The five-year plan that worked

Smiths Machine answered the recession with a formula for major change.

By Randy Pearson, Siemens Machine Tool System February 5, 2015

Being different is in the DNA of Smiths Machine, including the omission of the apostrophe from the company’s name. This second-generation, family-owned business found a way to grow its workforce by 70 people during the last five years. That’s a 300% employment surge that mostly happened during the recession, a time when many machine shops (and for that matter, many businesses), were struggling just to hang on. Ahead of the recession, Smiths Machine did what many machine shops were doing at the time-it rode the wave of automotive parts production. Everything seemed to be fine until the bankruptcies of the Tier 1 automotive companies suddenly left many machine shops vulnerable to volume-based supply from overseas competition. What was once a well-oiled machine tool business model now seemed unstable and uncertain. Equally uncertain was the idea of moving the business in an entirely different direction.

A different approach

Defense and aerospace part manufacturing require a different business approach altogether, said Tim Smith, vice president of Smiths Machine.

"It is specialized work that requires special approvals, log-down processes, and complicated procedures," Smith said. "The complexity is challenging. And it all starts with a different way of thinking, more of an engineering approach than a production approach."

Smith says his company needed to build a new business model and the operations to support it. The defense and aerospace machining market is characterized by small lot counts, generally lower margins, and a very low tolerance for errors. Scrap rates thought to be nominal in the past would now be out of the question.

"You can’t make a $6,000 part and have a 30% scrap rate or even a 10% scrap rate," said Smith. "The emphasis is not on throughput, but on the high-quality, highly precise manufacturing of very complex parts." Based on these three inseparable machining requirements-quality, precision, and complexity-Smiths Machine set out to reach its greater potential in the machine tool market, not as a production machine shop, but as company focused on complex part manufacturing. Having achieved some early success in this new direction, the way forward for the company soon could be summed up more simply:

"The more complex the part, the more competitive we are," said Smith.

To protect and grow this competitive advantage, the company’s leadership knew that their internal processes and technology needed to match up with the unique requirements of the defense and aerospace industries. Major investments in large, complex, five-axis machines would need to be enhanced by equally complex control capabilities. Smith recounts how a decision made previously by the company would now come into play in a profound way.

A backbone for change

Traditionally a milling and turning company, Smiths Machine first teamed up with DMG and Siemens in 2000 to establish a singular machine tool platform. This brought about a synergistic approach to complex milling and turning; an advantage that took on greater significance when the company decided to focus on the defense and aerospace markets later in the decade. The central advantage here, Smith said, has been the ability to invest, train, and keep his people moving forward based on a stable technology platform.

"The technology and the people using it are the backbone of our organization," Smith said. "Even with 25 machines, we can share knowledge between the milling and the turning machines. Our technology purchases are based on where we want to be in 10 years, not on a workforce that is fractionally trained and a platform that can rapidly deteriorate due to a change in market condition or a change in employment condition." Smith said an example of this kind of singular platform-in this case, a Siemens Sinumerik 840D sl-takes advantage of the control’s similarity across milling and turning operations. "All controls are customized to a certain extent,"Smith said. "When you train your operators, you can say, ‘Here’s the jog button, here’s the axes button, here’s your alarm button and your offset button.’ And this level of consistency extends to a graphical interface that really complements how we teach and learn."

Smith said visually guided information flow is characteristic of today’s complex range of next-generation electronic communications, because this speeds understanding and information sharing. Whether for a smartphone or a CNC, graphically guided interfaces enable rapid learning and proficiency.

New angles on programming

Gerhard Hetzler, engineering manager at Smiths Machine, has experienced firsthand how the company’s singular platform approach has brought continuity to such manufacturing functions as post, machine simulation, NC code, and control functionality. The control platform has also given Smiths Machine the freedom to create custom cycles that can be copied and shared from control-to-control, and so machine-to-machine.

"I’ll give you an example," said Hetzler. "To catch occasional entry errors on the tool management side, we created a cycle that checks the length of the tool and within a specific tolerance. So within a matter of milliseconds, the control compares that value to what was entered in the tool management side, and if the tolerance is exceeded by 2mm, the control immediately stops the machine."

Smiths also uses the Siemens NX software to integrate CAD, CAE, and CAM for faster part manufacturing, encompassing all areas of tooling, machining, and quality inspection. When the company found that it needed to write code to produce an especially challenging aerospace landing gear, it used the program to write the code in nine days rather than the customary six weeks, and with more accuracy.

"We would normally round off after the third or fourth decimal," he recalled. "Now the control calculates to nine decimals. When you start talking microns, especially in the aerospace industry, it makes a huge difference."

The Bottom Line:

  • In the midst of the economic downturn, Smiths Machines changed its business model from high-volume to high-quality machining.
  • The company invested in not just five-axis machines, but a singular control platform for its operation.
  • The single platform approach improved not just productivity, but also training and the ability to share information.

Key Words

Among the articles at that discuss CNC and machine tooling KEYWORD: MACHINE TOOLING:

  • Virtual reality applied for programming CNC machine tools

There is an expanding trend toward more intuitive and easy-to-use control systems for machine tools. Programming basic technological operations should be easy and intuitive enough not to cause difficulties for the average operator. 

By Mirosław Pajor, Kamil Stateczny, Krzysztof Pietrusewicz, fWest Pomeranian University of Technology, Szczecin, Poland

  • U.S. manufacturers can benefit from global machine tool market growth

There is an expanding trend toward more intuitive and easy-to-use control systems for machine tools. Programming basic technological operations should be easy and intuitive enough not to cause difficulties for the average operator. 

By Bob Vavra, Plant Engineering

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Randy Pearson is business development manager for Siemens Machine Tool Systems.