Trend Talks: Anna Claire Conrad

How a single platform approach facilitated the shift to complex part manufacturing for aerospace and defense


Ahead of the recession, Smiths Machine did what many machine shops were doing at the time. They were riding the wave of automotive parts production and doing seemingly fine until the massive downturn came. The automaker bankruptcies left many machine shops vulnerable to overseas competition, and a once well-oiled machine tool business model now seemed unstable and uncertain. Equally uncertain was the idea of moving the business in an entirely different direction.

To be or not to be — different
Defense and aerospace part manufacturing require a different business approach altogether, said Tim Smith, vice president of Smiths Machine.

“It is specialized work that requires special approvals, log-down processes, and complicated procedures,” Smith said. “The complexity is challenging. And it all starts with a different way of thinking, more of an engineering approach than a production approach.”

Smith said his company needed to build a new business model and the operations to support it. The defense and aerospace machining market is characterized by small lot counts, generally lower margins, and a very low tolerance for errors. Scrap rates thought to be nominal in the past would now be out of the question.

Based on three inseparable machining requirements — quality, precision and complexity — Smiths Machine set out to reach its greater potential in the machine tool market, not as a production machine shop, but as company focused on complex part manufacturing.

Smiths Machine set out to reach its greater potential in the machine tool market as company focused on complex part manufacturing. The company knew its internal processes and technology needed to match up with the unique requirements of the defense and aerospace industries. Major investments in large, complex, five-axis machines would need to be enhanced by equally complex control capabilities.

A backbone for change
Traditionally a milling and turning company, Smiths Machine first teamed up with DMG and Siemens to establish their singular machine tool platform. This brought about a synergistic approach to complex milling and turning — an advantage that took on greater significance when the company decided to focus on the defense and aerospace markets later in the decade.

“The DMG/Siemens platform has enabled Smiths Machine to establish and maintain a high level of operational proficiency. The central advantage here, Smith said, has been the ability to invest, train and keep his people moving forward based on a stable technology platform.

Smith said an example of this singular platform advantage is the control’s similarity across milling and turning operations.  “All controls are customized to a certain extent,” Smith said. “But unlike Siemens, many other control series are individually customized so that the keyboard layout will be different from machine to machine. The Sinumerik 840D sl CNC is consistent. And this level of consistency extends to a graphical interface that really complements how we teach and learn.”

Teaching and learning are closely held values within an organization that uses a breadth of visual techniques to foster education, efficient information sharing, and quality control.

“We are a very visual company,” Smith said. “And the Siemens 840D sl control uses the same approach. You are guided visually for such things as axis direction, approach point, final depth and other variables inside a cycle. And this is true from control to control, for milling and turning.”

Smith said visually guided information flow is characteristic of today’s complex range of next-generation electronic communications because this speeds understanding and information sharing. Graphically guided interfaces enable rapid learning and proficiency, a fact that has been well leveraged by the 840D control interface design.

New angles on programming
Gerhard Hetzler, engineering manager at Smiths Machine, has experienced firsthand how the company’s singular platform approach brought continuity to such manufacturing functions as post, machine simulation, NC code, and control functionality.

While the Siemens 840D sl control has evolved in significant ways over the years, Hetzler said these changes have served only to accelerate the performance of the programmers and operators, rather than impede them with new and different procedures. The control platform has also given Smiths Machine the freedom to create custom cycles that can be copied and shared from control-to-control, and so machine-to-machine.

Hetzler said another advantage resulting out of the DMG and Siemens relationship is the continued simplification of complex cutting operations, especially in the area of angular milling heads.

“Aerospace requires a lot more use of angular milling,” Hetzler said. “Even a five-axis approach can’t do it. You need an angular milling head. I would put this on the top of my list of the advantages DMG and Siemens have developed."

— Source: Siemens