Not Your Father’s Olds ’50s Equipment Not Designed For Today’s Engines
By Doug Kaufman
When it came time to start addressing the subject of survival in the machine shop and engine building world of the future, it was obvious that we could do one of two things: consult the famed French astrologer Nostradamus or call the American Association of Certified Psychics.
The problem is, no one really understands the predictions of the musty 16th-century French seer since he wrote in, well, 16th-century French. And the AAPP – though it guarantees "personal service every time with a Certified Psychic®" – wants to charge $3.50 per minute. I assume they already know I won’t be calling.
No, the only real answers to my questions about the future can be found by speaking with the real experts. Leading suppliers of equipment to the engine rebuilding industry agreed to share their views of the future with us, and though they may not be the dramatic revelations you pass in the supermarket tabloids checkout lane, we believe they’ll be much more accurate.
It’s no secret that advancements in OEM technology have seriously impacted the engine building market. Equipment needs have changed and continue to change, a fact suppliers recognize. "Engine technology has increased to the point that the engines we are driving today are very sophisticated," says Lyle Haley, Peterson Machine Tool. "My opinion is that the high-end race engines of just a few years ago were not as precise as almost every production engine built today. If a rebuilder has not stepped up his knowledge and equipment to meet the demands of machining those engines, his warranty problems will put him out of business quickly."
Haley believes that the changes we have seen in engine technology have been so dramatic over the past few decades that further major changes are unlikely. "The reliability and efficiency of the motor today is phenomenal," explains Haley, who feels that the future will see increased use of alternate fuels. "There’s a point of diminishing returns to have radical changes in the future."
Sunnen Product Company’s, Jack Wetzel, agrees that big changes are unlikely, but that more precise machining requirements due to government intervention will characterize future engine work. "Manufacturing specifications will continue to become more precise as the mandated requirements for higher fuel economy and lower emissions becomes more stringent," Wetzel says. "For example, the manufacturers of diesel fuel injectors are facing significantly more stringent fuel flow control requirements that take effect October 1, 2002. To meet this requirement they have had to invest in new tooling, and in some cases, new machinery to drive the new tooling to manufacture a product that meets the federal requirements."
Technological advancements in materials, designs and sealing will challenge OEMs and remanufacturers alike, acknowledges Ed Kiebler, national sales manager at Winona Van Norman, but that’s not surprising. Kiebler says shops have had to adapt to changing technology since the birth of the industry – what’s different now is the degree to which precision must be maintained.
"Obviously, there’s no margin for error now," says Kiebler. "Surface finish tolerances on head or deck surfaces and cylinder walls have changed dramatically. Multi-layer gaskets take a much finer Ra finish and require a much better waviness measurement than composite gaskets. New ring and piston technology has shops fitting pistons with no clearance so not only do your dial bore gauges and setting fixtures need to be in excellent shape, you had better have a good handle on surface finish parameters and what they mean, along with being able to measure them. Finally, new coatings for cylinders will change the way we machine cylinders. Some of the new coatings will only need to be honed while others can only be honed with diamonds."
Exciting stuff, but many rebuilders feel there’s no way they can keep up. Andy Rottler, Rottler Manufacturing, says equipment makers sympathize. "Some of these changes create real problems for us and the engine rebuilder. The engine rebuilder as well as we equipment manufacturers have to be constantly looking forward to the future so we will be able to meet the demands of our customers. We are making modifications to our machinery at an ever-increasing rate to keep up with the demands of our customer and the OEMs."
Tomorrow’s technology requirements will mean some of the equipment found in today’s shop is already outdated. How much of a shop’s equipment is seriously outdated? Rottler says it’s a multi-faceted answer. "Certainly, there are a lot of old machines that are simply worn out and not able to produce the quality or quantity of parts required. If your machinery doesn’t allow you to produce the product within an economical time frame and meet the required quality issues, you need to update your machinery."
Randy Neal, CWT Industries, explains why much of today’s equipment can’t keep up: "The majority of changes made by the OEMs have been related to improved surface finish specifications and geometric tolerances. Older machinery was not designed for this and can’t achieve these requirements for proper remanufacturing. Aftermarket manufacturers have redesigned their machinery allowing machine shops the opportunity to purchase more accurate and higher productive machinery."
Ray Meyer, RMC Engine Rebuilding Equipment, points to the advanced materials used in modern engines – aluminum alloys and exotic cast irons which require precise surface finishes – as a key to understanding advanced machinery requirements.
"Most shops use a multi-cutter broach-type head surfacer using carbide tooling without the necessary speeds and feeds to meet required specifications," Meyer says. "A surfacing machine that uses infinitely variable table feed and spindle rpms equipped with CBN and PCD is needed."
Meyer also says valve and seat guide machines are likely to be outdated and cylinder resizing using standard abrasives is a culprit in not achieving factory specs as well. Other manufacturers point to upgraded cleaning equipment as profitable shop purchases in the future.
Looking at the past is helpful to predict the future. It’s obvious that the typical machine’s speed and precision have been improved dramatically over machines built just 10 years earlier. Manufacturers predict this trend will continue.
Additionally, machines will likely be easier to operate and maintain. Electronics may make future machines unlike anything we have seen to date. Will they render obsolete the need for service? As several manufacturers pointed out, the basic engine—while significantly more precise and efficient—will remain the same.
This means that machine shop services will become even more critical, says Sunnen’s Wetzel. Pointing to new vehicle controls being tested by Bosch that will allow a vehicle’s entire network of systems to operate more efficiently, providing up to 80 mpg.
"What’s significant about this," says Wetzel, "is that for all the talk about fuel cells and hybrid vehicles, it’s clear that the internal combustion engine is not going away anytime soon. However, because these new engines will only operate the way they’re designed if they’re properly maintained, machine services will be as important as ever."
Of course, that’s not to suggest that the number of engine rebuilds a shop does will ever match the past. Shops will continue to do fewer rebuilds, say equipment experts, but the demand will still be there.
According to Miki Matsuda, AutoXray (a provider of aftermarket automotive diagnostic scanners) while the percentage of rebuilds will go down, the overall number of rebuilds will increase along with population growth and vehicle registrations. "The real impact of improving engine quality will be seen in the increased complexity of the rebuild and the resulting demand for a higher level of technical knowledge. There is an opportunity here for the rebuilder to capture revenue for a more complex service, and not simply pass the advanced technicians’ payroll costs on to the customer," Matsuda says.
"What we have seen so far is that when late model engines do wear out, they require a total major machining of all wear areas," says CWT’s Neal. "Unfortunately, we haven’t seen any volume of these engines. Whether it’s because the OEMs have recaptured the engine or whether we still need some time for them to reenter the market place is unclear."
"There is no question that shops are doing fewer rebuilds today," says Winona Van Norman’s Kiebler, "but I’m not sure that engine quality is the main factor. I think crate motors, specialization such as strictly head rebuilders or installation bays with engine rebuilding facilities, have changed what the typical machine shop sees. Many of the successful shops I visit do a big variety of work from single cylinder engines to single operations like balancing or crankshaft grinding. If there is one common denominator that seems to make these shops successful, it is their ability or intestinal fortitude to charge a fair price for their services. They don’t follow when it comes to pricing – they lead."
Discussions with engine builders indicate that determining price is still a much misunderstood element of the business. Recognizing potential niche markets is critical as well, and a great chance for rebuilders to weather the decline of traditional automotive rebuilds.
"There has been a dramatic increase in the demand for machinery in the performance market," says Rottler. "I would estimate we sell 50 percent of our equipment to the performance market – just five years ago only 10 percent of our sales was in performance."
Rottler points out the innovations that continue within the performance market: in both the motorcycle and race car performance shops, hard coating of cylinder walls is becoming very popular. A new honing process allows the machine shop to easily work with these new materials when just a few years ago it would have been extremely time consuming and difficult to work with them.
Sunnen’s Wetzel echoes the assertion that cylinder wall coatings have led shops to recognize the niche in performance and small engines, often requiring an upgrade in equipment.
"There will be increased demand for work in the performance, restoration and RV markets, and we’re likely to see more consumers using motorcycles, boats and snowmobiles than ever before," predicts Meyer.
Meyer feels that CNC equipment will take most of the guesswork out of production engine rebuilding, allowing shops to hire less-skilled workers. This will be an absolute benefit in the future, he says. "After all, it’s hard to find people to run traditional engine rebuilding equipment now."
Neal from CWT suggests looking for niche market opportunities within your shop from another angle. "To increase revenues, simply look for something that you’re not currently doing, but make sure it has a common activity with your current operations," he says. "A good example is to look at balancing equipment if you are a complete engine building facility." Neal cautions, however, that a cylinder head-only shop would likely not benefit from such a market move and should examine other options.
Machine shop consolidations have resulted in a flood of used equipment into the marketplace. How have these machines impacted both sales of new equipment and the productivity of shops?
Rottler says used equipment has become a challenge for his company and he does not expect the situation to change soon. "The used equipment will continue to be available, but its value has gone down substantially over the past two years. One plus of the used equipment is that it allows some people to get into the business that would otherwise not be able to afford it. Still, a progressive rebuilder simply must use state of the art equipment to succeed," he says.
Even more blunt is Peterson’s Haley: "The abundant supply of used equipment is primarily made up of obsolete or worn out machinery. If we were still working on ’50s-designed engines it would be valuable, but not today. Prices of used equipment have really taken a plunge lately because of this."
The used equipment has impacted new sales, but most people are realizing that they cannot serve the current engines when they have obsolete equipment. It’s "Caveat Emptor," according to CWT’s Neal.
"The abundance of used equipment has confused the market. For the most part, the equipment is out of tolerance, but it has an attractive price. The end user may improve his shop slightly, but the equipment may not meet the needs for current and future engines."
Kiebler agrees: "Many shop owners think they’re getting a great deal by buying used. I’m sure, in some cases, that may be true. However, most of the time the used piece of equipment purchased has been replaced by a new model. There is a reason the equipment company discontinued that particular model or product line, and I can promise you it wasn’t because the manufacturer simply felt it was time for another machine model.
"R & D is very expensive. OEM tolerances, materials or suppliers to the equipment manufacturer helped make the decision to redesign or improve the equipment. Therefore, in more cases than not, the used equipment purchaser is buying outdated equipment that can’t meet tolerances. Getting parts for these aging machines becomes increasingly difficult as well," Kiebler adds.
To a man, these equipment suppliers recommend against buying used equipment – it will be little more than a stopgap efficiency increase in most cases. However, regarding the question of how to buy new equipment, they are not so evenly divided.
Whether to lease or buy depends a great deal on your shop’s individual circumstances. Your ability to take advantage of tax incentives available by leasing, or your ability to pay cash and save thousands of dollars in finance charges and interest both need to be considered.
Whatever option you consider, don’t jump blindly into a major equipment purchase because of initially attractive interest rates. "The key to purchasing equipment is for shop owners to do their homework," says RMC’s Meyer. "Make sure the equipment will be supported by its income producing capabilities."