This is a good time to be working in electrical discharge machining (EDM). Business is strong, prospects for 2013 are good, and there are plenty of opportunities in many markets. About the only cause for concern is finding enough skilled people for operations, a microcosm of the broader talent gap in today’s manufacturing workforce.
This is the view of a sampling of EDM suppliers, all of whom say they are coming off a good — even record — 2012 in terms of sales and expect that 2013 will be even better.
Their optimism may seem a surprise considering the fragile state of the U.S. economy and stubborn high unemployment. But, in interviews with IMT Machining Journal, EDM suppliers say the markets that are driving growth are solid, long term, and large. They include:
- Aerospace. Growing demand for civil and business aircraft, especially re-engining of planes with more fuel-efficient powerplants, is creating a lot of EDM work. The process is well suited for fabricating small parts such as engine vanes and blades, drilling cooling holes, and cutting different materials, notably titanium and Inconel alloys.
- Automotive. As car sales improve, OEMs are retooling and producing new engines, notably fuel-efficient four-cylinder models.
- Energy. Applications range from wind turbines to gas turbines and involve cutting and drilling a range of parts.
- Oil and gas. EDM is viable for cutting precision keyways, gears, couplings, and other drill rig and extraction components.
- Medical. An aging population is generating demand for orthopedic parts such as knee and hip implants. There is also growing demand for needles and other precision fabrications.
- Moldmaking. The reshoring movement, in which many products like molds that have been made in China are being moved back to North America for cost and quality reasons, is resulting in growing demand for EDM capacity at mold shops.
In addition, some suppliers say that Germany is a source of business, as multinational companies based there, especially those in the auto industry, move manufacturing to plants in the U.S. to benefit from the lower-priced dollar. As of Feb. 10, €1 was trading at $1.33, which would give a German company, in theory at least, a 33 percent cost advantage in U.S. manufacturing.
In commenting about market conditions, Ron Vogel, owner of EDM Network in Sugar Grove, Ill., affirms that aerospace and reshoring are generating demand for EDM machines. “There is a lot of revamping of jet engine design, which is keeping us busy,” he remarks. “There’s been no drop-off in aerospace, especially with the Chinese and Indian markets.”
Airlines, moreover, are working to replace engines on current aircraft with ones that are 7 to 15 percent more fuel efficient, and demand for these advanced engines is peaking with growing orders for new commercial and business jets.
Vogel points to one indicator of market strength: used machines — or more precisely, the lack of them. “We sell new and used EDMs, and there is nothing available in used machines,” he says. “People are holding on to their machines because they are busy. It’s a big difference from three years ago,” Vogel notes, when business was soft and a lot of used machines were on the market.
Brian Pfluger, EDM product manager at Makino, in Mason, Ohio, acknowledges the strength of the aerospace market, and also sees promise in automotive. “There is a resurgence of the auto companies, which means they are retooling,” he says. “There is a lot of demand in the Detroit area and elsewhere in the ‘Rust Belt’ for large sinker EDMs. Much of this work reflects developments in smaller, fuel-efficient engines.”
At Absolute Machine Tools, in Lorain, Ohio, Technical Director Mark Cicchetti sees a surge in moldmaking that is fueled in part by reshoring. “A significant amount of the mold work that went overseas [to China] is coming back to the U.S.,” he says. The quality of molds made in China is not as bad as publicized, Cicchetti remarks. However, molds produced in North America are generally of better quality and, importantly, shipped with relevant production data that speeds engineering changes or repairs — not so with Chinese moldmakers, according to him.
Bullish Suppliers Continue to Roll Out New Machinery
EDM suppliers are responding to the market with new machines and technologies that are designed to increase the precision and quality of parts and speed of production.
Vogel says EDM Network is replacing ball screws with linear motor drives on many models. The company introduced linear motors to its line at IMTS 2012 last September, and will add more machines with the new drives later this year.
Linear drives achieve greater part definition on the first pass and provide better surface finishing than ball-screw drives, he says. A linear drive can additionally make more skim passes with no reversal loss. On sinker EDMs linear drives improve the straightness of sidewall cuts due to self-induced flushing, which forces chips out of the cut and reduces electrode wear. The flushing increases cutting speed by 25 to 30 percent, Vogel adds.
The company also offers EDM machines with 6-axis, high-speed (30,000-40,000 rpm) drilling, which are typically used for making small cooling holes in engines and turbines.
Makino is releasing five new EDMs this year. One of the first models is the EDVB3, a wire hole-drilling system targeted at aerospace, says Pfluger. Features include a programmable support in the die guide arm assembly that is designed to prevent whipping, vibration, and bending of the electrode during machining, while improving accuracy and stability.
Another new model is the U1310, a wire EDM for large parts. It handles workpieces up to 13,200 lb, and has a table area of 1720 by 1475 mm. The maximum workpiece size is 2,000 by 1,600 by 500 (optional 600) mm. Travel in the X, Y, and Z axes is 1,310 by 1,010 by 520 (optional 620) mm, while U- and V-axis travel is 101 by 101 mm.
Pfluger says the U1310 achieves the same degree of accuracy as a much smaller EDM machine — less than 2 microns.
Two recent wire products from Absolute Machine Tools are the AX-8060 and AX-1165. Both offer large work envelopes, Cicchetti says, and accommodate heavy workpieces — 8,800 lb for the AX-8060 and 9,000 lb for the AX-1165.
The AX-8060′s X- and Y-axis table travel is 31.5 by 23.6 in, while its Z-axis travel is 23.6 in and U- and V-axis are 5.9 by 5.9 in. The table feed rate is a rapid 51.1 ipm, while the wire feed rate maxes at 590 ipm.
For the AX-1165, X- and Y-axis table travel is 43.3 by 25.6 in, Z-axis travel is 23.6 in, and U- and V-axis travel is 5.9 by 5.9 in. Table-feed and wire-feed rates are the same as those for the AX-8060, and positioning accuracy for both models is +/-0.0001 in. The AX-1165 works with wire diameters from 0.008 to 0.013 in.
Lack of Next-Gen Talent Is a Growing Issue
The only dark cloud on the otherwise bright horizon for the EDM market is skilled labor. Suppliers and shop owners alike are scrambling to find capable people, often with little success. Some of this is attributed to the economic downturn and to offshore manufacturing, which caused many EDM users to downscale operations or close, leading to a loss of talent. But there is also a crisis in industry training in the U.S., with companies dropping apprenticeship programs and many public schools downplaying technical education.
“We could use a toolmaker, die sinker and wire guy,” says Vogel, “but all the good ones are busy. There has been no emphasis on skilled trades in the U.S. for 10 years. If you don’t train someone yourself, you won’t have skilled people.”
“I’ve been in dozens of companies and the average workforce is 58-plus years old,” remarks Pfluger. “In five years, most of these people will be at retirement age,” and there isn’t a new generation to replace them. “Manufacturing is a growth industry now — there are plenty of jobs but no skilled people to fill them,” he says. “Industry is starving for talent.”
“We have a problem,” Vogel echoes bluntly. And while the lack of skilled EDM workers might not affect sales for suppliers or business for shop owners in the near term, many are likely wondering how it could impact long-term competitiveness and profitability.