Last month, US Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke said that the recession would end this year before economic recovery gathers steam in 2010. He also predicted that no more big banks would fail and that the "green shoots" of economic revival were already evident.
As the successor to Alan Greenspan, and ranked the fourth most powerful person in the world by Newsweek (the US weekly news magazine), when Mr Bernanke makes such a statement, people tend to take note.
Of course, the end of the downturn cannot come soon enough for the beleaguered automotive industry. With UK car sales down 30.5 per cent in March, any u-turn in fortunes isn't visible yet. However, with masses of consumers sitting tight and delaying their new vehicle purchases, most concede that it won't take many 'green shoots' to start a stampede to the dealerships.
In the meantime, investment continues at astute automotive supply chain manufacturers, where the potential rewards could far outweigh any short-term pain.
Take Pontefract-based Philidas, for example, a manufacturer of automotive fasteners that has recently acquired a new SV-32 CNC sliding-head automatic lathe from Star Micronics. Prior to the investment, Philidas, which produces fasteners in quantities up to millions, used conventional cam-type automatics.
CNC team leader Steve Webley says that increasingly complex fasteners, some requiring five or six different operations, in combination with competition from the Far East, prompted the decision to make the investment.
"The new Star SV-32 is doing the work of six machines – that is, of one single-spindle fixed-head lathe and five multi-spindle automatics," he says. "We have also realised an eight-fold space saving on the shopfloor, while labour costs have been reduced by largely unattended running of the Star 24 hours a day, five days a week."
Another automotive sub-contractor to recently invest in a new Star sliding-head lathe is Auto Turned Products (ATP). The company's SR-32J is the second of its type in quick succession at the Northampton-based company. ATP had found that second operations after conventional turning using existing machines, such as multi-spindle automatics, turret-type automatics and fixed-head CNCs, had risen to such an extent that single set-up machining on a Star turn-mill centre was needed to maintain competitiveness.
"What never fails to surprise me is just how reliable and repeatable these types of machines are," says technical director John Dent. "We come in every morning to a bin full of close-tolerance, complex parts after an unmanned ghost shift overnight."
He says that one component in particular has resulted in big labour cost savings and improved quality, namely the locking feature on wheel nuts, which ATP supplies to Land Rover and Jaguar, including ones for the new Jaguar XF. Previously produced in two set-ups on a fixed-head CNC lathe and a machining centre, the component is now produced in one cycle on an SR-32J to very high accuracy, despite the toughness of the material.
Phil Begley, the managing director of Oldbury-based automotive specialist Caparo Tube Components (CTC), says that two major orders were secured recently, because BLM Group undertook to supply the necessary production equipment within extremely acute delivery targets. The total investment amounted to £1.4 million, with 90 per cent of the equipment and tooling being ordered from BLM.
"Both the CTC and BLM engineering teams worked extremely hard to deliver numerous projects/parts within a timescale of weeks," he says, "which was an amazing achievement and why we continue to work with BLM."
Caparo Tube Components manufactures a range of tubular components and assemblies, predominantly for the European automotive sector. Typical products include fuel filler pipes, steering rack tubes, car seat frames, suspension components, car cross beams, oil and water pipes, chassis components and side impact door beams.
To meet its stringent quality and traceability objectives, the company has put in place a manufacturing sequence that extends from the supply of steel strip and steel tube production, to tube bending, forming, laser profiling, welding, press work, machining, finishing and assembly. In this way, full traceability can be assured, while accreditation to the TS 16949 automotive industry standard means that components can be delivered straight to line.
The majority of CTC's output is delivered through manufacturing cells dedicated to specific customer projects. One example is fuel filler pipe assemblies. The main pipe cell comprises a BLM
E-Turn 40 all-electric left- and right-hand CNC tube bending machine and two BLM AST100NC CNC tube end-forming machines. The 35 mm diameter main fuel filler pipe is given a double bead form (hose connection) on the first AST100 and then bent to shape on the Turn 40 tube bender. The other end of the tube, which will become the main filler neck, is expanded on the second AST100, using three punches, and then rotary trimmed using an innovative 'swarfless' capability and/or rotary facing tool to remove the required 10-15 mm trim length before the tube end is curled over to form the cap lip. The use of multi-station end formers minimises or, in this case, eliminates changeover times and allows the use of more than one punch to produce accurate end forms.
Image: The use of an AST100NC CNC tube end-forming machine at Caparo is boosting productivity
A second manufacturing cell, comprising a BLM AST25N multi-station tube end forming machine and a BLM Dynamo MR100E 5-axis tube bending machine, produces a 15 mm diameter breather pipe, with the first operation again producing a double bead form on one end of the tube prior to bending.
End forming tools for other diameters and forms of breather pipe can be pre-mounted, if required, thereby eliminating non-productive changeover time, while the mounting of different diameter tooling on the Dynamo tube bender also eliminates downtime when changing from one size of tube to another. With a cycle time typically of 1.5 seconds per bend, CTC says it is confident that it has now achieved the highest possible output, while at the same time maintaining optimum repeatability.
The automotive sector is renowned for its rigorous quality control standards, as manufacturers such as Delphi Diesel at its Stonehouse, Gloucestershire facility knows all too well. The company makes electronic fuel injectors for diesel vehicles made by Volvo, DAF and Daimler, to name but a few. One of the reasons cited for its success is the cleaning and degreasing of the components in automated, multi-stage, industrial washing machines prior to assembly of the injectors in clean room conditions. The match paired body and plunger, for example, are washed in ultrasonically assisted, aqueous cleaning machines purpose-built by FinnSonic and supplied through UK agent Turbex.
Image: A Turbex installation at Delphi, Stonehouse, Glos: one of four installed over the past couple of years
In fact, four such systems have been installed in the past couple of years at Delphi Diesel, two stage washing machines in the Body Hard (BH) area and two final washing machines in the Assembly and Test (A&T) area. The former remove heavy soils from the injector bodies and plungers, including heat treatment scale, machining debris and cutting fluids, so that they are of the required cleanliness standard for a critical hydraulic test, while the latter achieve a higher level of cleanliness, as they are processing parts already cleaned to an agreed standard.
The A&T washers include automatic demagnetisation of components to ensure that any minute particles will not be attached by residual magnetism. Delphi says it is particularly pleased with these installations, as FinnSonic managed to incorporate the demagnetising coils around the input conveyor without any increase in the overall footprint of the machine.
Tens of thousands of two main product lines are manufactured each week at Stonehouse – Electronic Unit Injectors (EUIs) and Electronic Unit Pumps (EUPs). Matched body and plunger pairs for EUIs are mounted together, 32 at a time, on bespoke wash frames for their journey through the automated FinnSonic BH and A&T lines. In the case of the physically larger EUP components, the wash frames accommodate 16 component pairs.
Frames enter each cleaning machine one at a time on a motorised input chain conveyor and are collected by a robotic arm that handles them through six stages: heated spray pre-wash in a 500 litre tank; heated ultrasonic washing with pulsing jets on stages two, three and four; heated ultrasonic rinse with pulsing jets; double station re-circulating hot air drying; and cooling using high flow, water-chilled air.
Cleaned and cooled parts emerge on their frames via the output conveyor. From the BH machines, they are taken for back leak testing, whereas from the A&T machines they go directly to final assembly. Before they do, an operator lubricates the plunger, assembles the matched pair and attaches an identifying tag, used for data collection.
Of course, investment at auto OEMs the world over also needs to continue, if car companies are to seize the opportunities that will result from global economic recovery. Recent investment stories involving manufacturing technology include: Japan's Honda, which has purchased a Droop + Rein FOGS 3568 D40C 5-axis gantry type machining centre to produce press tools for body-in-white components – both rough and finish machining in a single set-up; Germany's BMW, which has placed an order with press expert Schuler for three new press lines that will be installed at its facilities in Leipzig, Regensburg and Munich by 2011; and Korea's Hyundai, which has increased its investment in Delcam's PowerMILL CAM system as part of a productivity drive that is aimed at making the company one of the world's five largest automotive manufacturers
by next year.
Image: Japan's Honda has installed Droop + Rein technology to produce tools for body-in-white manufacture
All of these investments are designed to lay the foundations for a strong future in the automotive sector once the current gloom lifts; and, by all accounts, that's not as far off as some might think.
Airtight case for quality
When Blackwood, Gwent-based Musashi Auto Parts UK was recently faced with finding an extremely accurate way of measuring critical camshaft features, quality manager David Moore contacted Bowers UK and related his demanding gauging requirements to the company's technical staff.
"We identified the need for an advanced air gauging system that could measure difficult-to-access camshaft bearing journal diameters accurately, within machine tool cycle times," says Mr Moore.
"Having examined the merits of several alternative air gauging providers, the ease of use, accuracy, repeatability and price convinced me to choose a range of specially designed air snap gauges linked to Bowers' PC2200 air columns," he states.
The success of the system since installation means that it will now be rolled out to other areas within the camshaft manufacturing section."
First published in Machinery, May 2009