Beyond Chip-Making: Opportunities and Realities

Integrating alternate manufacturing processes can enable a shop to distinguish itself from competing companies and branch out into new areas. Of course, there are important questions to ask and factors to consider when you pull the trigger on a new technology.

Columns From: 1/21/2011 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Derek Korn

Our February issue’s cover story is based on the premise that shops don’t shape themselves; customers shape shops. That is, customer needs ultimately drive decisions about the processes shops choose to bring in-house. In some cases, shops with years of experience in subtractive machining may determine that it makes good business sense to also become proficient at an alternate, complementary manufacturing method. The cover story is a perfect example. It explains how a supplier of precision turned parts was spurred to engineer its own 3D CNC bending technique to create complex medical instruments from pre-machined wire and tubing. As a result of these efforts, the shop was able to carve out a nifty niche for itself.

Additive manufacturing is an emerging and evolving technology (a selection of technologies, actually) that fits nicely into this category. Assuming you’ve performed due diligence, and the new process seems like it’d be a good fit for your situation, there are still realities to face and questions to ask yourself.

Obviously, there will be a learning curve. And there’s no magical formula that will reveal just how long it will take to become effective at a new technology, let alone proficient at it. Patience is needed during this educational period. Plus, frustration must be kept in check as that pricey piece of new equipment sits idle while your team endeavors to figure it out. By dedicating yourself to mastering the new technology and not just dabbling in it, you can minimize the learning curve. There’s no point purchasing alternate manufacturing equipment if your shop isn’t going to go all-out to become expert at using it anyway.

Patience is also required in terms of marketing the new process to your customers. You don’t want to oversell a new capability before you’ve figured it out. Otherwise you could end up with frustrated and disappointed customers. However, once you’ve nailed the process, you must educate your customers. Make sure they understand not only what you’re able to do with the new equipment, but how they will directly benefit from it.

Finally, don’t be afraid to experiment once you’ve got a good handle on the new process. In fact, it might not necessarily be a bad thing to scrap a part as you tweak things. In many cases, the process improvements gleaned from stumbling a bit can outweigh minimal scrap losses.

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