A Century of Innovation
By Claire Suttles, Business In Focus Magazine (September 2015)
Founded at the turn of the 20th Century, Cincinnati Incorporated (CI) has been crafting built-to-order machine tools for over 100 years. After installing approximately 60,000 systems over its long life, the company remains privately owned by the fourth generation of the March family.
CI’s quality has helped ensure a century of success. “We still service machines that were made as far back as the 1920s,” CEO Carey Chen points out. “Cincinnati Incorporated machines are engineered and built to the standard of ruggedness required in the North American market – with premium engineering features that stand up to years of rigorous use in demanding environments.”
Also known for its trail blazing spirit, CI is behind a number of market leading innovations. Two exciting new products will be unveiled at next month’s Fabtech trade show in Chicago. The company’s new Electric Press Brake is the latest incarnation of an ever-evolving solution. CI has long specialized in hydraulic press brakes as large as 2,000-tons, but now the team is rolling out a compact, 40-ton electric press brake that is the size of a large refrigerator, making the solution remarkably versatile and much cleaner. “It can be used in places where you have not been able to use press brakes before,” Mr. Chen explains. Clean rooms with limited space that cannot have the dust and dirt associated with a hydraulic system will clearly benefit from the new technology.
CI is also launching large-scale, high-volume 3D printing with game changing potential across multiple markets. In 2014, Oak Ridge National Laboratories proposed a partnership with CI to produce the leading edge technology. “Within a year, the Company was able to leverage our existing laser technology platform (table, linear motor drives, and software) and modify the design to accommodate an extruder capable of deposing a composite of polymers with reinforced carbon fiber or fiberglass,” Mr. Chen reports. “We affectionately call the product ‘BAAM’, which stands for Big Area Additive Manufacturing.”
Now, the company produces the world’s largest 3D printer, which measures a whopping 8’x20’ and is capable of churning out more than 80 pounds of material in just one hour. “In comparison, the size of most other commercially available 3D printers is a cubic meter or less, and the output of these printers is measured in grams per hour. BAAM can print anywhere from 500 to 1,000 times faster than the vast majority of other conventional 3D printers on the market today,” Mr. Chen adds. And, the team hopes to up the ante even further; they are working on exceeding 100 pounds of printed material per hour.
BAAM has already created the world’s first 3D printed car body. The process, which was undertaken by the car manufacturer Local Motors, took just two days. The Strati was printed, machined, assembled and displayed at the 2014 IMTS show in Chicago last November. Oak Ridge National Laboratory followed up by printing a replica of the 1964 Shelby Cobra 427 and displayed it at the 2015 Detroit Auto Show earlier this year. The body of the car was printed in about 12 hours.
The automotive bodies that BAAM prints could theoretically be paired with engines, particularly electric ones, to create a working car. “Since we have been focusing on printing with carbon fiber composites, the cars that have been printed are substantially lighter than conventional cars. The benefit is that these cars can adequately be powered by electric motors instead of conventional gas combustion engines, which is substantially better for the environment.” The ability to print large volumes of polymers with carbon fiber and fiberglass sets the technology apart.
BAAM has incredible potential across multiple processes. For instance, automotive prototyping becomes dramatically easier with the 3D printing technology. Traditionally, prototyping is a complex, time-consuming process that requires automakers to shape clay models and develop tools, jigs and fixtures. “The entire process could take multiple months or years.” With BAAM, these many steps can be skipped. “We went from having nothing to printing the car; no steps in between – no clay, no tools, jigs and fixtures made – we went straight from digital concept to printing the car. We went from development processes taking multiple months or years to taking days.”
BAAM could also be used to create made-to-order tools. “Instead of having a large inventory and money tied up in dozens of tools, imagine a day when you can print the tool you need on demand; it does its job and it is disposable, like razor blades.” Clear advantages include “less square footage tied up for making those tools, less money in general, and the end of the frustration of finding the one tool out of potentially hundreds.”
Really, the sky is the limit to what BAAM could eventually accomplish, particularly because of its groundbreaking speed. While the typical 3D printer works so slowly that “it is like watching paint dry,” BAAM is expected to exceed 100 pounds per hour in the very near future. “I think the future is bright for this particular technology. We are learning every day how we can print things. It is only limited to the human imagination.”
CI has long been active in a wide range of industries including agriculture, construction, emergency, energy, food & beverage, freight, furniture, material handling, metal service centers, military, power distribution, transportation, shipbuilding, and telecommunications. Now, the Electric Press Brake and BAAM will allow the company to venture into new markets such as automotive, aerospace, and medical.
In addition to press brakes and 3D printing, Cincinnati also specializes in subtractive manufacturing, which involves the cutting of material. “We are a systems integrator for lasers (both CO2 and fiber), and we produce mechanical shears,” Mr. Chen reports. The team focuses on automation as well. “We have a variety of software products and Material Handling Systems that our customers use to enhance the productivity of our machine tools.”
CI has managed to develop leading edge technology with the potential to change entire industries. The company’s accomplishments have not come without challenges, however. The sector’s greatest concern at the moment is an overall lack of skilled workers. “The shortage of skilled labor impacts our business in three ways – technology, manufacturing, and service,” Mr. Chen reports. “We would like to hire more people to invest in our technology and intellectual property development, to strengthen our manufacturing capacity in certain areas that will relieve production throughput bottlenecks, and to shorten the time to service our customers’ needs.”
There is not an easy way around the problem. “Unfortunately, there is no overnight solution to this challenge – broad investments in workforce development must be made. For Cincinnati Incorporated’s needs, an emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields is central to our competitiveness and growth. The ultimate goal is to promote innovation and to have an adequate supply of qualified technical workers.”
Fortunately, the industry is enjoying some positive trends as well. “We also foresee the North American Manufacturing industry continuing to benefit from the re-shoring trend that started several years ago that was driven by labor costs in developing countries increasing coupled with our developing energy independence. The best result for Cincinnati Incorporated would be a long-term reversing in the offshoring of research & development and manufacturing production.”
The team is taking current industry trends into careful consideration as they prepare for the long-term. “Our company and industry will continue to face the pressures of the cyclical nature of the durable goods markets and the demands of our customers to continue to focus on productivity and automated solutions,” Mr. Chen predicts. “CI has a great start to having the right infrastructure elements (people, processes, plant, and equipment) in place, but needs to double-down on its technology and innovation investments in order to compete successfully in its next 100 year run.”
With 100 years of success already behind it, CI is well positioned to succeed for another century. The ultimate secret just might be the tenacity of a company committed to pushing the limits in order to continually bring superior solutions to market. “It is a combination of hard work and luck,” Mr. Chen states. “People aren’t willing to give up on something they believe in.”