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Cost, Control, Customer

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Machine Tools/CNC

vendors are meeting customer expectations by developing low-cost, accurate, and user-friendly CNC machines

by Mitalee Kurdekar

‘If you don’t care for your customers, someone else will’ is a popular phrase that completely justifies customer orientation. For the Indian CNC machining industry, this has been extremely apt as seen by the change witnessed over the past few years.
In today’s world, having CNC machining as a part of operations has become critical for OEMs as well as their customers. With capital goods becoming more and more expensive, the value of components to machine is so high at advanced stages of manufacturing that the accuracy and reliability to match specifications to the minutest degree becomes extremely important. At the same time, the fiercely competitive environment requires that manufacturers keep tooling prices under check. Hence, the development seen in CNC machines works towards offering customers a ‘best-in-class’ product, versatility in operations and the most ‘value for money’.

Almost all leaders of this industry unanimously acknowledge the need to tailor their processes and responses to demonstrate their customer focus. As a major customer of this industry, Vijay Kalra, chief, manufacturing operations, automotive division, Mahindra and Mahindra (M&M) Limited, refers to the importance of this aspect when he says, “A customer-vendor partnership is absolutely essential to offer products with maximum security, predictability and productivity at best-in-class costs.”

Farrokh Cooper, chairman & managing director, Cooper Corporation Pvt. Ltd, echoes this sentiment, reflecting the positive change within the industry. “The vendors are now putting in a conscious effort to work closely with the client, in order to understand their needs and offer customised solutions. Many vendors are even offering flexibility in terms of modifying their machines, according to the change in product specifications and providing comprehensive solutions,” he admits.

The 2015 Gardner Business Media survey suggests that India ranks 14th in terms of production numbers, but 10th in terms of consumption of machine tools in the world. This emphasises the fact that the country is not entirely self-sufficient, depending upon high cost imports to meet its requirements. While the consumption in India has grown in the last two years by around 18%, the imports have grown during the same period by a lesser rate of 14%, suggesting that indigenous production grew at a higher rate, filling some of the gap between consumption and indigenous supply.

However, the most gratifying feature of the industry is the increased contribution from CNC machines to the overall machine tools industry. CNC machining is a more precise process and hence preferred to produce more complex shapes. It is extensively used in the manufacture of complex three-dimensional shapes for machine components. CNC machines’ contribution to overall growth in the industry is consequently increasing at a faster rate, because machining jobs today require a high level of precision or are seen as repetitive tasks.

Judging by the above, India is likely to play a key role in the global scenario and will see significant increase in the manufacturing of sophisticated, top-of-the-range and multi-utility machine tools. With the Indian government’s emphasis on Make in India and the manufacturing sector’s growth in fiscal policies, there is good news for the machine tools industry, particularly the CNC machining segment, which serves as a critical input industry.

Customer is King
Highlighting the utility of CNC machines in large scale operations and assembly lines, Aditya Shrivastava, head, manufacturing operations and senior VP, Eicher Trucks and Buses, VE Commercial Vehicles Ltd, says, “For our automated mass production machining lines, we have chosen CNC machines for flexibility and scalability. In the current age of connected IT enabled manufacturing, we expect OEMs to provide or support automation solutions and turnkey engineering/integration services.”

It is fast evolving user requirements that are shaping the face of this industry. When talking to the leading stakeholders of this industry, it is quite evident that the industry focuses on and delivers what the customer wants. Shrivastava agrees wholeheartedly that “manufacturers are constantly improving their design validation techniques and improving the machine build-quality to deliver reliable CNC machines”, thus meeting customer requirements.

Eaton India, which is an industry leading manufacturer of a wide range of solutions such as gears, shafts, medium and heavy duty transmissions, clutches, valve train products and technically advanced torque control products, also relies on CNC machines for its operations. As Balachandran Varadharajan, plant manager, vehicle group plant, Eaton, suggests, “A high degree of quality and reliability in CNC products is indispensable. We expect CNC manufactures to be empathetic to this criticality and ensure that machines are made with a ‘no-compromise’ approach – making machines reliable and delivering the highest level of precision and productivity.”

He further adds, “Eaton is committed to ensure a safe working environment for its employees and strengthen its Zero Incident Safety Culture (ZISC). Hence, we expect CNC machines to be designed thoughtfully, keeping not only the process but also the operators in mind, making operations as safe as possible”.

Outlining a set of challenging customer requirements, Kalra states, “The key requirements from manufacturers like us would be high accuracy products with reliability; robust and agile after-sales service with short lead times for spares; robust construction in terms of operating condition range and high rigidity; sensors to detect tool breakages; and intelligent machines with interlocks and remote sensing & diagnostics.”

Another vital customer need is after sales support. Christopher Fernandes, managing director, Pennant Group, explains, “As customers of CNC machines, we anticipate development/innovation on the vendors’ part, in order to address issues like manpower training programmes at regular intervals; technical assistance in component fixturing; explaining the machine limits and how to operate within those limits; and making operators self-sustaining for preventive maintenance of the machine.”
Customer experience is the key here. The goal is to have a customer-centric culture with a set of customer-centric processes. Cooper gives a thumbs up to his vendors in the industry when he says, “To improve productivity and cost efficiency, vendors are coming up with regular trials, providing guarantee on product consistency, manpower training, annual maintenance service, strong after sales support and regular monitoring through timely inspections.”

Cost Sensitivity
One of the most obvious features of the Indian machine tools market is price sensitivity. The purchasing strategy of many customers is often dominated by the price factor, often over the technical features of the machine. However, this trend has seen a welcome change since the past few years. Customers are beginning to truly value machines for their inherent technical prowess, and are now buying products which are seemingly expensive initially, as they realise the value of their investment over a longer term.

In certain cases, industry vendors are partnering with customers and in the process bringing innovative products and features to the market. Highlighting one such example, TK Ramesh, CEO, Micromatic Machine Tools (MMT), explains, “The workholding is a separate assembly or sub assembly, which holds the part. These were earlier imported because of criticality in the machining operation. We have now designed and developed at least 15-18 very specific, very special workholding equipment. Indigenous development of component holding is an extremely strong area for us.”

As probably the largest manufacturer of machine tools in India, MMT is fine-tuning multiple aspects of its machines. Similar to other industry leaders, they have also adopted in-process gauging to bring in greater accuracy and reliability in machining processes. This has helped their customers gain a cost advantage, as many such control systems were previously imported.

Sameer Kelkar, CEO, Grind Master Machines Pvt. Ltd, proudly proclaims that his company has a track record of introducing breakthrough technologies for the benefit of its customers and that it spends around 5-6% of its revenue on R&D efforts. “Advancements in robotics technology for deflashing, fettling and grinding are yet another breakthrough. Hitherto impossible to automate applications are now possible and creating a revolution in several foundry and forging shops. Grind Master has recently entered two new collaborations with dynamic balancing and advanced gear chamfer/deburr machines,” he professes.
Industry players agree that automation is the key if the industry has to manage the aspirations of its customers. In response, we have witnessed the introduction of special robots to bring in automation. KUKA Robotics’ robots include advanced features, while software such as MX-Automation and KUKA CNC make for easier integration between robots and CNC machines.
Raj Singh Rathee, managing director, KUKA Robotics India Pvt. Ltd, suggests, “Robots work with a very high degree of precision. Even with complex and heavy components, the reject rate is practically zero. In addition, they are available around the clock. Their productive efficiency is just as high after 24 hours as it was at the very first minute of operation.” He claims that 7-10% of revenue is invested in R&D at KUKA, and the price/performance ratio of a KUKA robot has improved by a factor of six in the last 10 years.

The Way Forward
There is a consensus that a strong partnership between vendors and customers is the best thing that has happened to this industry, and it is vital to continue that path going forward.

Kalra summarises this well when he suggests, “A customer-vendor partnership is critical towards maximising the utility and efficacy of CNC solutions. At M&M, we build such a partnership through extensive mutual involvement from the design approval stage to the actual commissioning. An understanding of the processes and results expected from a CNC solution, such as the use of correct machining fluids and fixtures is critical to developing a successful application.”

When it comes to expectations from the Government, Ramesh resonates the sentiments of the industry. He suggests that a facilitating role from the Government in enhancing technological advancement by way of introduction of a Technology Fund or similar would greatly help indigenous development. He also believes that the industry is hugely dependent on electronics and hence a support in developing that industry would augment the efforts of private players.

On the whole, the CNC machining segment of the Indian machine tools industry is making the right moves. With a focus on customer orientation, low cost of ownership, ease of integration as well as reliability, accuracy and process stability of the equipment, vendors are answering all the questions posed by customers. As a result, things are looking up for the machine tools industry, and in turn, for the manufacturing sector too.

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