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Balancing And The Bottom Line

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Balancing, once considered to be important in this industry only to performance engine builders, has lately become a sought-after service in some segments you may never have considered. Yet good-old-fashioned engine balancing remains an important profit center in many machine shop operations. If the engine components (pistons, rods and crankshaft) aren’t in balance you’ll experience shaking and loss of potential horsepower.

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An internally balanced engine uses the crankshaft’s counterweights to offset the reciprocating mass of the pistons and rods. Often, extra metal (“heavy” or “Mallory” metal) is added where needed. Occasionally, metal needs to be removed from the counterweights.

Externally balanced engines, conversely, have extra counterweights added to the flywheel or harmonic balancer to bring the components back into balance. External balancing can often be a solution in engines with longer strokes or large displacements, especially if there isn’t enough clearance inside the crankcase to handle counterweights of significant size.

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The basics of balancing haven’t really changed over time – add weight if it’s required, take it away if needed. What has changed is the market’s expectations and the technology available to make balancing an accessible activity. What used to be considered an art, black magic or simply too darn complicated for the average guy to figure out is, thanks to today’s modern balancing equipment, a service you can use to satisfy customers in nearly every industry in your community.

“Balancing has the advantage of standing on its own as a very profitable resource,” explains Randy Neal from CWT Industries, “but the real advantages are the linkage that balancing has to everything in the machine shop. It also is one of the only machines that can cross into industrial applications and allow the machine shop to go after new business that they never solicited before.”

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Jim Davis, from Fentech agrees that getting your head out of the engine bay can open your eyes to a wide range of possibilities. “There are a lot of other items that require balancing other than crankshafts. Turbochargers, brake drums, pump impellers, driveshafts and motor armatures are possibilities. An additional revenue stream can be generated by balancing these other types of items.”

Davis reminds us that balancers – unlike multi-purpose machines that do a variety of different jobs – do one thing: balance. That dedication, however, is a very good thing. “This is a dedicated machine. Thus, a shop can charge $80-100 per hour for balancing services. This can be a very high profit center for shops.”

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Another industry expert says “you can balance anything that spins, including tires. Your crank balancer can do a better job than any wheel balancer and you can offer this as a valuable service to very high end customers.”

Gary Hildreth from G&H Balancers says keeping the balancer busy is the key. “With industrial parts, you can can charge upwards of $90 per hour. Plus, you can do parts for snowmobiles, motorcycles – you get the idea.”

With the increased attention to balancing opportunities, the question has to be asked: are the older machines up to today’s challenges? Davis says yesterday’s equipment can do the job – today’s equipment can do the job faster. “Like most technology of today, the advances in balancing machines have made it faster and more accurate than the machines of yesterday. With faster processing speed of today’s computers, the guess work has been eliminated and the amount of time required has been significantly reduced.”

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CWT’s Neal says “Generally speaking, the older machines have very limited electronics and require the operating technician to go through a lot of ‘mental gymnastics’ to get to a reasonable result.”

Hildreth cautions against throwing the high-quality balancing equipment of the past into the nostalgic “where are they now” pile just because it may have a few years on it. “Don’t simply discount older balancers. Don Garlits won 6 Top Fuel championships with his 1957 Stewart-Warner Industrial balancer and still uses it. Smokey Yunick’s vacuum tube Stewart-Warner Model 704 helped him win 64 NASCAR races and the Indy 500. That machine is still running, now in the hands of its second owner,” Hildreth says.

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“Older equipment is accurate enough, but typically the machines are slower,” acknowledges Turner Technologies’ Michael Turner. “The older equipment can ‘lie’ about where the exact heavy spot is compared to the newest software. The imbalance on one end will affect the other end and you’ll find yourself having to bring it in to balance a little at a time – you often spend 3-4 times as long when you’re working slowly from end-to-end.”

Like nearly every other aspect of life, computer software has made a huge impact on balancing.

“Upgrading current equipment can be done but the amount of investment versus a new machine can still be considerable,” says Fentech’s Davis. “The value of the upgraded machine is not comparable to a new machine because you now have a ‘hybrid’ balancer that may be difficult to support and sell if the shop owner decides to sell or retire. No matter what you do, the older machine is still an older machine when you upgrade it. Also, tax depreciation incentives will apply with a new purchase.”

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CWT makes retro kits for older machines, explains Neal, “Putting ‘hard bearing’ technology on light duty bases creates a host of limiting factors related to accuracy and scalability.  ‘Soft bearing’ machines were designed to allow substantial movement so that the measuring hardware could report the maximum amount of swing during the sampling period. ‘Hard bearing’ machines measure the swing in ‘sub-microns,’ which mandates an extremely rigid platform. If you are going to achieve measuring accuracy and scalability when changing rotor weights (light single cylinders for heavy V8 crankshafts) the upgrade systems can be challenged for accuracy. So yes, they emulate but they are not the same.”

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The name of the game is accuracy, proficiency and profitability, Neal explains. “The new systems are ergonomically designed to eliminate the mental gymnastics and quickly/profitably process the job with the least amount of operator involvement.”

The great thing about balancers, explain our experts, is the likelihood that they’ll pay for themselves in your shop. “Balancers in general offer a higher return on investment than other equipment,” says  Turner.

Neal agrees, “The ‘return on investment’ depends mostly on the owner’s marketing plan. The balancing machine is designed to handle all parts that rotate and be operated 24/7. The only limit with these machines is the owner’s marketing creativity. The pump, fan, roller and prop-shaft industries are just a few sources for balancing applications and there are more. Some of our customers have told us that they have had enough sales in their first year to exceed the purchase price of the machine. At that rate, those customers have found a small ‘gold mine.’ It’s out there – you just have to go get it.”

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And even if you don’t find the gold mine, a copper mine can be profitable as well. “Typically if you do 3-4 balance jobs a month you can justify the purchase of a new balancer. With this amount of balance jobs, the machine can be paid for after a 60 month lease period,” Davis explains. “New equipment will help sell the balance job when the customer sees a newly equipped machine instead of a 40-year-old machine with added components.”

Balancing looks to be a service that will continue to increase in importance and opportunity. As CWT’s Neal concludes, “One of the best benefits is that the balancer adds depth to any business plan.”  Your experiences may be similar and I encourage you to let us know how you use this type of equipment to balance out your bottom line.

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