Mazak receives 2018 Top Plant Award

Mazak embraces technology and innovation to deliver productivity to stay on the cutting edge of manufacturing.

By Bob Vavra December 13, 2018

When a production team member on the plant floor at Mazak USA’s Florence, Ky. facility approached Ben Schawe, the company’s vice president of manufacturing, he knew things were changing for his entire manufacturing team.

Mazak was in the middle of a massive reimagining of its production process, delivering data to everyone in the organization involved in creating the high precision milling, turning, hybrid, and 5-axis machine tools used in manufacturing plants worldwide. It was 2014, and Mazak had committed money and technology to be among the first plants to adopt a fully operational Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) facility, and Schawe was leading the charge.

“In 2014 we did a 100,000 sq. ft. expansion of the building, and we put about $19 million in new capital equipment,” Schawe said. “We reorganized the production process, streamlined the product flow through the facility. We also put in all the digital networks. We saw IIoT was the future in 2014, so we put in the fiber optic, the wireless networks so we could utilize them as the technology became more available.

“We started with monitoring software,” he said. “We wanted to monitor what machines were telling us—things like cycle starts and stops, and feed holds. We saw a low hanging fruit to improve productivity.”

As that data made its way around the plant, the operators saw it as well. “One operator stopped me on the floor,” Schawe said. “He said, ‘I’ve been telling my supervisor we needed to run the tool this way.’ This was a validation for them. The operators really bought into the system. It was verifying many of the ideas they had already suggested.”

The commitment to data also delivered on Mazak’s investment in technology and in people. “Overall, we saw a 17% productivity improvement in the shop that first year,” Schawe said. “The monitoring system paid for itself in six months.”

Today the investments continue at Mazak at a time when business is booming. Mazak is investing another $8 million in a fully automated palletized horizontal machining center cell. Mazak is staying on the cutting edge of cutting tools by investing in automation to offset the severe workforce shortfall. Mazak is innovating, and they are showing their customers and the industry how and why to innovate in the age of IIoT.

“We’re a showcase for technology for our customers,” Schawe said. Their leadership around technology and their stirring success as a manufacturer are among the reasons Mazak USA is the 2018 Plant Engineering Top Plant recipient.

A commitment to automation

After years of recession and pent-up demand, the global economy is expanding, and manufacturers now are expanding their plants, buying new tools and technologies, and looking to grow. Four years ago, Mazak was an outlier when it came to investment in the new concept known as IIoT. Their prescient view of the future is now reaping huge dividends.

Manufacturing is growing despite a significant labor shortage, which may be one reason why Mazak is ahead of the game in 2018. They’ve worked through the technology portion of the workforce issue by bringing in automation where it made the most sense.

“One of the catalysts for rapid ascension of the connected factory has been the labor shortage,” said Mazak USA president Dan Janka. “What’s inhibiting us from greater output is the skilled labor shortage.”

To combat this, the Mazak production team turned to technology at an early stage. “On the IIoT front, it’s all about getting the most out of our manufacturing assets,” said Janka. “How do we get 20% greater output? By improving Asset utilization and Process Optimization. To get that 20%, you’ve got to be monitoring the data and looking for opportunities.”

“It’s a very enlightening process; you can learn so much from the data collected,” said Janka. “There are many variables in the machine and manufacturing process that can be monitored through the CNC Control and sensor technology to allow you to improve cycle time and machine availability. The spindle is the heart of the machine, so we started to measure utilization, thermals, vibration, coolant quality and fluid levels. We’re looking for anything you can measure.

Mazak also has embraced MTConnect, the open architecture standard that offers a royalty-free operating standard designed to give the machine tool industry a common language platform to connect operation systems and machines and make data easier to share across disparate platforms. The MTConnect Institute is a subsidiary of the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT), which stages the biannual International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS).

“We’re integrating automation where it makes sense,” Janka said. “We think of automation in terms of having two levels. The first is the multi-tasking technology inside the Mazak machines allowing for Done in One processing including milling, turning, drilling, gear cutting, etc. which we produce for our customers and utilize in our own factories. The second level is external automation integrated into the machine for part load/unload and material handling.”

Integration also has turned the skilled operator into a more valuable asset—and into a utility player. “If we can’t find a skilled workforce, we replace the function with automation, which means fewer workers standing in front of machines,” said Schawe. “But because of automation, one guy can run multiple machines—and that one person has to be very highly skilled. He wears many different hats into that cell.”

It also fundamentally changes the work dynamic for the operator, and for the management team. “The operator becomes the system manager,” Schawe noted. “You’re giving him the data; he’s doing the automation. He’s got to know the cell controller, robot controller, machine controller. He’s not a button-pusher at that point.”

Cutting the cord

Sadakichi Yamazaki founded Yamazaki Machinery in 1919 to build machines that would weave straw mats. By 1928, the company had begun to manufacture machine tools, lathes, and drilling machines. In 1963, they began to export the Mazak-branded machine tool to the U.S. and Southeast Asia, and by 1968, the company opened offices in New York City.

In 1974, Mazak arrived in Florence, Ky., opening the first of what is now a five-building campus encompassing more than 800,000 sq. ft. At that time, the machine tool business in the greater Cincinnati area was prolific, and Mazak benefitted from the close association. But it was a very different business in those days.

“We had one bay when we started in 1974, bringing in knockdown kits from Japan and interfacing them for the U.S. market,” said Schawe, who has spent more than 40 years with the company. “We’d do retrofitting, and then assembly, but it was all parts from Japan. Then we put in some machining centers, and then the next step was starting to do the sheet metal. It’s been a progression over time.

“The last phase was engineering,” Schawe said. “We started by taking the Japan models and domesticate them to the local specs. We eventually started to do our own design and development. Today we’re totally self-sufficient from Japan. We always wanted to have local management of facility, and we have had it for the last 20 years. The chairman said that always was his goal. He told me, ‘We’ve cut the umbilical cord to Kentucky’.”

Subtractive, and additive

The bright, white line of Mazak machines stretches down the main aisle at the Florence production facility. It is Ground Zero for manufacturing: Mazak machines are making Mazak machines, Throughout the Mazak plant, the very machine tools used to cut and shape metal for the next generation of CNC machine tools also are being manufactured on site.

Mazak continues to innovate with its product line as well as its production process. The push-button processes of the 1980s have been replaced with sophisticated controls, and the company’s Smooth Technology innovations create further productivity improvements.

The 5-axis machining, vertical machining, horizontal machining, and CNC turning centers all have undergone product upgrades in recent years, and the development of automated manufacturing cells creates a flexible approach to the tooling challenges faced today. One worker can manage the entire cell, with gantry loaders designed to provide automated tool exchanges and reduce the labor needed to deliver the just-in-time production needs of modern manufacturing.

And while most machine tooling involves cutting and subtracting metals, Mazak also has embraced the additive manufacturing world. Mazak’s Hybrid multi-tasking system includes subtractive, additive, and joining technologies in one machining system. Friction stir welding can join materials together that then can be finished on the same machine. The additive processes include hot wire and metal deposition using lasers. The processes can switch from the subtractive processes to an additive head that can build in specific features for a part, and then switch again to a subtractive finishing tool to smooth out the rough edges.

Still in its early stages, Mazak officials recently called the Hybrid Technology, “an unexplored frontier, a distant horizon we have only seen clearly for the first time. Applications engineers, process optimization experts, and CAD/CAM software developers will discover ways to mix and match joining, additive, and subtractive operations that improve productivity and efficiency.”

Growth and improvement

The Florence campus includes a technology center and a service parts warehouse department that has a 97% rate of same-day deliveries on spare parts. With more than 550 overall employees and 350 employees in manufacturing, it’s one of the region’s biggest employers and a significant contributor to the region’s economy.

And like every other manufacturer in the country, all of those big numbers run up against the challenges in manufacturing in 2018. “We are extremely busy right now,” said Schawe. “We need to increase production. Manpower is our biggest challenge, but material flow is also a problem, and tariffs haven’t helped in getting us materials.”

“The supply chain had sized itself for relatively flat growth, and it wasn’t prepared for a synchronized global economic recovery,” said Janka. Meeting increased market demand requires focusing the IIOT investments at productivity improvements. That’s where a data-driven production operation pays dividends.

One key was to get all the company stakeholders together at the start of the Mazak Smart Factory project. “We actually had a manufacturing committee evaluate several different monitoring systems. We included machine operators, IT, and supervision. Everyone ranked the systems. We wanted operators to be involved. We wanted to give them tools to improve productivity,” said Schawe.

But while technology-driven improvements may start out as an event, they eventually become part of a process. “Even when you make those changes, it gets more and more difficult to find 1% productivity improvement,” Schawe said. “We look at what operators can tell us. They input different data—inspection data, maintenance data. Each night, the system will email the supervisors so we can start to look at whether we’re dealing with training issues, material flow issues, or whatever the problem might be.

“With most of our operators, it’s not that they weren’t working hard. They just weren’t working efficiently. That’s what the monitoring system did,” Schawe said. “It allowed us to make informed decisions to improve productivity. Managers and supervisors were getting information, and they were able to ask, ‘Why did this happen?’ A lot of it was training issues. We were finding little things and tweaking here and there.

“It’s not one big thing; it’s a collection of small incremental gains,” Schawe added. “It’s getting manpower trained to utilize equipment and getting people on board.”

The workforce challenge

While manufacturing got the lion’s share of the credit for leading the U.S. out of recession in the first part of the decade, the last 18 months have accelerated that growth. The monthly Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) produced by the Institute for Supply Management has been more than 15% above the growth level for more than a year; by comparison it was 44% below the growth rate in 2008.

“Capital investment is up this past year over prior years. We’re seeing significant growth coming from every major industry segment we serve,” Janka said. “In aerospace, there’s an 8-9 year backlog, largely driven by Boeing and Airbus. The mining industry, which was dormant for a long time, has come back strong. Oil and gas finally woke up. In the last 12 months Small Business Optimism Index is at highest level since its inception. We see it in the job shops; they’re investing.”

Add in a major tax cut in 2017 and business is growing, with unemployment below 4%. And that’s where manufacturing finds the largest hurdle to further growth. Mazak has worked with nearby Gateway Community College to help develop the workers needed to fill their open positions, and to fill the positions anticipated to be available when many current Mazak employees retire. One thing has changed in manufacturing—the workplace skills needed are focused increasingly on analytics and understanding programs run on automated equipment. The challenge is to show young people a modern manufacturing plant and erase stereotypes of the past.

That change didn’t start with the potential workers, though. “One of big things we had to realize was that it was not kids; it was the parents,” Schawe said. “We opened up the doors, took them on a tour, showed them the factory to get some enthusiasm.”

At a time when manufacturing is changing, the skill set needed for future plant workers has changed as well. “We’re looking for good work habits—someone who is reliable and trainable. We want them to have a mentor on the plant floor. But it’s up to the industry to go out and solicit them.”

Bob Vavra, content manager, Plant Engineering, CFE Media,

Author Bio: Bob is the Content Manager for Plant Engineering.