Machine makeovers

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by Mary Scianna

Is a machine retrofit a good fit for your shop?

Manufacturing is a competitive business so cost-conscious companies have to consider all their options when it comes to upgrading and improving their manufacturing operations.

And since machine tools are usually the largest capital cost component in a shop, manufacturers have to consider whether they need to invest in new machine tools or upgrade their existing equipment.

“If you decide to do a retrofit of your machine you have to consider the machine itself,” says Frank Powell, a product manager for grinding products with Marposs Corp., based in Auburn Hills, MI, which supplies probes, gauges and monitoring systems for machine retrofits. The company’s Canadian office is located in Markham, ON. “Anything you retrofit to a machine, be it probes, gauges or spindles, is only as good as the machine itself. Machine retrofit companies can’t work miracles, so you need to evaluate your machine and then evaluate what it is you want to accomplish.”

When does a machine retrofit versus the purchase of a new machine make sense?

“For a small machine under $100,000, purchased new, if you can secure a quality retrofit for 50 per cent or less, it makes sense,” says Todd Drane, marketing manager for Fagor Automation, Elk Grove Viillage, IL, which supplies CNC machine tool controls for retrofits. “For machines greater than $100,000 if purchased new, 60 to 70 per cent becomes the more normal line in the sand. The more expensive the machine, the higher the percentage you may be more willing to spend on a machine retrofit or rebuild.”

Nelson Martins, president of DiPaolo Machine Tools, Mississuaga, ON, a company that specializes in machine rebuilds, retrofits and remanufacturing in addition to offering new machines, says manufacturers need to consider other less tangible factors, especially when dealing with large machine tools or special purpose machines.

“You have to consider other costs that are part of the installation of a machine and aren’t reflected in the value of a retrofit or purchase price, such as the cost of shipping a machine from overseas or the cost of a foundation. With special purpose machines, if the time to build them is going to take long, say two and a half years, but the customer needs the machine in six months, we can deliver a retrofitted, rebuilt or remanufactured machine, depending on the customers needs, in that time.”

The retrofit benefit
Perhaps the most obvious benefit to a retrofit is the potential cost savings when compared to the purchase of a new machine, but there are other benefits, point out suppliers in this market.

“In really demanding heavy cutting industries, if we can take an old piece of iron and marry it with new technology to get the processing speed and monitoring benefits, we can often deliver a product that is better than it was new,” says Martins. “It’s not because we’re skilled but because we’re adding technology to old machines that didn’t exist 20 years ago when the machine was new.”

DiPaolo rebuilt VTL“If you select the right systems to retrofit your machine, such as monitoring, gauging or probing components, then it allows you to take more control over your process,” adds Powell. “It allows you to monitor your process and eliminate human error because you won’t have the risk of a machine operator adding the wrong compensation such as putting in 100 or 200 microns when he should have added one or two microns.”

Fagor’s Todd Drane sums up benefits with three key advantages: customization of new technology, lead times and performance.

“Most new machine tools are built for general purpose applications and appeal to a broad market, but with a retrofit, you can get specific features you need for the intended application. With lead times for larger machine tool retrofits, it can be six months up to two years. With Fagor, your integration can be completed within a couple of months depending on the machine and what needs to be done. This is important for some companies because they need a machine in production quickly.”

Perhaps the most important advantage with a machine retrofit is performance, adds Drane.

“We can increase the speed of your machine significantly, and do it while being easier on the mechanics of the machine. We have adaptive algorithms that automatically manage starts, stops and direction changes of a machine to ensure maximum performance while improving the reliability of the machine and tool life.”

Another advantage of a retrofit machine is the ability to “repurpose” it, says Pat Corrigan, service manager for rebuilds at United Grinding North America Inc.

“The percentage of machines being repurposed will continue to grow as the industry continues to move away from long-term contracts for large volumes of identical parts to more flexible and dynamic manufacturing scenarios or rapidly changing part types and volumes.”

Repurposing a grinding machine, like other retrofitted machine tools, means adding features so the machine can perform more complex grinding tasks or work with automation.

“A machine originally built in an open configuration may require the design, fabrication and addition of an enclosure to permit the use of high pressure coolant and advanced technology grinding wheels,” says Corrigan.

These machines can also be fitted with rotary dressers and related drives and controls.

“True reverse engineering is rarely needed, but adding new systems can require re-engineering of hydraulic or pneumatic systems and design and fabrication of new sheet metal components.”

Retrofit vs rebuild
While some people may use the terms “retrofit” and “rebuild” interchangeably, there are differences and the direction you take will be determined, to a great extent, by the age and condition of your machine, says Powell.

“If you have an old machine and you want to use new tooling, such as diamond tipped inserts or PCD tooling, you need stiffness and horsepower and some of the older machines in shops weren’t designed around these types of tools and may not be able to handle them.”

Retrofits typically mean upgrades to control and monitoring technology, whereas a machine rebuild usually refers to structural and mechanical changes.

“We consider a retrofit to be one where you upgrade the CNC and servo motor system technology,” says Drane. “A machine rebuild includes mechanical machine upgrades, which will often include installing new ball screws, gear boxes, re-scraped ways, operator panels and electrical panels.”

Machine tool candidates for retrofits are CNC machine tools with large footprints, adds Drane. That’s because of the potential large savings versus the purchase of a new machine, and because CNC machines typically have electrical cabinets, precision ball screws in place. “So even if they need to be replaced, the machine is set up for them, so the actual integration is easier and faster, which results in lower costs.”

DiPaolo Machine Tools distinguishes between retrofits, rebuilds and remanufactured machines.

“For us, a retrofit is one in which minimal mechanical work is required to integrate a new electrical system, changing controls, motors and drives. A rebuild typically involves restoring the mechanical integrity of a machine and when you combine the two, you have a remanufactured machine.”

Do your homework
Research your options, advise suppliers, because different companies have varying degrees of experience and expertise.

Anaylze your needs so you understand what solution will fit best, says Martins.

“Some issues you can solve with a retrofit and some you can’t. The focus shouldn’t be on the price but on what a retrofit can do to solve your problems. Often a customer will ask for something that won’t solve his problem. We need to get to the root of the problem or we won’t be able to service the customer.”

Indeed, sometimes a new machine is the best solution based on the customers’ needs, adds DiPaolo.

“It’s what drove us into the new machine tool business because we found that if a customer is looking to retrofit a three axis mill, for the cost of that retrofit, you can purchase a new one with modern technology.”

Consider the company’s ability to offer turnkey service, says Powell.

“One of the pitfalls manufacturers can face when they want to retrofit their machines it that they try to be the machine integrator but unless you’re a specialist in this area, it won’t work. You need to go with a supplier with the ability to provide turnkey service.”

In addition to a company’s experience in machine retrofits, consider locality, says Drane.

“I always recommend a local integrator, with the exception being legacy machine retrofits, where the builder of the machine tools offers rebuilds on its own machines. With local integrators, service is easy and you’re assured of receiving a higher level of service and attention. Most local integrators will have [customer] references for similar machine types that you can speak with and see a retrofitted machine in production. We prefer integrators that have been in business for a minimum of ten years.”

And when you do find a supplier that can do your machine retrofit, Drane advises that manufacturers request professional electrical drawings and ensure your supplier understands your machine start-up and training needs.

When you meet with a potential retrofit or rebuild supplier, “consider bringing in staff (programmers, operators, supervisors, maintenance and financial) to initial discussion meetings. We also recommend pre-integrator meetings with your staff to determine your needs and then put it down on paper. The more specific you are with what you need, the better the chance you will receive the machine retrofit you need with the features and function that work best for your operation.”

Lastly, Drane says manufacturers should request a CNC demonstration, if possible, to demonstrate how a similar retrofitted machine performs. SMT

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