BELDING, MI — Those who’ve had a production line go down due to a lack of spare parts know how frustrating it can be to rely solely on equipment OEMs for replacement tools.
Since OEMs are primarily in the business of designing and building production equipment, they are often not in the best position to spend the time or capital required to provide an adequate inventory of replacement parts or assemblies. At the same time, manufacturing equipment users don’t always have the wherewithal to inventory sufficient spares of high-wearing tooling for assembly and stamping processes.
In some manufacturing applications, such as assembly line operations, processes change periodically. This can make it necessary, or at least desirable, to redesign or otherwise modify some equipment parts and thereby improve on equipment reliability or performance.
In many instances the best solution to these problems is for the equipment owner to source spares or replacement parts from qualified tool and die makers or machine shops. In fact, those specialists may well have been involved in the design, finishing or production of the original machine parts.
When sourcing MRO parts from a tool and die or machine shop, there are several qualifications and benefits that may usually deserve consideration.
Turnaround time is usually a primary concern, particularly when on-hand spare parts are few or non-existent. Assuming those parts are not readily available from the equipment OEM, sourcing from a tool or machine shop that has the flexibility to provide fast turnaround may be a deciding factor.
“One of the advantages of dealing with a tool and die or machine shop is they are usually flexible enough to meet our turnaround time requirement,” says Joe Fischer, shop supervisor at Advanced Systems and Controls (ASC), Macomb, Mich. ASC designs and builds custom machines and systems for testing and assembly operations for products such as automotive axles.
“Sometimes I don’t need a part for 4-6 weeks, and other times I might need it in a couple of days,” Fischer explains. “Either way, I look for a machine shop or tool maker that can usually handle the delivery requirement.”
Although price is a consideration, turnaround time can be worth much more than the cost of producing replacement parts quickly. If a part breaks and there is no spare available, that situation can become dire very quickly.
“Unplanned downtimes for any reason are often very serious," Fischer says. “If a worn or broken part causes a line to suddenly shut down and there are no spare parts, the manufacturer is going to want a replacement part ‘yesterday’ because they are losing valuable production time.”
Although ASC often carries some spares for the equipment it manufactures, the company also sources parts from outside tool and die shops such as Belding Tool & Machine (BT&M). Although BT&M has plants in two locations (Belding, Mich. and Christiansburg, Va.), proximity to a customer is considerably less critical today. Companies now source parts across the U.S. and even internationally since many suppliers are able to provide shipment of replacement parts virtually anywhere by express delivery.
BT&M makes it a policy to be very flexible with scheduling in order to provide rapid turnaround of emergency orders.
“We can’t take on every hot order, but we are often able to move our schedule around to fit our customers’ needs,” explains Jason Markham, BT&M president. “In fact, one of our customers recently emailed us about a piece of tooling they needed urgently, and we had it shipped to them the next day.”
Another important consideration is the ability of the non-OEM supplier to provide design assistance. This is vital when the part needed has been damaged and no spare is available. In those cases suppliers such as BT&M must have the resources available to reverse engineer the replacement part.
In other situations, the equipment owner may benefit substantially by having equipment components redesigned or otherwise modified. The opportunity may be to either achieve longer wear life or improve performance of equipment operation, particularly if the application has changed over time.
Jack Fuller, MRO manager at Ventra Automotive (Ionia, Mich.) says that making changes can also occur because of the way a part is mounted on some types of equipment. Ventra makes bumpers and grills for GM, Ford and Chrysler, and has the capability to produce replacement parts using its own tooling, or goes outside to tool and machine shops.
“Sometimes we have a change in equipment or a change in how a part mounts on a machine," Fuller explains. "In that case we occasionally need to change the product a bit, and we need to have a tool maker such as BT&M help to redesign it.”
Fuller says an example of this is the copper V-blocks used to support tanks used in Ventra’s bumper and grill plating operations. The V-blocks have to be milled and cut to precise dimensions.
“There are times when you can have a vendor analyze how a part broke in production, due to some sort of application or design flaw,” adds ASC’s Fischer. “With their tooling experience they may make suggestions that the part be modified using a different material or adding or subtracting different features in the tool in order to provide longer life or improved performance. Not many OEMs that I know of offer that kind of flexibility.”
Fischer adds that even though ASC designs and manufactures components, sometimes the company looks outside to tooling specialists such as BT&M for other ideas, even in original equipment design.
Most equipment manufacturers or users agree that having a strong relationship with suppliers is more important than ever.
“Most industries are very competitive today, and I believe it is important for companies such as ours to partner with our customers,” says Fischer. “We, in turn, ask our suppliers, such as BT&M, to partner with us – on a 24/7 basis, if that’s what’s necessary.
It is particularly advantageous if the supplier can handle all of the necessary fabrication processes in-house. That eliminates the need to go to another vendor to do one or more aspects of the required parts manufacturing processes, regardless of parts complexities. That capability gives them much greater control over every function from design through finishing, and also extends to improved cost controls and delivery times.