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German Machine Tool Firm Gears Up for Turnkey Automation Push–in China

Early next year, Samag will deliver multi-spindle machining centers for an Asian maker of commercial vehicles, CEO Roland Emig said, declining to identify the customer. To get the contract, Samag partnered with Symacon, which provides a system for automating the transfer of parts from one place to another.

The customer in Asia “asked a turnkey project,” he said. “That’s part of our business.”

Saalfeld, Germany-based Samag, which employs about 850 in the group and counts BMW, Daimler and various tier 1-suppliers among its customers, actually brings in nearly half of its revenue in machine tools from projects that include turnkey automation systems that can include robotic articulation, parts handlers and transfer mechanisms for high-production work, he said. “The percentage of turnkey projects is growing, even in Asia.”

That’s because manufacturers the world over understand automation will allow them to spend a lot less on low-skilled labor—which is essential because the companies need to make new investments in training highly skilled machine operators, Emig said.

It is especially true on the automotive business “where the pressure on prices is really high” and products change about once a year, he added. “In the automotive industry, if they are focused on volume, we don’t have to convince anyone to do an automated system.”

For companies that change their products every month, automation systems are less attractive, Emig said.

But that, too, will change as tooling components become cheaper and automation gains more steam.

Grippers are a great example, he said. “The easier it is to change a gripper, and the less expensive a gripper is, the easier it will be to convince the customer with lower volumes to invest in automation systems, as well.”

It’s hard to justify hiring a human when a robot that can do the same work “will work three shifts seven days a week without being out for an illness or something else,” Emig said.

With automation, the overall savings is found in the reduction of workforce at the system, at the line. “That is the main thing,” he said, adding that it is a safe bet that the Asian commercial vehicle maker will save more than 50% of the workforce for each line per shift.

The impact of integrating automated systems into the production line is of course different for each customer.

“Some customers just take the machining center, including a robot load end area, and they transport the pieces in the company on their own to the washing machine or marking station,” Emig said. “Others do a total integrated system,” as is the case with the Asian commercial vehicle maker.

In its work in Asia with Symacon, Samag will integrate four machines that take care of washing parts and marking them with individual serial numbers that tie each part to a particular factory, machine, day, time and line operator.

“If you have, on a regular basis, four machines on the line, you need four operators that run the machine and take the machined parts out,” he said, describing a pre-automation production line.

With automation, the same company would just need one or two operators to cover the four machines, he added.

High birth rates and rising levels of wealth in some Asian countries mean potential big business for machine tool companies and others that get set up to serve the automotive industry there, Emig said.

“China is the fastest growing market” in Asia, he said. “India is just slightly behind. They will grow significantly during the next 10 years.”


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