4 Examples of American Machining Evolution

A tour of this 160-year-old machine tool manufacturing plant in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, highlighted the progress of both the company and machining technology in general since the dawn of “Industry 1.0.”


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Although the American machine tool industry is not what it used to be, American engineers continue to design and American workers continued to build metal-cutting equipment. At the Fives Giddings & Lewis plant in Fond Du Lac, Wisconsin, they’ve been doing so for more than a century — a storied history the company celebrated June 20-22 with an 160th anniversary open house event.

Although the machine tools retain the Giddings & Lewis (G&L) brand, the company has passed through a series of owners over the years. Given its age, and the fact that French fur trappers were the first Europeans to explore the area in the 17th century, it is somehow fitting that the plant’s current owner is Fives (pronounced “feeve”), a 200-plus-year-old, Paris-based industrial conglomerate. Beginning in 1859 as a machine shop serving the increasingly industrialized agricultural sector, G&L began producing engine lathes at its current facility in the late 1890s. Today, this plant occupies 145,000 square feet and specializes in the manufacture of large vertical turning lathes (VTLs) and horizontal boring mills.

Wall-mounted plaques illustrate the storied history of the now 160-year-old Giddings & Lewis machine tool plant.

Wall-mounted plaques illustrate the history of the 160-year-old Giddings & Lewis machine tool plant.

From the days of belt-driven manual machines to the 2013 acquisition by Fives and beyond, G&L’s technology and manufacturing operation have evolved to keep pace with the broader industry. A facility tour revealed four examples of this ongoing evolution:

New Strategies

At the time of the open house, the company was implementing a more efficient layout for leaner workflow. Unlike years past, G&L also can work with other Fives business units, such as Cincinnati and Forest-Line. For example, tour guides pointed out that one of the five-axis heads on a G&L machine was originally developed by Forest-Line. G&L representatives also report that Forest-Line’s expertise is informing their first forays into more in-depth automation integration for customers.

Modern Components

As for the machines themselves, linear ways and motors are both more precise and easier to maintain and replace than the box ways of years past. By spreading contact over a wider surface area than their spherical cousins, roller bearings from Schneeburger add further to precision over the large volumes that typify G&L machines. So do the Heidenhain encoders that report axis position information to the Siemens or FANUC CNCs. Chip conveyors from Jorgenson, such as the twin-belted Munchman, ensure efficient chip evacuation. Probes from Renishaw are available on almost all machines for in-process quality control. Most other critical components, including VTL tables and various interchangeable and contouring spindle heads, are manufactured in-house.

Giddings & Lewis has come a long way in 160 years, as has machine tool technology in general.

Giddings & Lewis has come a long way in 160 years, as has machine tool technology in general.

Modern Control Capabilities

Mechanics are critical, but in many ways modern controls make a modern machine tool. One demonstration involving a G&L machine with a Siemens control highlighted how the face of a part could be milled in three axes on a two-axis VTL with an angled head attachment. Moving in “Y” — an axis that doesn’t really exist — is accomplished by coordinating the movement of the rotary C axis with the linear X axis.


Machine Monitoring

One tour stop detailed how the company uses the Teamcenter system from Siemens PLM Software to help diagnose and solve problems remotely. Customers can also diagnose problems themselves with a suite of basic dashboards denoting machine runtime status. This basic machine monitoring capability is possible thanks to the MTConnect open communications protocol, which facilitates data exchange among various types and brands of networked machine tools and other manufacturing equipment.