at its Kikugawa plant in Japan and installed a flexible manufacturing system (FMS) linked to an automated parts warehouse, significantly reducing rework of machined parts.

The Japanese factory rebuild certainly appears to be a timely investment by Star. They did it when the market was tough and shipping volumes were drastically down, and now the plant is revamped, modernized and has updated IT systems just in time to cope with the current surge in orders.

Mr. Okitsu reported that 2003’s order intake was up by 47 percent and that the company shipped 1,330 units last year, an increase of 55 percent over 2002. Mr. Tanaka reported figures that Star shipped fewer than 900 units in 2002 compared with 1,400 in 2001. “All the market is showing an increase,” Mr. Okitsu said. “Tier 3 automotive, electronics, computers, telecomms are very strong.” He added that Star has a CNC sliding head automatic market share (worldwide) of 25 to 28 percent and hopes to have 35 to 45 percent market share by 2010. For the U.S. CNC sliding head auto market, Mr. Tanaka said Star delivered 300 units in 2000 and fewer than 200 during 2003, but that he expects to ship at least 200 to 225 units during 2004. When asked the reasons for such progress, Mr. Okitsu sighted a number of factors, including the company’s ability to give a positive answer when a potential customer slams a job on the desk and demands, “Can you do this in one hit?” Mr. Okitsu added that lately, subcontractors in Europe were not as concerned about machine price as they were about machining process technology and output. “They want to add value to their work,” he says.

Why are sliding head automatics so popular? A turning shop in the town of Ilkeston in northern England has eight Citizen sliding head automatics. HPC Engineering Services’ managing director, Paul Cobb, says the sliding head machine is “so versatile.” He opines that you can produce any part on a sliding head machine more quickly, consistently and accurately than on a fixed head automatic.

At another CNC sliding head auto user, Target Precision in Harlow, southern England, Technical Director Chris Thorburn says overseas competitors, especially in China and Taiwan, now find it hard to compete with the UK company in terms of delivery turnaround as well as price.

Similar sentiments come from Jason Meir, director of WWL Engineering, Swansea, Wales. Some 70 percent of work is shipped by WWL to the automotive sector. Mr. Meir says that since installing Tornos CNC sliding head automatics, he can offer a capability of cutting costs on the process on existing parts produced in two or three ops in conventional CNC lathes. He does it in one hit. “Flexibility is exceptional,” Mr. Meir adds. “The machines can go from machining long shafts over to miniature medical parts within seconds.” He was talking about change-over times from the more typical long component associated with sliding head autos, to the short, complex one, associated with fixed head automatics. Assuming there are no major changes to the tooling in the platens and turrets. Still thinking about that CNC sliding head auto? Don’t think too long!