Factory machines

I’ve been watching How It’s Made of late and it’s got me wondering about how those complicated factory machines are made. For example the machines that make pantyhose are staggering in complexity (to me, anyway).

Are these one offs? Are there firms that specialize in this kind of thing?
Thanks, Steven

There are companies that specialize in making machines for people. John Ratzenberger did a piece on a company like that on last season’s Made In America. I’ll try to dig up the cite.

Found it. In the Season 3 episode Toro Snow Blowers, they visit the Bodine Corporation in Bridgeport, CT, that specializes in making machines that make machines.

And when you’re reading about the machines, have Raymond Scott’s Powerhouse playing in the background (.wav link).

There are manufactures of machines, and there are manufactures of specialised machines. The first make a standard industry machine you can buy from a catalog. The last make a machine for somebody that does somthing the other’s don’t, and they cost a lot more to buy. You have them come over and design something to do what you need done. You want to buy what you can from the first.

Most manufacturing lines are designed by several companies that specialize in certain aspects such as pick and place, painting, material handeling, packaging, soldering, stamping and so on. Most of the mundane aspects have been done before so it’s just a task to modify a similar machine to a new product. Some products may require a new technology and these are usally developed in house by the company first and then sent out to a professional machine maker to be improved upon and perfected.

Where I’m at we can just go to Automation Alley and get a whole production line made. These firms in turn will contract out certain aspects worldwide.

So are the assembly line machines milled or machined themselves from raw stock for a one off application?

Sometimes they have to machine (make) parts for specialized piece of machinery, but they purchase bulk produced pieces for much of the special equipment you need assembled.

Molds and Stamping dies are machined from raw stock and placed into standard type molding machines and presses. There can be conveyors that feed these machines raw stock and standard pick and place robots that take the newly formed material to the next station. Check out Machine Design Magizene for a weath of information concerning all aspects of automation.

I’m intimately familiar with companies that build tooling for other companies, most of which are Automation Alley companies (despite the Wikipedia article, there are now associated areas in Michigan that seem to be able to claim such; every time I enter St. Clair County there’s a sign that indicates “We’re an Automation Alley County” or something to that effect.).

I’ll preface my next by saying, buy whatever car or truck you like; I hope you like American brands but if not, that’s your choice. Now I’ll go on to illustrate why a Hyundai plant that employs 2000 US workers isn’t the same as a, say “AMC” plant that employs 2000 US workers.

It’s the organizations that build the tools. What’s it take to make a car? Well, sheetmetal, paint, engines, electronics, and plastics. There’s a building that stamps sheetmetal, another that welds it together, another that paints it, and another that puts in the engines, puts on the tires, and finalizes the assembly. There are also many, many plants that supply all of those materials (usually suppliers; not done in-house). Of course in the spirit of the OP, you need to someone to build all of the tooling that inhabits these factories. These are the guys in Automation Alley. One company builds logical controls. Another robots. Another presses. Another weld guns. Another nut delivery tools. Another nut tightening tools. Another conveyors. Another electric motors. So on and so on. Then there are integration suppliers that actually put all of this stuff together into a coherent system. Of course all of these suppliers need to purchase service vehicles, computers, tools, raw materials, and so on and so on in order to work. On the employees’ off hours they need food, houses, clothes.

So far, Hyundai and AMC have all of the same requirements. However in the course of the AMC plant, all of these billions of dollars were spent in the United States, and stayed in the United States. All of this work and tooling in the case of Hyundai goes back to Korea and China. Sure, then end result is that AMC and Hyundai both employ and provide jobs to 2000 Americans in the assembly line, but that’s only a tiny, itty bitty fraction of the auto industry as a whole. The real big bucks are the things you normally just don’t think about. There’s literally no industry (industrial industry, that is) more important in the United States. It’s not because of 2000 line workers, but because of everything else prior to that point.

This certainly isn’t meant to try to persuade anyone to buy an AMC; hijacking aside, it seems like an opportune time to demonstrate how important companies are that build machinery for other companies.

I happen to design control systems for industrial automation. I’ve been in a lot of different types of plants, and each one is unique.

Some plants use a lot of off the shelf equipment. Some plants need a lot more custom equipment. It all depends on what they are producing. There are off the shelf valves, pumps, material feeders, conveyer belts, rollers, and such. There are companies that specialize in building fairly complex machines, such as chillers, ovens, extruders, bottling line and packaging equipment, and even robots. Chances are, if more than one company does it (whatever “it” may be), there’s another company that makes a machine to do it.

Plants will use off the shelf equipment as much as possible, because it’s less expensive and if you buy your equipment from someone else, all you have to do when it breaks is call them up for spare parts. Anything that is custom made you have to buy custom spare parts for as well, and a custom machine isn’t likely to have spare parts just sitting on a shelf somewhere. There’s a higher cost associated with having spare parts made that you then have to keep on your own shelf, so there’s an inventory and facilities cost as well.

A lot of custom machines will be made out of some standard parts. Lets say for example you have a machine that has one part that needs to move up and down and another part that sprays stuff. The moving parts may be custom machined pieces (could be machined, stamped, molded, or whatever to actually make the pieces), but then the actuators will probably be off the shelf and the pumps, control valves, and spray nozzles will also be off the shelf. If the machine is complex and needs controls, it will probably use an off the shelf PLC or some such for the controller.

Have you seen the ones on springs…and the ones on chains. Even when they slow it down, and then I put my tivo into slow mode, I still have a heard time keeping up with those.

This is precisely the kind of thing that Engineers do (and used to do much more often in years gone by) – For a larg company an R&D staff used to design the macines for an entire assembly line, built a couple of such lines, troubleshot them and improved them, then built multiple lines for the manufacturing plant(s).

My father was an engineer working on just such lines. They designed and built machines for the R&D line, then made up many more, and often went to personally install them n plants around the country.
Sometimes you only need one machine for one plant – it depends upon how big your market is.

Sometimes they’d incorporate machines designed and built overseas. Sometimes it works the other way around, and manufacturing lines designed and built in the US are sent overseas where labor costs are lower.

In any event, as more manufacturing goes out of the US, I get the impression that less and less of the engineering is happening here as well.

In one case I am very familiar with, The worlds largest glass bottle manufacturer, designs and builds (via various contractors, but they manage the whole show) the bottle making machines. At the time I was working with them, they had ~80% of the US market for bottles. They also sold the machines to thier smaller competitors, and had over 90% of that market.

One thing that sticks in my mind is that the raw material for glass bottles is sand, and essentially free. The manufaturing expense is mostly capital and labor. The industry operates about 2% profit margins. Thus if the output of a machine can be increased by 2%, the factories profit has nearly doubled. The machines we were working on were about 10-15% faster than the previous generation, and we couldn’t build them fast enough to keep up with demand.

Oooh, one of the points I indirectly tried to make in my post above. Engineers aren’t just geeks with slide rules. We make things and processes work. :wink:

Companies that operate under severe trade secrecy may build many of their own machines from scratch, or at least much more nearly so than companies that don’t.

There are many big machines that are more or less unique, and perhaps most big machines are at least slightly customized.