In this AeroDef® exclusive, Scott Walker discusses some of the challenges and opportunities for machine tool builders serving the aerospace industry.
From your perspective, what do you think are the major challenges in the aerospace industry today?
The current ramp-up of aircraft production with parts made from new materials is a challenge to the OEMs and the supply chain. Boeing needs to make 60 737s a month to meet sales figures, 10 787s per month, and Airbus needs to make 40-plus aircraft a month to keep up with demand. On the military side, one Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35, needs to be produced each month. To meet the demand, the OEMs must use more external sources for aircraft building and are looking to their top tier providers to fill the gap.
This boom is further complicated by the use of new materials for structural and engine components. Engines are smaller and hotter; the aircraft are lighter. As such, composite carbon fibers, difficult-to-machine titanium grades, tough stainless blends, ceramics, and high nickel-based alloys are required. Parts producers need new machine tool technology to machine these hard metals efficiently, and the capital to make purchases is very tight right now, which adds to the current set of challenges in aerospace.
How has the machining/machine tool industry in general responded to these challenges?
Boeing has held several seminars for contract manufacturers over the last couple of years, outlining to them what is required to machine these difficult materials. We have been pleased to be included in their recommendations as a resource for titanium and hard-metal cutting machine tool technology.
There is a demand right now for multifunction machine tool technology. Several builders are meeting that challenge. Likewise, cutting tool manufacturers are also responding with cutters and inserts that can cut the new materials effectively and with relatively long life. New coolant formulas are also available. All aspects of the cutting process need to work together for an efficient solution.
As for the capital issues, some contract shops are resorting to buying gently used equipment or rebuilding their large gantry-style machines. Leasing is an option many are turning to, also, if they can find a financial institution in a lending mood. Some machine tool builders are extending short term payment plans for new purchases, but that is for rare cases only as it’s risky. I’m also seeing a trend of large, Tier One suppliers acquiring smaller specialized shops to create a conglomerate type of business model to fulfill the upcoming demand from the large aerospace OEMs. These conglomerates are going after the long-term contracts so they can plan for capital expenditures better.
How will your technology evolve in the next few years? Do you see any potential surprises developing that might affect the aerospace industry?
We have definitely answered the call for titanium cutting machines by producing large 2.5-m fixed-spindle trunnion HMCs. We are developing new vertical jig grinders for machining gearboxes and performing gearbox repairs, and multifunction HMCs that incorporate a heavy-duty B axis to do milling and turning operations. We have also developed VMCs that can grind with up to 10” (254-mm) wheels for tough nickel-based alloys for engines. This trend toward multifunction technology is to reduce work-in-progress (WIP), which is a significant issue in shops right now.
Also in the shops, there is a trend toward creating proactive maintenance strategies so that machine downtime can be better planned with the least amount of disruption.
How does working with the aerospace industry differ in general from other industries your company serves?
Our global markets are 35% aerospace, 25% automotive, 15% precision components, 10% mold and die, and 15% “other.” In North America aerospace represents 80% of our sales.
We are obviously and most certainly committed to this industry and know it extremely well. The work is interesting and complex and the people in it are exceptionally smart. Because of the complex nature of the parts and the system installations, along with the industry’s own compliance requirements, serving aerospace requires an extraordinary amount of support resources. Thorough documentation, on-site personnel commitments, vast engineering talent, and ongoing research and development are among the many requirements we must provide.