New Technology:Advances in Engine Building Equipment
By Doug Kaufman
How has racing changed your engine building business? No, it's not a hypothetical, industry-generic question; in this case, it's directed at every reader of this magazine.
A strange question? It may seem to be. If you race - or build motors for racers - it's probably an easy one to answer. But if you stay away from racing you may think it doesn't apply to you.
However, according to leading industry equipment suppliers, the growth of racing has impacted this industry like no other factor, and its technology has changed the way you do business, whether or not you build motors for use on the local street, strip or speedway.
You may never see a checkered flag or a Christmas tree, but in all likelihood, your business and your customers are benefiting from the knowledge gained in racing venues.
"Racing has always been the epitome of research and development," explains Randy Neal, CWT Industries, Norcross, GA. "The information downloaded from racing has enhanced every level of the internal combustion engine, from durability, fuel mileage, performance and even manufacturing techniques.
"The OEM - as a direct result of racing - has learned how to build light engines that rev higher yet live longer by redesigning virtually every component in the engine," Neal says. "Each enhancement at the OEM level mandates that the aftermarket keep pace. Whether it is in surface finish, flatness, diameter, alignment or balancing specifications, each new specification is challenging every machine previously designed."
Of course, advancements that were gained on the track have paid obvious dividends to the general public as engines today are much more durable, reliable and powerful than they were just a few decades ago. But how has it affected this industry?
"All of the technology that's making the engines last longer is really a double-edged sword," says Ed Kiebler, Winona Van Norman, Wichita, KS. "It helps us to sell new equipment because the old equipment isn't capable of holding the tolerances. Worn ways and spindle bearings won't generate the tolerances you need in today's marketplace."
On the other hand, Kiebler points out that with life spans up to double that of yesterday's engines, rebuilders may not have the business they once did. How, then, can they justify buying new equipment?
The real question may instead be, with changes to tolerances and materials, how can you NOT justify it?
"Unfortunately, shop owners sometimes think they can't afford this equipment," says Ken Barton, QPAC, Lansing, MI. "But what have you gained if you put an unreliable engine out there because of outdated equipment?"
Technology in the engine building equipment industry has changed over the many decades since the first engine rebuilder machined the first engine. Changes in tolerances, materials and work practices that began in racing engine builder shops have made their way into the traditional engine facility and have dramatically affected the way work is done.
"Performance and racing engine building has always been a very exacting science that requires considerable know-how, experience and machining savvy," explains Anthony Usher, Rottler Mfg., Kent, WA. "One of the keys to building engines that are consistent race winners is the ability to closely control and maintain exact tolerances and machining geometry."
Usher points out that "blueprinting," is the cornerstone of performance engine building. "It's all about making sure blocks are square, that deck surfaces are flat and parallel to the crankshaft centerline, that bore centerlines and lifter bores are exactly where they should be. It's demanding work that requires precise measurements and top-notch equipment."
Of course, that also describes most other types of engine rebuilds today. Tim Whitley, T&S Machines and Tools, Gainesville, TX, agrees that precision is key regardless of the market. "Whether it's late model engines or something they're putting into their old muscle cars, everybody wants it - it has to be precise."
Kiebler cuts right to the chase: "The OEMs, pushed by the racing business, have shrunk the tolerances by half to two-thirds of what we used to find acceptable."
It's not only rebuilders who have been challenged to keep up with the changes in technology. Ray Meyer, RMC Engine Rebuilding Equipment says that as technology has changed in materials, part longevity and machining accuracy, machine manufacturers have struggled to keep up with shifting demand for new methods to machine these materials.
"To understand how to machine the new hardened materials and components, the machine tool market needs to ask itself whether machines made in the '50s, '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s can perform well enough to give our customers the performance and quality they want," says Meyer. He believes the answer is a qualified "maybe," and looks at the industry's historical timeline for indications about the future.
"Boring machines have changed a lot since the block-top mounting system they were designed for was introduced. Next came the fixture machines with the boring unit traveling on an air cushion. Then came the combination boring and surfacing mills to which were added digital readouts (DROs) to position the block more accurately. Finally, the block is now positioned on a CNC machine with a four-axis 360-degree rollover that allows for block measurements to be taken from the cam and crank centerline. Measurements are probed and recorded on a CNC controller and parts are machined to blueprint specifications," Meyer says.
Not only do the race engine builders desire this level of accuracy, Meyer continues, but so do the OEMs. "All you have to do is look at engine development and OBD specifications. The stack tolerance is so minimal that many machines produced in past decades will not meet these tolerances. Most machines made in the rebuilding industry would surpass OEM specs for engines from the '60s to the '80s. Now, many machines are relegated to pre-'90s motors only."
Tim Meara, Sunnen Products Co., St. Louis, MO, agrees that some of the biggest strides in racing technology have been made in the materials used to build components. "There are a lot of variations in materials, especially in the base materials and the coatings used. One of the newest materials we're seeing is called compacted graphite. GM has been using the material in NHRA Pro Stock drag racing with Warren Johnson for a number of years. Now, the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series engines from Chevrolet are made of compacted graphite. Dodge Motorsports has also done a limited production run of compacted graphite for its teams."
Compacted graphite, says Meara, is an iron that is more steel-like than cast iron. "The graphite modules in the iron are closer together, making it a much tougher material. For surfacing, drilling or tooling operations to the block a rebuilder needs to use CBN tooling."
Additionally, Meara points out, the material's composition requires different machining techniques.
"Unlike cast iron, which is virtually self-lubricating, you have to treat it like you're machining steel. Tooling and material feed rates must be dropped down. It's very expensive to machine. While it makes for a very stable engine block - perfect for premium racing operations - you don't see it widespread across the board...yet."
"The needs have definitely changed in racing over the years - and as a result, so have the demands of the aftermarket," suggests T&S Machine's Whitley. "It used to be that racers bought a lot of used product and rebuilt it. Cylinder heads were a prime example. Engine builders would buy performance cylinder heads, clean them up and modify them for racing. Now, we're seeing a lot more with new heads.
They're still buying and modifying heads, but in many cases they're brand new, clean castings. Race shops have always been clean places - now, we're seeing some regular rebuilders who don't do much cleaning: they're working on clean castings."
Whitley says the increase in available aftermarket parts has actually been a benefit to equipment suppliers. "Crankshafts are a prime example," he says. "We used to balance the rotating assembly because we bored the block and put new pistons in. Now, engine builders are buying aftermarket crankshafts that are harder and rough-balanced. They're not even expecting them to be balanced when they get them - they know they'll have to do the balance job."
Sunnen's Meara echoes this thought: "Parts such as crankshafts are being made cheaper than ever. Builders are buying new rather than repair them... but that means they'll have to balance them."
Such factors as parts pricing have a sizeable impact on the equipment needs of today's engine builder, especially as it relates to creating new power. Meeting the standards set by the OEM is equally important to restore existing power.
"The machine capabilities of the OEMs are extremely accurate," says CWT's Neal. "Their manufacturing standards are very precise, and the OEM - through actions such as Six Sigma, ISO documentation and an entire host of quality initiatives - are building engines in volumes that is equivalent to some of the best performance engine builders in the world."
Neal urges the aftermarket to understand that the OEM is building a quality engine. "If engine builders want to stay in the game they must make the commitment to excellence or they will be driven out of the market," he says.
Indeed, the number of engine builders continues to decline, a fact well-documented. "We keep hearing that shops are shutting down," says Whitley. "It's true…there ARE fewer shops. But the ones who are left are doing really nice work. They need to buy new equipment because they can't get it done with the old stuff - and the guys who insist on keeping the old stuff are the shops going out of business."
RMC's Meyer supports this view: "Many machinists fail to recognize the distance between the equipment they have and the equipment they need. Many more shops will fail as they fall further behind on the technology trail."
But he puts some of the blame for this technology discrepancy on the shoulders of his colleagues in the machine industry. "Unfortunately, some suppliers continue to make equipment for engines that are waning in popularity. Too many shops don't understand the different business climate we are in today and are especially slow to recognize the opportunity for stability. Many are simply downsizing or getting out now," Meyer says.
When you think "technology," do you automatically think "high cost?" According to equipment experts, it's a reality that can't be escaped - latest and greatest comes with a cost. But it's a cost that must be paid and in many cases may not be as great as it seems.
"When we introduced some of our computer-controlled machines, we included certain features that we thought customers would want most," says Sunnen's Meara. "As the machines have been in the field, we've been able to offer more features that really didn't cost anything more in 'hardware costs.' It's all software programming."
QPAC's Barton explains that what looks to be more expensive may actually only be more flexible. "Yes, things are more costly than they have been, but we equipment suppliers have built in flexibility so our customers can do more than one job. In our case, for example, you can micropolish camshafts, crankshafts and transmission parts on the same machine. Plus, we've built 'fail safes' into the machine, so that the parts are guaranteed to be within specs when they come out."
In the beginning of this industry, "leading edge" had a different meaning. "In 1923, 'high tech' meant unpowered portable boring bars, but research and attention to the needs of the American engine rebuilding market has allowed us to refine - and redefine - what is considered to be the 'standard' in rebuilding equipment," says Rottler's Usher. "Today, with touch screen controls and 'conversational programming,' computer coding is done for our customers and changes and updates to machining capabilities can actually be sent by email."
Amazing changes in equipment design and capability have been seen recently, so the question begs to be asked: can we really afford all this? Are the machines just too darn expensive? CWT's Neal says not at all.
"Given what some of the machines are capable of, I would say they are a steal. With high precision linear bearing ways, zero clearance ball screws coupled to very accurate servo motors that have logic controller monitoring and self-correcting processors, data acquisition components have virtually taken away all of the mental gymnastics that were required just a few years ago," Neal explains. "So the short answer is 'yes.' I think they are less expensive, due to the fact that we have been able to lower the operator involvement while increasing the accuracy and speed of the machines and processes."
Equipment cost is a subject that Winona Van Norman's Kiebler is extremely conscious about. "There is some wonderful equipment available that will do everything the most advanced race engine builder needs - and there is also a need for lower cost equipment that will meet the needs of the rest of this industry.
I think there are far more people who are looking for equipment with which they can do the jobs that make them money. They may not need the latest and greatest of everything."
Kiebler says equipment purchases are often driven by emotion. "Local race engine builders may see that the best NASCAR shops have high-end machines and that's what they want. When in reality, they need to carefully look at their business and determine what it is they need."
Sunnen's Meara agrees. "Let's be honest: engine builders still need to do two things today - look at the biggest bottleneck in their shop and look at how a particular machine adds value. I think guys do sometimes tend to overbuy. The best decision is to get the most versatile product for their shop's needs."
The bottom line, say all of these industry spokesmen, is that shops expecting to be successful tomorrow must be looking at their profitability today. And that means examining all aspects of their business, from the type of engines they choose to rebuild to the business payoff between productivity and equipment cost.
"We've basically taken the 'shadetree' out of the equation," says T&S Machine's Whitley. "The guy yanking his engine on the weekend to change his cam has all but been eliminated because of the complexity of the late model engine. We have a different breed of enthusiast today, and we have a different type of machine shop environment too. Some shops want a single piece of equipment that will do it all. There's still a strong part of this market that wants a dedicated piece of equipment to do a single job. I'm not sure the two categories of engine builders ever cross paths. We've got a guy who builds a single engine in two weeks, and we have a guy who does really nice surfacing work and he's wishing he could line the parts up to the street."
The most important thing an engine builder can do when researching new equipment is to first examine his needs. Understand where your profits are now - you may realize that a department you thought was your big money maker may actually be costing you money. In that case, you can decide if new equipment for that shop function will increase profits - or are you better off focusing on a different operation.
By choosing the machinery that meets your business's needs, you can be prepared to take advantage of whatever the industry becomes in the future.