The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the forging landscape –seemingly overnight. With many in the industry initially expecting the impact to last a matter of weeks, most forgers are now preparing for a much longer recovery period that will likely last into early 2021.
Not all markets have been affected equally, of course. To be sure, the major forging players serving the oil-and-gas and automotive industries are facing some serious issues, but those serving other markets, such as defense, have had minimal impact to their business.
Still, there are forging operations that are already closed and may not survive. Many have been forced to lay off or furlough talented equipment operators that may not return. That means the remaining forging operations will need to step in and fill the demand, which will not cease to exist. If there is any silver lining to be found, it is that the crisis may speed reshoring efforts, bringing additional opportunities to produce even more forged parts domestically.
Consequently, many forgers are wisely taking this time to re-evaluate their processes and seek out new ways to improve production efficiency as part of their post-crisis rebound and recovery strategy. To the extent funding is available, that includes finding fast, economical ways to repair or acquire equipment that will enable production at higher volumes.
To examine how this can best be achieved, we discussed forging equipment options with Ken Copeland, president of Ajax-CECO, a manufacturer of forging equipment since 1875. In recent years, the company has continued to expand into a one-stop, expedited domestic source for forging equipment with the acquisition of Erie Press Systems under parent company Park Ohio. As a result, the company is now the largest OEM forging equipment supplier in North America.
Q: For forgers looking to increase production quickly, what are the most economical options currently available?
The most immediate option to bring forging equipment online is to repair existing equipment or out-of-commission units. Most OEMs stock replacement parts for common wear items such as friction plates, driving plates, piston heads, piston rods, rings and packings. In addition, there are stocking programs for long lead-time items such as main gears, eccentric shafts, rams, frames and anvils.
If possible, every effort should be made by the OEM to reuse parts and/or replace components that, due to damage, cause the machine not to function properly or that pose an unsafe condition. Doing so will bring the equipment back into working condition. To accomplish this, the OEM minimally disassembles, inspects, reports and suggests repairs.
As for new equipment, given the current economic climate, companies are less comfortable with the idea of placing a purchase order for a new machine that may take 12 months to deliver. Instead, they want more economical options that can be brought online quickly. With that in mind, equipment rebuilds are ideal because the process – depending on the scope of the work – can take as little as a few months to be operational. In a rebuild, all high-wear items (e.g., bearings, bushings, seals and liners) should be replaced to get the machine in good working condition.
Rebuilds can be performed on-site, or the unit can be shipped to the OEM’s manufacturing facility, which reduces the rebuild costs. Once there, the machine is completely disassembled, cleaned and inspected. Upon completion of the inspection, a report of findings is submitted to the customer that includes a list of missing components compared to the “as-built” bill of material, findings of concern that might impact operation, and a description and pictures of the general condition of the parts. This comes along with a general scope of work and price estimated for the rebuild and recommissioning of the machine.
Q: How can forgers adapt to the loss of skilled labor?
Quite a few companies have been forced to lay off or furlough talented, experienced people. In six weeks, the market has moved from having a hard time finding employees to having a glut of options. Losing trained operators is a problem because the forging industry requires talented operators at almost all levels of the process.
This will create a demand for on-site, and possibly web-based, training to educate new employees in both operations and maintenance of forging equipment. This aligns with a trend we were already experiencing during the past several years. In 2019, the primary capital investments reported were forging-machine rebuilds and modernizing controls, followed by forging furnaces and heaters and then investment in training and education. That same report showed the focus in 2020 had shifted to training and education first, followed by rebuilding and modernizing controls. New forging-machine investments and robotic manipulation tied for the third priority.
The other aspect that will change as a result of the loss of talented operators is that we will likely see more operations automate more-hazardous, manual aspects of the process so that they are supervised and controlled by experienced personnel.
Many of the tasks that are performed manually – such as moving heavy steel rods, pipe and other stock in and out of equipment – can be automated. This could be with the mechanical “hand” of a robot or by integrating servos that can lift, insert and deposit materials. Even tasks such as automated tooling changes can be completed with the push of a button.
Not only does this create a safer environment for forging operators, but productivity is increased. By automating forging operations to perform some tasks of a human operator, productivity can increase significantly depending on the type of products being forged. At the same time, it gives the plant the ability to maintain recommended social distancing.
Most automation requests are for control consoles or some type of material-handling and conveying equipment to bring the steel into the machine, move it around as needed for heating and forging, and then finally deposit the finished item into a bin when completed. In the most advanced examples, entire forging-line “cells” can even be created that include sophisticated communications that report production rates and machine performance back to company networks.
Q: Why is now a good time to work with forging equipment OEMs?
One of the challenges forging shops face is shutting down the line for repairs for any length of time. However, equipment OEMs can work with forgers to develop a plan to minimize downtime by reviewing the machine’s bill of materials, reviewing past repair orders and manufacturing key components that will need to be replaced.
In addition, the OEM has the original design specifications, critical materials and clearance specifications to jump on repairs or rebuilds and quickly get the work done. Information such as critical data on high-wear parts, the material grade of the steel, the heat-treating process that was used and the required clearances that were used in the engineering of that particular forger are all needed for a quality repair or rebuild.
Q: Where are the post-crisis forging opportunities?
Over the decades, domestic consumers of forged parts have become reliant on offshore supplies for both forging parts and forging equipment. As a result, OEMs will be looking for ways to quickly ensure continuity and introduce flexibility into the supply chain, which will increase the urgency to bring back manufacturing segments like forging. Some of the work was beginning to come back already, but this current crisis is really going to push more business back to our shores.
With this in mind, customers will be less focused on pricing alone and more interested in a steady domestic supply of forged parts. Shops will also be more inclined to source forging equipment manufactured in the U.S. both for its superior quality and for after-sale customer service and support.
The current crisis will open opportunities for U.S.-based forging shops, and they must be prepared to deliver higher output volumes to capture this business. If forging shops upgrade their forging equipment now or take the time to make their existing equipment operate more efficiently, they could be in the best position to handle that additional volume and really grow their business post-crisis.
For more information, contact Ajax-CECO-Erie Press, Wickliffe, Ohio (A Park Ohio Company) at 440-295-0244 or visit them at www.ajax-ceco.com.