ASK THE EXPERT: Makino’s Craig Voss on automotive part production challenges for job shops

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The light-vehicle market shift to electric will bring profound change in componentry. Yet many components will remain the same. How can job shops best meet the challenges and opportunities of this intermediate “twin path” stage? In PART I of our two-part ASK THE EXPERT series, Makino’s Craig Voss delves into how automotive parts suppliers should be tweaking their strategies to best align themselves with this new market reality.

SHOP: The move to electrification of the automotive industry is clearly underway. Yet there will still be about a decade of transition where internal combustion vehicle manufacturing will exist alongside electric vehicle manufacturing. How should automotive parts suppliers be tweaking their strategies to best align themselves with this reality of serving two different segments of the market?

VOSS: The key point is that all these technologies are going to coexist for conceivably quite a long time. As far as manufacturers, we have to realize that these are still automobiles. Yes, the propulsion is going to change but there is also a lot of other technologies that I believe are going to be used in possibly all platforms. We see two pieces to the market right now from Makino’s perspective and what we are able to offer the market. The drivetrain/powertrain components are different with electric motors, however, some of those components are similar to what we’ve seen, for example, in transmission applications for ICE. So a lot of that type of technology is very similar for parts and machining.

On the structural side of things with gigacasting we are seeing a lot of potential changes. It’s not happening on a super large scale yet, but we are seeing a move toward larger cast components being used for the structure of the vehicle. That’s one of the things that I think will drive a lot of different machine platforms. We are already looking at that and what will be the best fit.

SHOP: Do you see this impacting their machining equipment purchase decisions? How?

VOSS: Possibly. One of the changes I see coming with electric vehicles, and again we are not there yet because we haven’t hit full scale production,  is that volumes are going to increase. When they get full to market capacity and become the preferred technology, those volumes are going to be potentially even larger than what we have seen with ICE applications. That’s going to drive different types of manufacturing systems because of the cost factor. What was done to make 250,000 parts annually won’t necessarily be the same when you are trying to make a million parts annually. So with commonality with powertrains and the structural part of the EV, the volume will drive potentially different types of equipment, different types of systems, and more automation because that will be the only way to compete and hit the price point required.

SHOP: On the machine side is there any specific changes you see happening as a result?

VOSS: Right now we have many manufacturers using dual pallet machines and that has been something Makino has been very involved with.  Horizontal pallet changer machines help you be more efficient because while you are loading a part you are actually machining. You’re keeping that spindle turning 90% plus of the time. When you buy a high-end machine tool you want that spindle turning 24/7. That’s how it makes money for you. The pallet changing machines have been great in that respect but the higher we go in volumes, you do have two pallets and two fixtures to put on that machine. There are some additional costs to consider. When you start making up to a million parts and you are talking about 10 or 20 machines, all of a sudden that starts becoming maybe an expensive option that is difficult to justify. So what we see in high volume, low mix type production is potentially a move to single-pallet machines that are robot loaded. If they are robot loaded, we can guarantee a load/unload time.  In past years it has mainly been our Japanese customers who have been requiring single pallet type machines. The Japanese have done this type of production for quite a while now and we are starting to see more and more in North America. I think that could be one of the changes.

The other changes are going to be focused on the larger structural parts, which are going to require larger machines. Those machines are not going to necessarily require the large, heavy-duty spindle that was formerly associated with large equipment. Typically you looked at large equipment, large parts and large spindles. What we will be looking at for the structural parts is larger machines with a large work zone but a smaller, more agile spindle.

SHOP: This is equipment that is available now?

VOSS: On some scale. The gigacasting parts are very new. Most of what we are seeing right now is more subframe size components – maybe a front or rear subframe in the 1,000 to 1,500 mm range, square and rectangular type parts. The larger parts that are beyond 1,500 mm are on the way. How much of that will take hold? We don’t know at the moment, but we do know there are several manufacturers investing quite a bit of money. Tesla has led that charge and now you have other manufacturers who are looking at similar type structures. There are a lot of challenges though so I wouldn’t call that a foregone conclusion at this point, but it will definitely be tried and tested.

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