Why the Surge in HMCs?

Spending on horizontal machining centers is forecast to reach its highest level in more than a decade. Small shops in particular are buying these machines. A shop I recently visited illustrates the reason.

2017 is likely to be the year of the horizontal machining center. According to the findings of Gardner Business Media’s most recent Metalworking Capital Spending Survey, U.S. machine shops plan to dramatically increase their spending on HMCs this year, surpassing the peak in HMC spending in 2011. At nearly $1.6 billion, projected spending on horizontal machining centers will match spending on vertical machining centers, with small shops (fewer than 20 employees) showing the steepest increase in HMC purchases. What is happening?

HMCs, of course, are frequently more productive. The fourth-axis indexing of an HMC enables it to reach various angles of a part in a single cycle, saving setup time. The surface area of the HMC’s tombstone fixture allows several workpieces to be machined in one cycle, extending efficiency. And the two-pallet configuration on an HMC means work can be loaded and unloaded at one pallet while machining is underway on the other, minimizing non-cutting time.

However, these benefits don’t come for free. Committing to a horizontal is a challenge, particularly for a small shop. One HMC is liable to be two to three times the price of a comparable VMC. And the shop’s very first HMC requires a learning curve and a stretch beyond the shop’s comfort zone. For an example of this, see a video we recently posted in which Tri-State Tool Grinding of Cincinnati, Ohio, talks about the benefits but also the need for greater programming capability that came with the adoption of its first HMC.

So, to put it plainly: The benefits of HMCs have always been there, and the costs of realizing those benefits have always been there. If there is a surge in buying these machines, something new must be happening to make shops more willing to make this leap.

I believe I caught a glimpse of what this something is when I recently visited another small shop, Beistel Machining in Donora, Pennsylvania. Owner Brent Beistel has a problem that he discusses with good humor, because it is a good problem to have. This shop also recently bought a new HMC, its second such machine, in order to provide capacity to produce a new workholding product marketed by a sister company Mr. Beistel has launched (see this tech brief on the subject). Instead of the sister company immediately obtaining this new capacity, however, existing Beistel Machining customers learned of the expanded high-productivity capacity in the shop and quickly filled the machine with additional orders. Again, a good problem to have. When we last spoke, Mr. Beistel was still working out how he will produce his own company’s parts.

But then there is another problem—not a good one—that he discussed more somberly. It is a problem many machining businesses will recognize: Mr. Beistel’s shop is frequently understaffed, because he has a difficult time finding employees who are skilled or suited to the work of precision machining.

Consider, then, what this lean staffing means for the machining demand related to the new product he is aiming to launch. The logical way to meet that demand, and the way a shop like his likely would have met it in earlier decades, would be to use the machine tools already in the shop during hours when they are not committed. An additional late-night shift could accommodate the needed production. Yet Mr. Beistel does not have this option. In fact, he recently abandoned running any third shift, even a minimally staffed one, because he does not have enough people. Therefore, to increase production, his only choice is to invest in higher-productivity capacity for use during the hours when he does have staff available.

How common is this predicament? How widespread is the challenge of meeting increased demand without the chance to increase staffing? Based on conversations I have had with shop owners and managers, I am confident this predicament is very common and the challenge is widespread indeed—easily widespread enough to account for a rise in HMC buying.

We have been aware of this challenge for years now. And for as long as manufacturers have recognized the growing scarcity of readily available talent, we have known that in some part and in some way we would address the challenge through automation. Now, here is that expectation coming to pass. On a fundamental level, that’s what an HMC is—it’s automation. Compared to a VMC, an HMC replaces setups with automated indexing, and it replaces delays between cycles with automated progress from piece to piece while the next run of parts is being loaded.

Adopting an HMC has always been a leap, and the size of that leap has not changed. But among other things, this leap is frequently a move forward into a higher level of automation on the shop floor. This is a step that an increased number of shops will be ready to take this year.

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