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Thinking Outside The Crankcase
Alternative income from your crankshaft grinder
By Scott Wichlacz
Are you using your crankshaft grinder every day? Although it may be one of the most expensive pieces of equipment in your shop, it may sit idle for a long time if you don’t have a crankshaft in-house that needs work. But you don’t have to limit yourself to just automotive crankshafts, satisfied to wait for just these types of jobs to come to you. With some additional market research and equipment investment there are a tremendous number of niche markets available to the engine builder who is willing to tackle the many different opportunities to put his crankshaft grinder to use.
At Manitowoc Motor and Machining Manitowoc, WI, we realize that our crankshaft grinder needs to be running in order to make money for us. Unfortunately, it probably only gets used 15 hours a week for its "intended" purpose. Because we don’t always have an automotive crankshaft that needs to be ground, we’re always looking for those jobs on which we can make a lot of money, rather than just grinding another 350 Chevy crank.
Where do we find the work? Actually, it’s everywhere. The following illustrations are just a few examples of what you can find if you start looking.
Photos 1 and 2 show a large armature from a huge 250-hp, three-phase electric motor from an industrial plant. The customer brought this in after a bearing had failed. The bearing races had friction-welded themselves to the shaft, which had already been damaged by attempts to cut the old bearings off.
We mounted the armature in our crankshaft grinder and removed the bearing races by grinding. We then underground the shaft and welded it back up and then finish ground these areas. This was a very profitable repair that generated approximately twice the profit we would have seen by grinding your typical automotive crankshaft.
We have also had a lot of experience repairing damaged arbors. We have repaired arbors on huge stone saws used to cut limestone or sandstone in rock quarries (Photo 3) as well as stamping presses used by all types of manufacturing plants. The procedure involves welding the arbors with a submerged arc welder and then finishing them in the crank grinder.
We have also helped to repair printing plant equipment. Photo 4 shows a printing press ink roller from a small local printer. This brass roller needed to be resurfaced. Because our crank grinder has a power traverse, it was easy to do the job right. Although this was a relatively small job, I’d also encourage you to think big on these projects – I know there are huge web printing presses and paper rollers that often need repair. Check the possibilities in your local area.
Roy Berndt, head of the Production Engine Remanufact-urers Association’s (PERA) cataloging and SourcePERA software program was a pretty fair crank grinder in his former life. He says "I know from my own experience how profitable – and available – this work can be. I have ground nail machine crankshafts, punch press crankshafts, hydraulic rams that have been chromed and injection pump shafts," to name just some of the possibilities.
Having the proper equipment and skill to do the job right is half the battle. To take advantage of the many niches out there, you’ll want to invest in other accessories to make your job easier. If you have all of the following pieces of equipment in your shop – or even any – you can use them to do very profitable non-automotive work, too.
• Magnetic Particle Inspection Machine – Examples of jobs you can do with your inspection machine include checking marine outdrive gears and shafts; race car suspensions and front end parts; any type of shafts, bolts, gears or connecting rods; dies and punches for stamping plants; even ski resort chair lifts. Each year, a friend of mine works with his local ski resort to check the parts that hold the chairs to the lift – a very important connection.
Rather than simply checking to be sure an automotive part is worth repairing, use your inspection machine to look for cracks in all types of metal parts and equipment. We do work for companies that do metal stamping and plastic extrusion – all sorts of things that have nothing at all to do with automotive.
• Crankshaft-straightening press – Your crankshaft straightening press also can be used to straighten ATV axles, propeller shafts, racecar axle tubes and stainless steel shafts from food processing plants, among other things.
• Crankshaft welders, MIG, TIG or metal spray welding equipment – Wire or heliarc welding is used to build up the surfaces so you have plenty of material to machine back to final size. Most shaft buildup can be done with a crankshaft welder, however, you can also use your TIG or spray-metalizing gun. A crankshaft welder is not always needed.
Long-time Engine Builder contributing editor Paul Savadin has written several articles about high-dollar crankshaft repair and he does it with a heliarc machine and stainless wire. Previously, he used a wire welder and both methods worked well for him.
If you don’t have the equipment or skill to do the welding in this manner, don’t discount the possibility of having someone do the welding for you until you can justify buying a welder. High tech welding machines such as the Gleason Engineering machine in our shop provide many profit opportunity jobs for us.
Additionally, many shafts and crankshafts have worn oil seal areas. These, too, can be welded and finish ground at a nice profit and also return a better product to the customer. Don’t return a shaft with reground journals and worn out seal areas.
While having the latest equipment can improve your efficiency, quality and job capabilities, don’t think you have to have every piece of the latest equipment in order to do a lot of these jobs. In many cases you can still produce a good product if you’re careful about the procedures you use.
Unique profiles such as convex or concave surfaces can also be done on crankshaft grinders if you purchase a special dresser. Specialty materials can be ground with special wheels, too. Just ask your grinding wheel supplier to help you with this. Some items you accept for grinding may need to be held on an expanding mandrel. These, too, can be purchased from industrial tooling suppliers.
Some of the items you grind, build up or straighten may also need balancing. Don’t forget to ask for this business or sell it to your industrial customers.
Make sure your customers know what you can do. Use a brochure or pictures of jobs you have done…think outside the crankcase, if you know what I mean.
Get out to potential customers that you might never have considered:
- Stone Quarries
- Feed Mills
- Stamping Businesses
- Electric Motor Shops
Any manufacturing business has shafts that get worn or bent. Because of recent cutbacks, many businesses have reduced or eliminated their maintenance departments and are now sending out work that was done in-house in the past. Make sure you are getting some of it.
Once you get the job, how do you know you’re getting enough for it? Although I don’t think there’s any scientific way to set the price, it’s important, of course, to know what your operations costs are to begin with. Generally, I’ll charge a minimum of 25 percent over my regular hourly rate. Believe it or not, your customers will most likely tell you how expensive a new one is and how badly they need it.
It’s usually not what the part is worth – most of the time they just can’t get a replacement. Most of the industrial stuff is so expensive that you can charge very well for it, do it right away and make them very happy to be having it repaired.
"In my shop, small punch press and nail machine types of crankshafts would typically draw $100-$200 of labor per hour," says PERA’s Berndt. "The plus on doing that type of job is that downtime absolutely kills your customer and can potentially cost them thousands of dollars per hour."
Berndt explains that very few of these industrial companies look at you as a potential resource to get them back up and running, so they go back to the equipment manufacturer to get a replacement part. Not only does this often take weeks or months, but also it can be very expensive, so they’ll often try to keep a spare part handy. This, too, can be prohibitively expensive.
"Nail machines were my favorite thing to work on, because these people were insane when the machine went down," recalls Berndt. "I remember situations where I was able to charge $500-$1,000 labor per hour on a ‘must-have back immediately’ basis."
At Manitowoc, we’ll also build up and regrind crankshafts for large refrigeration units and compressors because a particular customer can’t get undersize bearings. They have no choice but to give us the job or buy new crankshafts – and those units are really expensive. We can do them quickly, make a lot of money and still save the customer a bunch.
If you ask a couple of questions about the part, your customer will generally give you an idea of what a proper charge should be, whether it’s 30 or 50 percent of the cost of a new one, or whatever is appropriate. But you have to be careful not to gouge them – they might be able to find someone who can do it for a lot less than you can in the future. So you don’t want to be ridiculous when it comes to costing the job.
When setting your price, remember that you’re giving something up by taking an industrial job. Most of the time, you could have made a profit if you were working on an engine, grinding the crankshaft and selling bearings, pistons and the other things. Keep in mind that you’re losing that part of your profit when you do this kind of a job, so factor that into your hourly rate.
The great thing about industrial-type repair jobs is that you can get paid fairly for the work you do. Sometimes you are working on an automotive part that you know is only worth $200, so you don’t always get paid for all your time on it. Too many times, as an industry we’ll give too much away. We know the price of the engine is getting too high, so we’ll cut back on the rate or not charge for everything we’ve put into it.
With these bigger jobs, you get paid for every minute of the job. You should never be afraid of losing any money on jobs like these.
I’ll say it again – you have to learn to think outside of the crankcase. The work is out there if you go get it. As PERA’s Berndt points out, "If it’s round and you can find a way to hold it and spin it you will be able to grind it."
Let’s be honest – your grinder/welder/balancer/straightening press, etc. doesn’t care whether it is working on a 350 Chevy crankshaft that is worth $100 or a stone saw arbor that is worth as much as $1,000-$2,000. But I can guarantee you that your bank account will.