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Agile manufacturing: Getting the edge in aerospace production

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article image The cutting tool is designed to complete a specific manufacturing operation
Cutting tool performance is constantly evolving as a greater understanding is gained of the relationships between all aspects of cutting tool design and their application.

Steve Dowey, project leader of the DMTC Next Generation Cutting Tool Project, RMIT Senior Research Fellow and Technology Manager of Sutton Tools discusses how innovative system approaches can help companies compete globally and how Sutton Tools develops cutting tool systems using state-of-the-art technologies.

Manufacturing companies are under pressure when trading with a strong Australian dollar or attracting employees with the required engineering skills despite pockets of high unemployment. Given the options that Australian SMEs have when it comes to winning contracts, delivering products and staying profitable, spending money on quality improvement tools might not be a priority.

Innovation is often regarded as the key to global competitiveness and is often concentrated in the product’s design, functionality and packaging. A company not at first associated with cutting tools and more with creating such products is Apple. What’s also remarkable is Apple subcontractors’ consumption of cutting tools.

The unibody construction method adopted for their laptops, where the chassis is machined from solid aluminium alloy is simple and elegant with the products designed for manufacture and assembly. The disadvantage from a manufacturer’s point of view is that any innovation in a product can be copied, unless great effort is applied to protecting the design.

Apple has designed an innovative system with the product only one part of it. Innovation is expressed in the way the customer customises, purchases and receives support for their Apple product. Delivering it at an apparent marginal cost to the consumer globally and in a timely and engaged manner is an example of Agile Manufacturing.

The question is whether the same can be applied to a subcontractor to an aerospace prime, where the product is highly regulated and the process of manufacture, once set is costly to change. Process innovation is the answer, not just in the manufacturing process but a whole of company approach to enable a rapid response to enquiries and prospective orders, and to enable changes early that improve profitability.

Crowdsourcing and tools for enabling innovation

Crowdsourcing is outsourcing a problem to an external group or crowd of people. A successful contemporary crowdsourced product is Wikipedia, which is built using a Wiki, basically a concept and toolset that enables web content to be created simply and quickly by the user, enabling network collaboration.

Companies can utilise the web 2.0 applications that make this kind of collaboration not just possible but also straightforward, and internally create an environment that fosters collaboration and knowledge transfer between their own ‘crowd’ or working groups.

One Australian company providing such a framework for collaboration is Attlassian, which offers an enterprise wiki called Confluence that is used by many companies including engineering and aerospace companies. Confluence simply provides the structure for companies to innovate their processes and to communicate effectively, making it truly a Lean and Agile management tool.

The value of process innovation

When it comes to machine consumption per manufacturing worker, China is estimated to lie around the middle of the world rankings, purely because they employ around 90 million people in manufacturing, compared to Australia’s 950,000, which by the same measure lies just above the USA in the lower third. Given these figures, it is clear that any activity that improves productivity has the scope to make large, significant impacts on profitability.

According to the ‘Carbide Inserts: Price vs. Productivity – You be the Judge’ show, a 30% reduction in cutting tool cost or a 50% increase in cutting tool life only reduces the cost of the machined part by 1%. However when productivity (MRR) is increased by 20%, the part cost is reduced by 15%.

The goal of cutting tool suppliers should therefore be to increase the MRR at no expense to the product and for a specific material application, translating into Agile manufacturing for both the cutting tool supplier and the user.

The cutting tool is designed to complete a specific manufacturing operation without failure as failure would add significant time to the production cycle. It is the interaction of the cutting tool (carefully designed and finished) with the process methodology combined with the machine tool that gives one the edge in aerospace manufacturing.

Backed by over 90 years of experience in tool design and manufacture, Sutton Tools is a leading global supplier of specialist cutting tools for the aerospace industry, providing tool solutions to suit specific needs.

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