The case against diversifying your tooling purchases

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Variety is said to be the spice of life. Not so in manufacturing, where random machine tool and tooling purchases lead to inefficiency, mistakes, and waste. PHOTO courtesy Dormer.

By Kip Hanson

Until burned by poor quality and less-than-stellar customer support, I’ve always been a loyal customer. For many years (and to the constant consternation of Roger, my Chevy-loving father-in-law), I only bought Fords. Then came the cracked tailgate fiasco on my 2004 Ford Explorer, a known defect the company refused to stand behind, followed by a bad transmission. Now I’m a Dodge owner. Sorry, Roger.  

I can tell a similar story about televisions. I have four—all Samsungs—the oldest of which is now 13 years old. All use identical remotes and onscreen menus, and all continue to display a picture that’s plenty good for these old eyes. 

Granted, my toolbox has an eclectic mix of Craftsman, S-K, DeWalt, and my new favorite, Milwaukee wrenches, sockets, and screwdrivers, but this comes from forty-five years of tinkering and home repair, not to mention some hand-me-downs from my brother I can’t bear to part with. 

That brings us to machine shops, although the argument I’m about to make applies equally well to sheet metal fabricators, tool and die shops, and indeed any manufacturing business that buys CNC machinery (which is practically all of them). 

So here goes: stop buying whatever equipment brand offers the lowest price, fastest delivery, or sweetest deal from your friendly machine tool salesperson. Do your research, kick the tires, find the best support (which usually comes from the distributor), and analyze your future needs, then try hard to stick with that brand. 

There are many good reasons to do so. Working with a single distributor or machine tool brand brings greater customer service and responsiveness. In many cases, it also means a lower price for the second, third, and fourth machines. 

Programming, setup, and operation are generally more efficient when machine tools have the same logo pasted to the front. The display, keypads, buttons, and knobs are usually in the same place, the custom macros and control parameters more likely to be consistent, the tooling is (probably) the same across all machines. Everything’s familiar, and familiarity here breeds efficiency, not contempt. 

I’ve worked in and visited many shops. Most had a weird mix of Haas, Matsuura, Hardinge, Makino, Nakamura, Okuma, Mazak…you name it. The result? You had Haas operators, Mazak operators, Okuma operators, and one or two Jedi knights who could run everything.   

Granted, only a few builders can offer a machine model for every manufacturing need, so some amount of cross-pollination must be expected. But it seems to me that there’s very little strategic planning going on out there when it comes to equipment purchasing.  

It’s only going to get worse. For example, you can soon expect to see shops sporting blends of cobots from Universal Robots and Doosan alongside industrial robots from Fanuc, Kuka, ABB, and others, all with their own programming systems and pendants. Shops jumping on the 3D printing bandwagon will struggle with even more diversity. 

I’m not being critical. Sometimes there are excellent reasons to change brands, as I once did with my move from Ford to Dodge. The difference, though, is that I only have one truck. If I had a fleet of them, my trucking operations would be more efficient and deal with fewer surprises if the lot weren’t filled with a hodge-podge of vehicles. The same holds true for the shop floor.  SMT

Technical editor Kip Hanson has more than 40 years experience in the manufacturing industry. He is the author of Machining for Dummies and Fabricating for Dummies and has written over 1,500 articles on a diverse range of of metal manufacturing topics.

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