Mitsui Seiki USA Inc.
Based on our experience as a supplier of these advanced systems, this group tends to need external engineering support and maintenance from our team as there are very few maintenance personnel at these companies and highly skilled employees have been difficult, if not impossible, to find. Once all of the up-front engineering on these highly sophisticated tools is accomplished and proved out, the system is robust and reliable for the life of the contract. With regular maintenance and monitoring, these lines practically run themselves around the clock.
Conversely, there are the shops that I categorize as “artisans” in the aero supply chain. They have older equipment, well maintained by their in-house staff. Generally, this group is on the front end of the prototype phase of a new component/assembly or the back end of commercial programs. These include contracts that have long since ended, but spare parts are still necessary to be produced for the older aircraft.
These companies are likely serving upper tier companies in the chain, or directly to an OEM’s maintenance organization or to independent MRO providers. The machinist skill level at these shops is extremely high, often staffed with aging gentlemen who grew up on the bench and who can make manual equipment sing. The capital expenditures are very low at these shops and the owners are satisfied with the profit margins.
There are also suppliers in the middle of the chain that the upper tiers farm out to for parts they, frankly, don’t make as much money producing. These companies also have very good mechanical skills, are working with mostly older equipment, yet also have one or two new trunnion HMCs. The new technology is helping them transition into higher levels of automation and acquire the knowledge and experience to keep evolving in that direction.
Where a supplier fits in the chain is dependent on the objectives of the company. While they all have their place at this moment in time, I am concerned about the highly skilled “artisan” shop business model. If the owner or CEO has any desire to extend the business beyond his or her working life, what needs to be done now to prepare for that future?
Because the way I see it, it’s a future that will look vastly different than even the edgiest technology advancements we are talking about now, such as hybrid machine tools that can perform every function—whether it’s adding or subtracting; intuitive toolpath motion and simulation software; the vast resources of the Cloud; and ubiquitous cell phones and shop floor tablets with myriad apps to streamline the process and workflow management.
The skills of the artisan are giving way to those who may look quizzically at a file on a bench, but can think and work in ways that the new manufacturing processes and methodologies will require.
A seamless, synched world of manufacturing is about to unfold that will be breathtaking. If we want to attract people to our industry, the ones whose brains are wired differently than ours because they’ve been interacting with a handheld computer device since they could focus their eyes, let’s get our shops, wherever they fit in the chain, on the technological bandwagon now so we don’t miss what’s next.
This article was first published in the December 2015 edition of Manufacturing Engineering Magazine. Click here for PDF.
Published Date : 12/1/2015