Rajas Sukthankar is the director of sales for motion control at Siemens Industry, Inc., which designs and manufactures CNC controllers, software and other motion control solutions used in precision metal cutting, metal forming and other metalworking applications.
CURRENT STATE OF BUSINESS
As we enter 2013, the general metalworking market is still strong and stable, primarily driven by the activity in three core markets, namely automotive, aerospace and oil and gas. All of these market segments are currently on the upswing in production capacity. Automotive has seen a recent boost in activity due to a rebound at the domestic majors, primarily in new engine and transmission production.
Globally, there are solid long-term projections for China. Though the overall business climate there is somewhat down presently, we see the Chinese automotive market continuing to invest with an eye on the future. Many companies are building machinery and equipment here for installation in China as well. Ford is certainly leading the way into China among the American builders, but the other players are quite aggressively seeking opportunities there now. Each is making major investments to move into the Chinese market.
Falling steel and energy prices, as well as the emergence of alternative fuels such as the new gas finds in the Marcellus Shale and elsewhere, are helping to feed a resurgence of the automotive industry here. New technologies are being funded in R&D and we’ve seen plans for entire fleets being retrofitted for LPG. It is an exciting time to be in the business.
On the flip side, we see two blinking red lights: The Euro Zone financial crisis and the political climate in China, with their effects on policy, both trade and domestic, may adversely impact our economy. These are situations we are monitoring closely.
New developments in CNC technology for the job shop, drive technology, robotics and network communications for manufacturers are all creating vast new market opportunities. A true watchword for the coming year is flexibility. This will be absolutely essential for shops and OEMs alike to remain successful.
Expanding on the idea of flexibility, shops want more ability to respond and even anticipate changes in their workload. The manufacturing of discrete parts has fundamentally changed over the last few decades and this trend will continue. Making many different parts on the same machine tools will require adaptive machining and part handling concepts to be developed and those are already emerging.
The new multitasking machines for mill/turn operations is a great example. Such machine tools, as well as new press and laser/waterjet/EDM technologies, are changing the face of the job shop for chip cutters and fabricating operations alike. A key here is the corresponding flexibility of the machine control.
Next in the hierarchy for shops is ease of use. Developments of simulation software are moving much of the get-ready time off the machine and onto a personal computer for more instant productivity on the shop floor, while recent advances in human-machine interface (HMI) mean the CNC is scalable for virtually every kind of machine tool, with a standard look and feel to the controls. This makes cross-training of operators much easier and translates into a more adaptive, flexible workforce in every shop, regardless of size.
Last, but certainly not least, uptime on the machinery remains a constant requirement for shops. All electrical and electronic components must be rugged and reliable. The highest test procedures for voltage and temperature variances have now been instituted so that controls and equipment can withstand most any power supply condition or environment.
Topping the list is available skilled labor and, simply stated, the perception of manufacturing must change so that more young people, especially those with math and science aptitude, will begin to view manufacturing as a viable career path.
To be frank, much of the criticism of our educational system is without basis. The inventive and entrepreneurial spirit in America is still quite powerful and manufacturers can prosper here, but it will require keeping some of the best and brightest young people engaged in the process. Training of current employees is a vital function as well, so that they remain highly motivated and productive when using new technologies.
I have great confidence in a bright future for American metal manufacturing, not only because of the market trends but also because many companies here have resources to invest. In the coming months, however, it will be critical that our leaders in the administration and Congress enact policies that encourage the utilization of these revenue resources. As the economy recovers, improvements in workforce training, infrastructure and the ability of manufacturers to build their businesses here will be vital.
In the end, I do see many indications pointing in the right direction for the market here.
Siemens Industry, Inc., Motion Control Machine Tool Business, 390 Kent Avenue, Elk Grove Village, IL 60007, 847) 640-1595, Fax: 847-437-0784, www.usa.siemens.com/cnc.
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