Winning with Manual Machines

Winning with Manual Machines

Despite the promise of CNC equipment, many job shops still find that manual machines are getting the job done.

If computer numerical control (CNC) equipment was developed to enhance the performance of machine tools, then why have manual machines survived -- and continue to thrive? In fact some job shop owners indicate that manual machines are an important factor in their success.

Okay, so maybe manual machines aren't surviving or thriving with the same exuberant excitement as CNC equipment. Nor is it likely that manual machines will emerge triumphant in the emerging technology display area at this fall's International Machine Tool Show (Sept. 8-13 in Chicago). And it's true that trade magazines don't run them very often on their covers or on their advertising pages.

And yet... manual machine tools continue to prevail. Most any manufacturing plant in the U.S. will have a few, at least one, typically located in their maintenance or prototyping departments. That continues even though the major builders don't build or market manual machines in the United States. New manual machines typically come from Europe or Asia.

But U.S. builders will have manual equipment on their premises. For example, a Mazak Corp. spokesman recently admitted to the presence of manual equipment (unknown brand!) located in the maintenance department at the company's Florence, Ky., site. That's in contrast with the company's production floor where it prides itself on having, using and showing customers the latest and most advanced CNC equipment.

At The ATEK Cos., manual equipment helps support and assess product development by readying prototypes for test marketing.
But mention manual machine tools and most people in manufacturing would associate them with either job shops or trade schools, or both, and they'd be right. But those two categories don't usually have equal degrees of acceptance on the desirability of manual machines. Trade schools will typically have only manual machines, arguing that familiarity with a manual configuration is the only proper way to prepare students for CNC and other technological enhancements.

Job shops, on the other hand, are usually depicted as manual machine users that are scheming to enter the more productive and costly CNC world. But like many generalizations, that one also falls short. Consider that many job shops -- and other users of manual machines as well -- sometimes need efficient solutions for very short runs, one-offs for prototyping or to machine repair parts for maintenance purposes.

For example, a service business focus explains the presence of 40 manual machines and no CNC equipment at Parker Machine Works, Grand Junction, Colo. Owner Ed Taddeo says manual machines are the most effective means for machining repair parts for his customers. Parker serves the transportation (big trucks), earth-moving equipment and oil-field industries.

Taddeo says a typical repair job may require machining only one or two parts, sometimes weighing as much as 6,000 pounds each. Jobs with part counts of 20 pieces are enough to be considered high volume and are usually farmed out. Taddeo says his manual machine mix includes boring mills, lathes, grinders and slotters.

Manual machines can also offer the critical difference in product development, says Kay Phillips, president, The ATEK Cos., Plymouth, Minn. Each of its five members derive strategic advantage from manual machines in such tasks as prototyping, product development and manufacturing services. She describes a broad variety of equipment ranging from automated (CNC equipped) to manual machines. "We dedicate our manual machines for prototyping and for lower volume, very customized applications and we find them particularly valuable in working with companies to (help them) develop new products. Manual machines are particularly helpful in going through the design for manufacturing assessment," she adds.

"Manual machines," Phillips continues, "provide us a quick and effective analysis tool that we bring into play before part designs are 'frozen.' Manual equipment also enables our customers to perform test marketing of the product before committing to costly mass production equipment. If the product takes off, then the automation investment can proceed. For ATEK, the prototyping/product development strategy means a continuing investment in manual machines."

In the U.S. manufacturing environment Phillips observes a manual machine implication in the subtle shift in emphasis from mass production to something closer to mass customization. She doesn't dispute the continuing growth in automation equipment supporting mass production, but she implies that the market may be underestimating the future potential for manual machines. She says the contributing factor is the accelerating interest in the U.S. for new product development. Manual machines are supporting that trend as they help users analyze designs and test market acceptance.

"At the user level there is a competitive advantage to properly leveraging the capabilities of manual equipment," she notes. The advantage also includes the element of speed that manual machines offer in the test market process. She doesn't see quality as an issue. "You can meet the quality criteria just as well with a manual approach."

Is there a downside? She admits that success with manual machines depends on operator training. She says that is an additional reason for insisting on training students on manual machines. "It's philosophically similar to schools teaching students how to add manually despite the presence of calculators and adding machines."

Phillips' preferred manufacturing strategy proceeds from manual machines. "They are the unheralded heroes of manufacturing."

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