Mark Albert

Mark Albert is editor-in-chief of Modern Machine Shop Magazine, a position he has held since July 2000. He was associate editor and then executive editor of the magazine in prior years. Mark has been writing about metalworking for more than 30 years. Currently, his favorite topics are lean manufacturing and global competitiveness. Mark’s editorial activities have taken him to numerous countries in Europe and Asia as well as across the United States many times. He is a graduate of the University of Cincinnati (Cincinnati, Ohio) and Indiana University (Bloomington, Indiana).

Posted by: Mark Albert 8. August 2014

Advanced Technology Drives 40 Years of Manufacturing

Automated machining systems and cells exemplify the evolving role of advanced manufacturing at Mazak’s Florence, Kentucky machine tool factory.

Mazak has been manufacturing machine tools in Florence, Kentucky, for 40 years. The growth and development of the production technology deployed in this plant reflect the most important advances in manufacturing during this span.

One example of the evolving role of advanced manufacturing technology can be seen in how FMS technology has changed and improved, with a corresponding boost in overall factory output.

When the company opened this factory in 1974, its first official machining operations were performed by a flexible machining system (FMS) that incorporated four of its own machining centers and a wire guided vehicle. The launch of this FMS also marked the introduction of the company's production-on-demand concept. Output stood at 20 to 25 machines per month.

In 1990, the company replaced the original FMS with one that consisted of eight H800s, which were then its most advanced HMCs. This FMS incorporated 30 pallets within a Mazak-developed Palletech manufacturing system. Pallets moved on a rail-guided vehicle rather than on a wire-guided one. The capacity of the system was eventually expanded to handle 144 pallets. Capacity reached about 100 machines per month in the factory.

Mazak once again revamped its FMS technology in 2000 by replacing the eight HMCs with four FH-8800 HMCs. The increased power and speed of these machines enabled this FMS to significantly boost output with fewer machines. Total production moved up to 130 machines per month.

In 2006, an Integrex e-1060V Multi-Tasking Machine was added to this FMS. The enlarged system now incorporated the work formally performed on a VTL. The same 144 pallets were now handling large-diameter parts and bringing them to the additional advanced machine for turning operations as well as five-axis milling.

As this FMS was evolving and growing, the company was adding other FMSs and cells elsewhere in the expanding factory areas. For example, its most recent cell processes the company’s machine tool headstocks. Built around a Palletech system, this cell consists of two Horizontal Center Nexus (HNC) 8800 HMCs, an Orbitech 20 large-part machining center and an Integrex e1060V Multi-Tasking Machine.

Today, Mazak’s manufacturing operations occupy an 800,000 square-foot, five-building complex with the capacity to produce 200 machines per month, including many models for export. In addition, it has the resources to design new machines from the ground up.

Read this story for a detailed history of how Mazak has enlarged and improved its Florence, Kentucky, manufacturing operations with advanced technology.

Posted by: Mark Albert 1. August 2014

Still Thinking about a Summer Vacation?

In a column that I wrote some years ago, I described my idea for a very different sort of "vacation spot" that appeals to me strongly.  I don't know if such a place exists, but I like to imagine that it does and that I might retreat there once a year to be made new and whole again.

The place is run by a very strict order of monks, but they welcome guests who come to experience their lifestyle for a week or two. The monastery/retreat house is located in hilly country somewhere, far from the city.

This is a place of contemplation, prayer—and work. The institution is self-sufficient, to keep the world at a distance. Excess earnings help support several charitable missions.

The monks and their guests arise at 6 a.m., with chapel at 6:15 a.m. (There's hardly time to dress or shave—no wonder the good brothers wear simple robes and beards!) Thirty minutes of chanting and meditation wake not only the body but also the mind and spirit.

Breakfast is plain but hearty like all of the meals here. Lots of cheese, eggs, fish and fresh fruits and vegetables. We eat quietly, each morning one of us taking turns reading scripture to the rest.

Work, which starts a little after seven, is "animal, mineral or vegetable," as they say. Guests are assigned in rotation to the dairy barn, the machine shed or the bakery. I would always want to be in the machine shed, of course, but duty in the other buildings teaches lessons about the blessings of a bountiful earth.

The machine "shed," it turns out, is actually a well-equipped little shop, with a mixture of manual and older CNC equipment. Brother Ted, a journeyman machinist who had his own job shop for 10 years, runs the place efficiently and calmly. The seven monks who work here full time are busy with several long-running contracts for a bank of automatic lathes, but they also manufacture a line of mostly hand-crafted antique reproductions for the gift shop and catalog sales. Guests help out in housekeeping, packing and shipping, or at the deburring bench or hand assembling some pieces.

Lunch is ample, but quick, followed by another chapel service. We return to the shop and work until 6 p.m., when the bells call us back to chapel for hymns and a silent period of scripture study. Dinner is light. I take the hiking trail during my hour of free time as the sun goes down. We sleep on cots in small rooms, hardly more than cubicles, with the windows open and the whippoorwills calling from the woods nearby.

At the end of the stay, I vow to return next summer, but in the meantime, I will often think of those who have vowed never to leave.

Posted by: Mark Albert 25. July 2014

Useful Advice for CAM Software Users

In a new whitepaper, Mastercam calls useful advice for CAM software users “CAM Initiatives.” These initiatives are practical projects and procedural policies designed to help a machining company make more effective use of its CAD/CAM resources. Although primarily targeted to Mastercam users, many of these initiatives contain useful advice that benefits users of any CAM software system. 

Here are a few samples:

  • Say “no” to drawings. Don’t redraw parts until you are sure the customer does not have a usable CAD file to share. (They usually do.)
  • Fix what isn't broken. Empower everyone in the shop to be an improvement specialist.
  • Manage tool libraries. Find the cutting tools that work best in high-speed tool paths and use these tools exclusively where applicable.
  • Embrace five-axis machining. Follow this launch plan to ensure a successful transition.

Other initiatives have advice on 3+2 machining, programming templates, spindle probes, simulation and integrating safety habits.

For the complete whitepaper with all 15 CAM Initiatives, click here.

Posted by: Mark Albert 18. July 2014

Chasing after Volumetric Accuracy

Chasing a precision sphere with a spindle probe as the sphere moves with the machine’s pallet throughout its five-axis machining range is the key to the new method.

One of the toughest challenges in five-axis machining of large parts is maintaining accuracy throughout the entire work zone. Ideally, a five-axis machine can produce results with the same accuracy when cutting in the far corners of the work zone or at its center. Grob Systems has developed a method of checking and compensating for possible distortions to a machine’s structure caused by the weight of a massive workpiece when machined in five axes.

Grob, a manufacturer of five-axis universal machines and production systems, says its new method improves accuracy of five-axis machines, especially those called upon to produce large, complex parts and components for critical applications. This is a summary of the company’s explanation of how this new system works:

The traditional approach to improving machine accuracy was to use laser interferometry to compensate the position accuracy of the individual axis, and the ball bar measurement to improve the perpendicularity between the axes. This is a simple technique and useful only for the three linear axes of the machine. When the spindle and table start moving around the work envelope, infinitely more deviations (both translational and rotary) come into play. That is the fundamental problem, and it becomes exponentially more complex when two additional rotational axes are introduced.

To improve the process for increasingly complex machines, Siemens pioneered the use of a six-dimensional pictorial compensation map. A 3D laser is used to simultaneously measure yaw and axis alignment, feeding data back to the machine’s control. The resulting picture is comprised of many, many points throughout the work zone. This created a much better measurement of geometry and positioning, allowing the CNC to compensate for distortion and improve volumetric accuracy anywhere in the work zone.

The limitation also of this approach is that the checks and compensation take place on the factory floor during final assembly, and it is available only for linear axes. In the real world, once you put a part on the pallet everything changes. Consider the capacity of some larger five-axis machines to accommodate loads up to 3,000 pounds. When a mass of that size is put into rotation on a five-axis machine, possibly suspended at 90 degrees, it creates a powerful force for distortion on any machine.

Simultaneous to the software developments at Siemens, Grob developed a function called Automatic Kinematics Adjustment. This process locates the true center of rotation, which is critical to accuracy in a five-axis work zone. It works like this: A spindle probe is paired with a precision sphere mounted on the pallet. A kinematic cycle touches probe to sphere, and then rotates to reposition the rotary axis. Repeat. Chasing the sphere around the five-axis envelope in this manner identifies the true center of rotation. The process takes about 10 minutes.

Grob has now integrated its kinematic process with the Siemens software to create what it calls the Volumetric Compensation System (VCS) for shop floor use. VCS applies the same basic software package used for Automatic Kinematic Adjustment, but takes it beyond the center of rotation. A probe stored in the tool magazine chases the sphere to map positional accuracy all around the work zone. By spinning and rotating the pallet, the probe identifies any rotational or translational deviation—from top to bottom of the Y stroke, maximum X to maximum Z and everything in between. The measured deviations are sent to the compensation software, which then perfects positioning accuracy. The process can applied to any critical component assigned to the Grob machine.  

Posted by: Mark Albert 11. July 2014

A Whole Book about the Collaborative Commons

I find the concept of the Collaborative Commons both compelling and a bit disquieting. My recent column offered a few comments on this development as an alternative to the market-based economy that we take for granted. Author Jeremy Rifkin has written a book that explores this concept in great depth. It’s called The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism.

Mr. Rifkin’s office sent me a copy of his book, with a personal letter that included these paragraphs. Because they summarize the book so well (and match my impressions of the snatches I’ve been able to read so far), I quote them here:

“Mr. Rifkin believes that the Collaborative Commons is a critical part of a bigger story unfolding around the world that is going to fundamentally alter our global economy in the first half of the 21st century. He argues that a new economic system—the Collaborative Comments—is entering on to the world stage. It is the first new economic paradigm to take root since the advent of capitalism in the early nineteenth century. The meteoric rise of this new economic paradigm is coming at a time when capitalism is under great scrutiny, with lower growth, rising unemployment and greater inequality.

In his book, Mr. Rifkin describes a transformative new technology revolution—the Internet of Things—that enables billions of people to not only produce and share their music, videos, news, knowledge, and other virtual goods, but now also green electricity, 3D printed products, and other physical goods at near zero marginal cost, and for nearly free, on a vast global Collaborative Commons, bypassing the conventional marketplace. A younger generation is also beginning to share cars, dwellings, clothes, and countless other items and services at low or near zero marginal cost on the burgeoning Collaborative Commons, wreaking havoc on traditional industries and in the process, changing the very way we organize economic life.”   

This book is available at

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