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CNC Machining Equipment

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What’s Keeping You From Making the Plunge?

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I’ve discovered when I talk with Engine Builder readers about CNC equipment the conversation often falls one of two ways: it’s either the best idea in the history of the industry or it’s just too expensive, too complex or just too different.

In conversations with equipment suppliers, on the other hand, there really isn’t a debate. CNC isn’t the wave of the future – it’s real, relevant and ready to help you be more profitable.

Today’s CNC equipment is easier and more accessible than ever and will allow shops to stop outsourcing projects. Photo courtesy of Centroid.

Probably.

The caveat, of course, in many cases is that change is needed. And change is often the biggest hurdle to overcome.

“When we talk about CNC equipment in this industry, we need to talk about an evolution,” explains Rottler Manufacturing’s Anthony Usher. “It seems like 20 years ago, when CNC was just making inroads in engine machining, people were scared of it. They thought they couldn’t handle it and they shied away from the concept of releasing some of their controls to a computer. There are still some who believe it’s too difficult.”

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Tim Whitley, from T&S Machine, agrees. “The biggest challenge for automotive machine shops is the mindset of the owner. Most are not businessmen, they are tradesmen. They figure if they’re given a Nicholson file they can make it work – they’re that good. And, yes, most ARE that good. But while they can make the part, most don’t know how to make money.

John Cowher of Centroid, explains it’s the old business story about keeping up-to-date or getting run over and left behind. “It’s the age old problem of not expanding or keeping up with technology and the times. Fear of the unknown. Maybe it’s just resistance to the change. Maybe it’s the lack of education and they need to understand what modern technology and equipment can bring to the table. Maybe a lack of confidence and self esteem. It doesn’t mean they are thinking wrong, they just need to know the truth.  Simply put, if shops want to continue to compete in this age they need to invest and stay up on technology. If not, their competitor will.”

Today’s CNC equipment doesn’t need to be intimadating. It’s not “just for the other guys.” Photo courtesy of Rottler Manufacturing.

Matt Napolitano of RMC, believes changing times HAVE forced the hand of some engine builders who may have been comfortable sticking with an old way of doing business. “I think shops are looking to expedite existing jobs. It seems like the shops that made it through the economic downturn are very busy and have picked up work from the nearby shops that have closed,” Napolitano says. “That additional work load is causing them to have to find a faster and more efficient way to get the block machining finished. With many shops having trouble finding good employees the CNC becomes the new employee.”

That “new employee” never has a fight with a wife, never stays out too late watching football and ever needs to take a second, third or eighth cigarette break. As Whitley points out, the CNC system is able to duplicate the most efficient person in the shop through automated processes. “The operator is freed up to operate more than one machine at a time. And we have never sold a single piece of equipment that costs as much as one mediocre employee.”

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Aversion to change and fear of the unknown have long been blamed for a reluctance to make the switch to CNC equipment. But as Rottler’s Usher points out, technology is integral to our lives now and technophobes are much harder to find.

“The cellphone has definitely helped us. Everyone realizes how wonderful the touchscreen is, and how easy it is to learn,”  Usher says. “So they get a little bit more confidence they can buy a machine and find that CNC is not going to be some black art that they can’t work. As people have become more and more aware that CNC is easy and it’s far better all round they go for it.”

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Usher says the biggest obstacle facing equipment manufacturers these days is not finding new customers – “Let’s be honest, new engine builders and machine shops are few and far between. Our challenges is upgrading existing customers, trying to convince them that the manual machine they’ve got there, that’s been standing in the corner boring blocks for 30 years and can reliably stay there for another 50 years and never break down is really worth nothing to their business because it’s too slow.”

Cowher echoes this. “Your competitor will eat your lunch and hand you your lunch bag! The potential new CNC customer just needs to be educated and well informed of the benefits he might receive if he makes the investment. Simple math will eventually come into the picture, and they can easily see if the investment is affordable or not. They will see if the investment is a match with their goals and applications both short term and long term. The time investment is as important and a key ingredient to the success of the future business.”

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Equipment suppliers say they recognize the fact that CNC equipment has the potential to be overwhelming, both in cost and capability. Sometimes, they acknowledge the fact that fully automated 5-axis CNC machining centers can take a block of aluminum and create a brand new engine block in just hours may actually be overkill. Sometimes, a machinist just needs to know that that CNC is the way forward, and that it will take some type of CNC equipment to help them grow, improve efficiency, productivity and remain competitive in today’s marketplace.

For basic shop operations like boring, surfacing, drilling, milling, etc., most of the CNC equipment that’s available for the automotive aftermarket is menu driven with relatively simple “fill-in-the-blank” programming. Certain basic jobs are often preprogrammed in the control menu so all you have to do id enter the requested information and the machine does the rest.

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Industrial CNC machines are typically programmed using G-code or M-code commands entered on a keyboard or touch screen. These are special codes that tell the tooling how to move in the X, Y and Z planes. But most automotive machinists are not programmers, so many CNC machines designed for our market use “conversational programming.” You enter the basic information that tells the machine what you want it to do, things like how much you want to mill off the surface of the block, what size to bore the cylinders, etc., and the machine does the rest.

Conversational programming is much easier and faster to learn than traditional G-code and M-code programming. So with minimal training, a CNC machine can be up and running and making you money.

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The challenge of learning to use modern CNC equipment is no longer as great as it once was. Conversational programming, touch screens and multiple-project versatility mean more can be done, even on machines that, for the most part, look, feel and operate like older mechanical models.

“The biggest misconception is the idea that automated machining is only good for production, repetitive machining,” says Whitley. “While it is true that our CNC is capable of mass production, the block machining side of the software, and the fixturing, is designed so any good engine machinist can flow through a variety of blocks with no special fixtures or programs.”

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Sunnen’s Bob Dolder, too, says CNC may be perfect for users with various needs.

“One example may be ‘I have a bunch of the same product due in less than 24 days. The other side of it is, maybe we don’t need that kind of volume, but what we’re looking for tight tolerances. Things that used to take hours to do by hand and basically caused harm to the guy trying to do that over a short period of time? Yes, we produce a machine that can do that,” Dolder says.

“CNC helps a shop in a number of ways,” Cowher agrees. “It stops shops from outsourcing their development projects, be it cylinder head development or block development. It puts the shop owner in control of his shop. They can run parts on the CNC unattended, and even run lights out freeing them up to do other things. CNC provides consistency and accuracy in parts, and for today’s engines, those parts need that to be accurate and consistent to be competitive to win. It also opens the door for shops to take on more work and make more money.”

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And taking on those projects is crucial for today’s machine shop to survive tomorrow.

“To maximize their profits shops need to take on those complicated jobs that no one else wants or can’t do,” says RMC’s Matt Napolitano. “The CNC for engine machining offers you endless options to do new and innovative processes to engine blocks. That new process may help create a name for that shop as offering something no one else does. That allows that shop to capture a new market which in turn gets people talking.  Obviously, in my opinion, the engine block machining area of the shop will gain the most benefit from having a CNC machine. Engine block machining is probably one of the most important areas in most machine shops. So if that’s the case, you want the best technology to do the jobs as quickly and accurately as possible.”

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Flexibility, says Usher, is important, especially for smaller shops that, thanks to the versatility offered by today’s CNC equipment, can afford to do more with less.

“CNC, first of all, has allowed people to do more in less time, more accurately and do much more on one machine. Although many people automatically assume CNC technology can only be found on enclosed machining centers, the computing power is being implemented in to many supplier’s traditional machines as well,” Usher says. “A lot of people look at something like our F79A, not realizing that they can buy and do bigger, mid-sized diesel engines as well. It worked for performance work, it worked for engine rebuilders and all that.”

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Usher says traditional machines offer a window into CNC allowing users to start learning and writing their own programs and learning how to program and make parts.

“A lot of people think ‘ah, that’s for the other guys,’” says Usher. “They don’t realize that they can benefit from it too.”

The machines are very easy to use, Napolitano agrees, cautioning that there will be a learning curve for some. “Some shop owners are used to doing things the old way which is very hands on. With the CNC machine you have to relinquish some of that hands on mentality and let the machine work for you. After the user gets comfortable running the machine it becomes like second nature. We often hear shop owners say, ‘I can’t believe I used to do that that way,’” he says.

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To maximize the machine’s capability, shops need to keep all the CNC machine work in-house, Cowher advises. “Do not outsource jobs. Shops need to make sure they are programming efficiently and using the best modern machining techniques, CAD/Cam software and tooling available. All departments of a modern machine shop benefit from CNC.

“The departments that benefit the most are those that can keep the work in the machine, work the machine as much as possible and do not have the operator spend time watching it work. They can do plenty of other things with equipment that doesn’t need tending,”  Cowher says.

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“In performance shops, I’ve seen CNCs cut engine block machining from 8 hours or more per block to less than an hour per block. In cylinder head machining cases I’ve seen drops from 40 hours to 6-8 hours on Cummins cast iron, and in general, porting a set of heads, intake, chamber and exhaust, depending on the complexity and stepovers, just 4-6 hours. Do the math!” Cowher says.

Too Expensive?

Money’s important, of courese, and the fact of the matter is CNC equipment is expensive. “But so is everything else we buy today,” says RMC’s Napolitano. “I think a lot of shop owners are thinking about it all wrong. You have to look at the monthly payment for the machine, not the grand total on the order. Then you have to decide, if the monthly payment on the machine is $3,000, what do I have to do to make that monthly payment.”

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Return on investment is critical, and all of our sources agree that the word “investment” cannot be ignored. You’ll have an investment of money in buying it and of time in learning how to use your new CNC equipment.

But Sunnen’s Dolder points out a key fact that can make these productivity gains meaningless.

“The biggest problem this industry has isn’t doing great work – it’s that they don’t keep up with the modern market today in pricing. You need to address what you’re going to charge for it. You need to address that issue first. Is your customer going to pay for what you’re going into debt here for? Are you going to have return on investment? Put the numbers to it.”

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It’s highly likely that CNC equipment will make you more efficient than you’ve ever been, allow you to reach levels of accuracy you’ve only dreamed of and serve customers all over the world in a variety of industries.

“If you are in control of your shop you can expedite product. If not, you are at the mercy of your subcontractors,” concludes Cowher. “That’s not a good place to be. Of course, if you are going to invest in equipment of this magnitude, you had better be anticipating future growth. The future growth will come, but you need to plan ahead.” ν

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