Energy and raw materials are becoming more and more expensive. Under these conditions, how can manufacturing industry offer high-grade products without pushing up prices excessively? Automated processes, more efficient production machinery and home-grown power with renewable energy sources offer a solution.
Manufacturing industry has a problem: because newly industrialised countries like China are growing rapidly and the economy is buoyant in industrialised nations like the USA, raw materials are becoming scarcer. In its current report on the resource situation in Germany, the German Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources (BGR) is already issuing a warning of serious bottlenecks in supplies. At the same time, there is a general trend in many European countries towards rising energy prices. Although imported oil is currently cheap because of the global glut, experts are forecasting an imminent end to ruinous competition among the oil-producing states and a return to rising prices. In Germany, according to information from the BDEW, Germany’s federation of the energy and water industry, industrial enterprises currently pay an average of 14 cents per kilowatt hour, which is about a third more than only five years ago. Manufacturers are hit particularly hard by rising prices. For the production of their moulds, technical parts and tools, they need a lot of energy. They are also dependent on supplies of plastics and metals, resources no longer available in boundless quantities, which are therefore becoming costlier. “The demand for metals like copper, nickel and cobalt is huge,” says BGR expert Thomas Kuhn.
A sustained reduction in the carbon footprint.
The situation in manufacturing is exacerbated further by geopolitical factors. According to a current report by management consultants Deloitte, the Ukraine conflict is dampening companies’ business and sales expectations. In the opinion of Deloitte market expert Thomas Döbler, manufacturing industry should therefore gird itself for crisis scenarios. “They should keep their focus not only on growing markets but also on proactive crisis management and on shoring up the supply chain.”
While the financial leeway for companies is shrinking, customers are becoming more demanding. Whatever the sector – tool- or mouldmaking, the automotive industry or medical technology – products are becoming increasingly complex. And this necessitates higher machining precision and higher productivity. There is also a trend across industry towards just-in-time delivery. Purchasers only want products delivered to their manufacturing facilities when they are actually needed. This way, they hope to reduce the time spent by the supplied goods in their storage facilities and hence capital tie-up.Component suppliers are therefore having to accustom themselves to shorter delivery times and, under certain circumstances, even expand their own inventories – the squeeze on costs in industry is being gradually being shifted up the value chain. Finally, almost all companies today want to diminish their carbon footprint in the context of the general drive towards sustainability. Anyone unable to supply goods produced with resource-conserving methods is likely to lose out in the long run. Manufacturing companies are therefore faced with major challenges. How can they master these challenges without compromising on profitability?
The German government is pointing the way forward with its high-tech strategy called “Industrie 4.0”, a project that is to be largely energised by the computerisation of manufacturing industry. The goal is the “intelligent factory” featuring adaptability, resource efficiency, ergonomics and the integration of customers and business partners in business- and value-generating processes. The main hope is that these smart factories will keep at bay the price-cutting Chinese competition that has been claiming growing shares of the market in European manufacturing. Car maker Audi therefore wants to be one of the first companies to pilot networked production this coming summer. To make its production in Ingolstadt more efficient, it will monitor all trucks carrying components from suppliers. Much like an air traffic control tower, Audi wants to coordinate truck arrival at its plant. If a vehicle with important goods is delayed, it is directed on arrival straight to the unloading bay instead of having to join the queue, as until now. This way, trucks will spend less time on the plant site – and Audi’s expenditure on logistics will fall.
There is also cost-cutting potential for small and medium-size manufacturers for whom the digital factory makes little sense. “The key lies in resource-efficient production,” says Hartmut Rauen of VDMA, the German Engineering Association. Modern production machines thus save energy because intelligent controls regulate flow rates and consumption, recirculate brake energy and, thanks to new drives, operate with greater precision and speed than the systems established today. Machines that combine different machining techniques and, ideally, handle the entire machining process are also capable of cutting costs. By using them, companies can slash set-up time and boost their productivity. The latest production technology even integrates recycling. The swarf generated by the machining of metal, for instance, has to be remelted in a high-energy process so that the metal can be returned to the cycle. In a process developed at TU Dortmund University, the chips are compacted straight after machining and pressed into profiles that can channelled straight back into production, thus leapfrogging the expensive melting process.
If companies additionally run their production activities on home-grown energy, they can cut costs further. The massive drop in prices for new photovoltaic installations is making this possible, and solar energy can now be generated in Germany at a cost of 10 to 12 cents per kilowatt hour. “Photovoltaics can therefore be an economically attractive alternative to conventional power sources particularly for small and medium-size businesses,” explains Sebastian Bolay, energy expert at the Association of German Chambers of Commerce and Industry. Given a market price of 13 to 14 cents per kilowatt hour, it is worthwhile for companies to generate their own electricity with their own small-scale photovoltaic power stations. Although the investment in solar energy takes 5 to 10 years to amortise, companies with photovoltaic electricity generated on site take the strain off the environment and offer their customers products resulting from eco-friendly methods – an argument likely to sway customers with strong ecological aspirations. In addition, companies generating their own solar power can reckon with fixed power costs for the 25 years or more of their installation’s lifetime, while electricity from the grid is certain to rise.
In its basic strategy and also with its products, Mitsubishi Electric has armed itself for the new market requirements. In its Environmental Vision 2021, the company has committed itself to cut carbon emissions in production and in the use of its products by 30 per cent. The concept of sustainability is also prominent in the innovations developed by Mitsubishi Electric. The research & development centres in Japan, North America, France and the United Kingdom are constantly bringing forth new products and processes – and most recently, the Tubular Shaft Motor that is responsible in production machines for high technical precision and performance.
The drive is also employed in the MV Series of wire-cut EDMs launched by Mitsubishi Electric in 2012. Wire-cut erosion machines are metal-removing machine tools that process workpieces made of electrically conductive materials. “Our technology offers the greatest possible functionality, as it combines the traditional strengths of our EDMs, such as quality, flexible applications and productivity, with an innovative drive strategy. The MV Series is a chance for our customers to obtain high-end machines that, in terms of their performance and quality features, were previously reserved primarily for a select band of customers with fatter purchasing budgets. In short, the machines of the MV Series offer the customer an outstanding price-performance ratio, with the purchase paying for itself in a very short time,” says Hans-Jürgen Pelzers, Manager EDM Sales Department at Mitsubishi Electric Europe. As the new wire erosion machines consume only little power and the input of wear parts and consumables has been heavily reduced, the overheads of the MV Series can be as much as 42 per cent lower than those of machines currently in widespread use. Mitsubishi Electric is therefore putting manufacturing companies in a good position to meet the requirements of the market with resource-conserving technology.
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Production of electronic equipment, e.g. EDM systems, video projectors, solar power equipment, air conditioning systems and lifts
More efficient and faster production machines are the goal of research & development worldwide. The British company Premier Precision Tooling (PPT), a maker of precision parts for the automotive and aerospace industries, has been operating an MV2400S from Mitsubishi Electric since May 2014 as a replacement for its Mitsubishi Electric predecessor, the FA20. By using the innovative machine, PPT has cut production time by 25 per cent. A component that used to take 24 hours to machine is now finished by the MV2400S in 18 hours. The machine not only requires less cutting wire and maintenance, but also consumes much less power. PPT has thus cut its electricity bill by over EUR 1000 per month.
The improved efficiency is essentially attributable to technical refinements like the new Tubular Shaft Motor that drives the main axes of the MV2400S and the demand-driven intelligent control of the generator and ancillary units.
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