Manufacturing: It’s not just about cutting costs

Paul Boughton

Diane Gregory considers the advantages of working closely with component suppliers to develop system assemblies.

In today’s highly pressurised manufacturing environment you would be excused if you felt that the focus of almost every organisation, from shareholders, directors and managers to production and shop floor workers, is on cutting costs. Indeed, the twin mantras of cost cutting and productivity improvements have almost become the staple diet of every news item, conference speech and sales pitch!

Controlling manufacturing costs while improving production efficiencies and output per head are, of course, important. However, when these are achieved at the expense of product quality, reliability or functionality, or where they impact on customer service or technical support, then short term cost cutting can be a sure-fire route to a long term decline in sales and profitability, as customers defect to competitors or find alternative solutions.

Accordingly, many companies are searching for new ways to cut costs while improving production processes and efficiencies, without adversely affecting the quality and performance of their products.

One area in particular that has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months is machine automation and the potential to simplify systems and subsystems and to reduce the number of component parts in use.

Often, the motive power for machine systems is provided by or through some form of linear guide or ballscrew arrangement, usually driven by a stepper or servo drive. This construction frequently requires other elements including a power supply, an encoder to provide reference data, cabling, an interface device and of course system programming.

The conventional approach has been to source linear motion system components from separate, specialist suppliers and manufacturers. While this method ensures that each element is designed specifically for an individual task, it is not entirely economical. For instance, time and resources are needed to design systems and subsystems and then source, assemble and test the components. Additional couplings and mounting flanges are required, and knowledge of how to put it all together is essential, therefore requiring a team of skilled engineers to perform the task.

As there hasn’t traditionally been an alternative, the OEM and machine retrofit sectors have tolerated the additional costs of sourcing separate components from different suppliers. However, recent pressure upon component suppliers to offer solutions that will help customers drive down costs and reduce lead times has resulted in some manufacturers forming strategic alliances with complementary suppliers to create packaged, ready-to-install linear systems.

Bringing together the distinct components that form a linear motion system in such a way as outlined above, removes key stages of the production process and significantly reduces the overall final assembly time as well as materials management. In addition, as interruptions that occur on the production line are more costly than in any other area of the factory, fewer items to assemble means freeing up the resources required, including people, machines and equipment, meaning significant cost savings and faster delivery of the product. Essentially, all-in-one systems effectively eliminate the sourcing, assembly and testing of various components from multiple suppliers, leaving OEMs to concentrate on maximising profits.

In response to these market demands, leading companies such as THK are changing the way in which they supply linear motion solutions. Through forging strategic alliances with complementary suppliers they can offer customers fully integrated linear motion systems, that are supplied pre-assembled, tested and guaranteed as one single assembly or kit of parts. Therefore customers only have one source of supply and one company to work with, from the initial design and specification stages right through to ongoing technical support.

For example, THK now provides complete linear motion packaged solutions consisting of integrated linear motion guides, motors, power supplies, HMI and cabling. These advanced solutions are perfect for OEMs and machine builders as they enable the build time and cost to be significantly reduced by eliminating the need to design, test and incorporate individual components, while improving system performance, functionality and quality.

THK works with a number of carefully selected key partners, combining the strengths and expertise of each company to create a fully integrated system. As a result of this partnership THK’s KRE and RDM actuator technology are often supplied complete with market leading stepper systems or servo drives and include encoders, cabling, HMI plus full programming, system setup and testing.

Like any fully integrated solution, the KRE linear motion system is ready to use, straight from the box. This has clear and far-reaching implications for the end user. Firstly, it means fewer suppliers are involved in the production process, which reduces the likelihood of late deliveries and missed production slots. It also effectively abolishes the need for on-site component integration and testing, which minimises the amount of time required to achieve full production. In addition, savings can be made during the initial design stage as machine builders are able to design a complete, functional unit, rather than an amalgam of parts, which in turn can simplify administration as there are fewer suppliers and less stockholding.

Although all-in-one systems offer OEMs and machine retrofitters a whole host of options it is worth noting that packaged systems are increasingly being offered by companies claiming to provide one-stop-shop solutions, rather than anything borne out of alliance. While this option retains many of the advantages outlined above, it often fails to address the issues of specification or liability. By contrast, strategic partnerships give each supplier the opportunity to input their expertise and specialist knowledge within the solution and retain responsibility for their contribution to the complete system. This ensures optimum performance and reliability of each individual component of the package unit, and therefore of the entire unit itself and clarified responsibilities concerning component and system guarantees.

As a result of the current economic climate, pressures are placed on manufacturers that coerce them to demand more in terms of what they require from suppliers. This in turn has led to a rise in suppliers forming alliances and sharing strengths in order to develop and provide ready to use solutions. For OEMs and end users this shift away from separated linear motion products to integrated solutions can undoubtedly simplify production and increase efficiencies throughout the manufacturing process as well as improving balance sheets, all without a compromise in product quality, reliability or functionality.

Diane Gregory is with THK UK, Milton Keynes, UK. For more information, visit www.thk.com

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