Ways to align industrial equipment have varied from running fishing line or string between parts to using optical scopes, but as the need for more precise tolerances has increased, many companies have turned to products such as the laser gages manufactured by Pinpoint Laser Systems.
Skilled workers who can judge and align complex machinery visually are retiring from the workforce, notes Mory Creighton, general manager of Pinpoint Laser Systems Inc., Peabody, Mass. But the need for that skill is diminishing with laser alignment systems which can measure to .0001 of an inch.
The Pinpoint systems, Creighton explains, basically consist of a laser transmitter which produces a low power laser beam that is used like a reference line. An electronic receiver picks up the laser beam and provides a digital readout to a portable display unit which shows the height and lateral position of the laser beam. This display unit tells you very precisely where the receiver is relative to the center line of the laser -- right, left, up, down. The laser and receiver can be as close as few inches from each other or up to 150 feet apart.
Creighton says the laser system provides more precise readings that can be sent to a computer and used to control equipment. It can be used to check straightness, flatness, parallelism, squareness, bores, spindles, and other alignment needs. "It fits better with the way people are manufacturing things in this day and age," he says.
Measuring Up to More Demanding Environments
Pinpoint recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. The company started by providing systems to the construction field, but after six years, it found a more receptive and lucrative market in the industrial sector. Part of the reason for the move came after it was approached by Home Depot. Creighton said he became nervous "about the future of where we would be selling these products if we were tied into such a massive and dominant distributor."
Since focusing on the industrial market, Pinpoint has built a wide customer base ranging from aerospace clients such as Boeing and Airbus to shipbuilders such as Bath Iron Works and Newport News to medical equipment manufacturers such as Siemens and GE Medical.
Laser alignment not only provides manufacturers with more precision but also provides a tool that helps them facilitate an increased need for manufacturing agility.
For example, years ago thin film plastic converting lines would run one sheet of a nylon or another material and it would run all the time," explains Creighton. "Now, they are switching in materials, colors, thicknesses. As a result of these short batch runs, how that machine is maintained is a much more interactive process than it once was.
Another example Creighton cites is the aircraft industry, where in the past the airplane was built on a massive frame.
"Boeing is going to a more flexible manufacturing model," he notes. "They essentially have fixturing that changes depending on the need of what they are doing - they call this reconfigurable fixtures. For a wing assembly, you can change the shape of the fixture that the wing is built upon and our products are used for checking that fixture to make sure it is set up the right way for the wing elements that are made on it."
More precise alignment also benefits manufacturers who want to keep machines running longer and more reliably by helping them reduce downtime. The company uses the example of a plastics production machine that generates $750,000 of product annually and breaks down an average of once a month for eight hours. Those breakdowns would cost the company $34,500 annually while a laser alignment system and training would cost approximately $20,000. The return on investment take less than nine months for one machine, it claims, and much less if a company is running several lines.
A Supply Chain of Parts and Ideas
Like many manufacturers, Pinpoint has a small workforce (less than 20 employees). It is a seasoned group with deep industry experience. When customers ask if they have a solution for a particular application, says Creighton, “Chances are, we have probably heard about that application and we know how to ask the right questions. We also have a lot of technology that can help people solve their problems.’
Augmenting its workforce is a large supply chain that Pinpoint relies on not only for parts but also for help in meeting customers' requests. “Our expertise is in design and final assembly,” Creighton says, adding, “We stay away from cutting heavy metal because there are people that do it better.” While Pinpoint has suppliers around the country, many of these vendors are within driving distance of Pinpoint, which Creighton says offers a different level of communication.
"Flexibility is very important for us," he said. "We have customers come to us and say, 'Can you remodel this housing around this receiver to fit around this die?' The flexibility to pick up the phone or drive to their shop and ask, 'How would you do this?' -- it helps us get new ideas, new ways to do things."
With so many suppliers, Creighton admits that the scheduling of jobs and parts is a challenge. "At times, I feel we are doing more scheduling and purchasing that putting hands on products and developing new stuff. It is just the nature of manufacturing these days."
Where possible, Creighton adds, the company chooses vendors who make their parts in the U.S. "Keeping manufacturing strong in the U.S. is a key mantra of ours. We buy as much as we can here in the U.S," he says.
Creighton said he is seeing some signs of reshoring, including a friend with factories in China, India and Mexico who is pulling manufacturing back into the U.S. He notes that a customer in New Jersey had moved its manufacturing to China nearly a decade ago, but found managing operations by long distance was very difficult and recently moved their production back to the U.S.
Innovation will be the key to keeping a healthy manufacturing sector in the U.S., says Creighton. He says that while people often say manufacturing is dead, "every day we are on the phone with brilliant people thinking of ways to do it faster and more efficiently." In the long run, he says, "Creative ways to manufacture creative products is our competitive advantage."