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At times, getting the most out of conventional turning machines can require as much work by accountants as by operators.

Finding the sweet spot to maximize the value of your investment requires a clear understanding of your shop’s technological and business priorities.

“In the past few years, I have noticed that, with regard to smaller equipment, upgrading and rebuilding is less favourable than direct replacement,” says Terry Schmidt, president at Regional Millwright in Kitchener, ON. “Simply put, replacement can be an option because it is so inexpensive now.”

But Schmidt says that things start to change once owners have to address issues with machines that are over the $100,000 - $150,000 range. Above these investment levels a retrofit or upgrade can start to make more sense. At this point, however, the considerations also become more complex.

“There is a hollow spot between $150,000 and $300,000 where people don’t know what to do,” says Schmidt. “They often spend more time labouring over the actual decision than doing anything about it. There is definitely a larger window there.”

Things then begin to clear when really big money is on the table. Schmidt says that in the $350,000 to $400,000 range, and certainly when considering machines above $500,000, upgrades and rebuilds are the preferred route.

“What that means is that there is a market for consultants in that mid-zone,” he says. “It boils down to dollars and cents, and often results in accounting blockages. If it doesn’t make sense on the desk then they aren’t going to do anything about it.”

The risk is that inaction has its costs, too. Older machines often aren’t as safe or efficient as they could be, and quality can become an issue. The challenge is that smaller companies often don’t have the means to track these issues as closely as larger firms. But all machines have lifecycles, and over time geometries will start to fail, which affects overall efficiency.

“For bigger companies, it boils down to efficiencies,” says Schmidt. “They want to know: Can we afford to take the machine down for six months for rebuilding? Will we pick up the difference in throughput and production? It can be a guessing game, but these are the efficiency questions that drive people to retrofit or rebuild.”

In control

One of the most obvious ways to get additional value out of your machine is on the control side. If new capabilities are added – or even improved upon – it is hard to get the most out of them without having the right control system.

 “A lot of the old control systems don’t work that well,” says Keith McCulloch, an applications engineer at Centroid Corp in Howard, PA. “Also, in the 90s the decision might have been to simply buy a new machine; but now, with a challenging economy, retrofits are suddenly very popular.”

Centroid does about 35 to 40 per cent of its business making CNC controls for OEMS, with the rest being specialty retrofits. The company makes is own DC motors and its own motion control cards. The CPU on the PC is only for the front end – all of the processing for motion control is done with Centroid technology.

“There is an advantage to having a dual processor system,” says McCulloch. “It’s not a good idea to use a PC CPU to connect directly to the machine tools, because you can’t count on it to work all the time. As well, we get more control and smoothness out of our own card.”

This hybrid approach can also build longevity into the retrofit, given that the interface is built on easily-understood and well-known technology.

“Our cards are general purpose – they can link to any PC via an Ethernet cable,” he says. “That means that our customers have the option to use other servers and drivers. For example, we don’t make a 50 horsepower motor.”

Future compatibility is definitely something to keep in mind when going for any retrofit. The question then becomes: are you fixing for the long haul, or simply putting a bandage on the problem, and delaying the inevitable?

“The ROI is clearly tied in to the length you are adding to the machine,” says McCulloch. “It’s about features, ease-of-use, increasing output, and shortening set-up times.”

For Centroid, retrofits start as low as a $4,000 “do-it-yourself” kit, with more involved engagements that include training rising to about $12,000. Given how much a machine tool might cost, these investments are relatively low-risk.

“I have a requirements sheet that I send to the customer,” says McCulloch. “They also need to supply me with an employee who is trainable.”

That means basic math and geometry, Cartesian coordinates, the fact that X2 is positive two units to the right. With that kind of employee McCulloch says “by lunchtime they are up and running.”

On both the control and the machine side, the risk is that companies will limp along without addressing issues. Eventually a decision has to be made – upgrade, or buy new equipment – for the simple reason that no machine is going to deliver forever. 

“For us, we are seeing more than ever that the emphasis is on the machinery’s geometry,” says Schmidt from Regional Millwright. “And this is our specialty: bringing the machine back to its former capabilities.”

Gauging demand

There aren’t many companies in the retrofit and upgrade market. In Canada, DiPaolo CNC Retrofit and Toshiba Machine Company are important players, but there are also companies that specialize in niche areas. Marposs Canada, for example, does machine tool retrofits and upgrades with particular emphasis on gauging technology in the automotive and aircraft industries. This can involve anything from simple upgrades of grinding machines to sophisticated probes in advanced CNC technology.

“For us, there is less and less activity in grinding operations and more on the machining side,” says Silvano Verbanac Canadian district manager at Marposs Canada in Markham, ON. “There is good ROI in this because scrap is reduced and parts are of a higher quality.”

Typically, a Marposs customer will be facing additional costs due to machine wear and repairs, and possible compatibility problems with more recent technology. And, for customers that are part of a global supply chain, they may find that their old technology doesn’t meet international standards.

When it comes to opportunity, companies that have retrofits or rebuilds as a non-core aspect of their business are keeping a watchful eye on the market – albeit a cautious one.

“We do control system upgrades for manufacturing machinery and complete custom machines that sometimes use CNC-based controls,” says Paul A. Johnson, COO, Applied Motion Systems in Vancouver, WA. “But we haven’t done too many CNC upgrades on conventional machine tools.”

That may be about to change: Johnston says that this is a segment his company is exploring. If so, like Marposs, the right approach might be to move into areas where there is already some built-in expertise. To be able to quote with confidence, and for a customer to know that a retrofit will add to the bottom line, even with downtime, is crucial.

Applied Motion Systems www.appliedmotionsystems.com

Centroid 

DiPaolo CNC Retrofit 

Marposs Canada 

Regional Millwright 

Top image from Regional Millwright.

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