When forging operations need to expand production, bringing new equipment online involves striking a delicate balance between fitting within budget constraints and accepting what can often be very long lead times.
Forging machines are massive pieces of equipment that weigh 25 tons to 300 tons and rise 10ft to 25ft above the production floor. Designed and built to last decades, it’s not uncommon to find equipment from 50 or more years ago still in use; both a blessing and a curse when it comes to purchasing new equipment. Size and complexity mean items such as the massive cast steel frame can take 6 months to 8 months for delivery – not including the 4 months to 6 months to install internal parts and componentry.
Another option is purchasing used forging equipment and having it rebuilt or remanufactured, speeding delivery by as much as 6 months and reducing the budget impact. But, shrinking supply of used equipment is increasingly taking this option off the table.
The other alternative is to repair out-of-commission units and/or increase production by automating existing forging equipment.
Taking a closer look at each option – repair, rebuild, remanufacture, or new – shows each choice’s advantages and challenges.
Repairing existing equipment or out-of-commission units often becomes a difficult task of locating adequate replacement parts. The longevity of horizontal and vertical forging equipment can create challenges for a forging operation when the part that needs replacing was built decades ago. Is the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) still in business? Does a drawing of the part exist? Can a local machine shop replicate it?
“Sourcing spare parts can be an ongoing problem,” says Wade Ferguson, maintenance manager at Modern Forge Co.s LLC, a hot steel forging company in Blue Island, Illinois, operating five manufacturing facilities with more than 25 production forge units. “We probably run hammers tighter than what would ever be specified. And together with our high volume of forging, at times we are scrambling to make or find spare parts.”
Modern Forge uses Chambersburg (CECO) die forgers, dating back to the 1980s and weighing between 20 tons and 50 tons, to make engine valves and other motorcycle parts for customers such as Harley Davidson. When Ferguson heard Chambersburg was in bankruptcy years ago, his first reaction was “what the heck are we going to do for parts?” He had some replacement parts in inventory and was able to salvage parts from two off-line units. Like other forging operations, he also sent some parts out to be reverse-engineered and machined, which comes with some unintended risk.
Machine shops often do not have access to critical specifications about high-wear parts, including the steel’s material grade, heat-treating process used, and tolerances engineered specifically for that piece of equipment. The result can be parts that wear faster or fail prematurely.
When Ferguson learned Ajax-CECO, a Park-Ohio company, acquired the intellectual property (IP) rights to all Chambersburg and Ajax Manufacturing equipment in 2005, he contacted them. Ajax-CECO, one of the oldest manufacturers of forging equipment, began operations in 1875 and has built and put into production more than 6,000 horizontal and vertical units.
Fortunately, the provenance of forging equipment for both Ajax and Chambersburg equipment has been well maintained, including the original drawings, bill of materials (BOMs), and service manuals.
“They have very good, detailed information that Ajax-CECO carried over from Chambersburg, which is really advantageous for us,” Ferguson explains.
Most manufacturers also stock replacement parts using material requirements planning (MRP) systems that monitor inventory levels and track historical trends for common wear items such as friction plates, driving plates, piston heads, piston rods, rings, and packings.
Ajax-CECO offers stocking programs for long lead-time items such as main gears, centric shafts, rams, frames, and anvils that most customers will not stock due to cost. In this type of program, the part is held in inventory for the customer who pays a percentage of the cost upfront and the balance when taking possession of the part – even if years later.
“Ajax-CECO is good about putting a spare part on the shelf for me and not charging [the full price] for it,” Ferguson says. “It is in their inventory until we need it, and then we pay the balance. I’m talking about expensive parts, too.”
In a rebuild, all high-wear items such as bearings, bushings, seals, and liners are replaced to get the machine in good working condition. The frame is inspected and repaired, if necessary. Rebuilds can take 6 months, depending on the number of components involved. While this is a significant amount of time, a rebuild can save 6 months or more, compared to purchasing new equipment, and save money.
There are several approaches to rebuilds. Users can send forging equipment to the OEM for rebuilding, the OEM can send repair personnel to the manufacturer’s facility to rebuild equipment on-site, or the OEM can supervise a rebuild by maintenance staff, allowing in-house staff to ask questions and better understand the operation of the equipment they are maintaining.
Engine valve and precision gear maker Eaton Corp. operates 26 Ajax-CECO machines in Kearney, Nebraska: 100 ton to 1,300 ton forging presses. Some Eaton operations have purchased rebuilt equipment, but Lead Maintenance Manager Randy Kreutzer sees value in rebuilding the equipment in-house with components sourced from the OEM.
“I like the experience the maintenance staff gets from rebuilding the equipment. That way, when future repairs are required, the time frame to complete them is much shorter,” Kreutzer says.
Eaton often incorporates automation upgrades that speed production in rebuilt equipment. Many manual tasks are being assigned to robots or servos that can lift, insert, and deposit materials. Automated tooling changes can be completed with the push of a button.
Manual tasks, such as moving heavy steel rods in and out of equipment, are now automated to improve worker safety and productivity.
Sometimes only the cast steel frame of the forging equipment is salvageable, requiring replacement of all the internal components. Given the extent of the work required, a remanufactured forging unit can still cost 85% to 90% of new equipment, but delivery time is reduced by about 6 months and typically comes with a new machine warranty.
A remanufacture saves the cost and time of acquiring a new cast frame. The frame on a 3" upsetter press, weighing 55,000 lb, for example, could take 6 months plus another month for shipping from overseas.
“With a remanufacture, all the internal parts are built to factory specs,” Kreutzer says. “You don’t need the man-hours to rebuild it; it can just be set in place, hooked up, and is ready for forging.”
As with a rebuild, a remanufactured forging unit can include a variety of automation option upgrades.
Buying new may offer the most confidence in long-term performance and the most tailored solution to forging needs, but it has the longest lead times. A manufacturer will need to plan on approximately 1 year to take delivery of a new piece of forging equipment. However, if the new equipment option is affordable, the decades of value that will be generated from it means the return on investment (ROI) will be significant.
Kreutzer cautions that new press quality can sometimes be an issue when sourcing from overseas, adding, “We like Ajax-CECO presses for their quality and even prefer to rebuild that equipment instead of pursuing some other options out there that will not perform or last as long.”
New equipment also gives forgers the opportunity to take advantage of advanced automation. For example, entire forging line cells can be connected to report production rates and machine performance to company networks.
Some forging operations hedge their bets by using more than one strategy. Given the shortage of available used equipment and lead times, some customers order a new machine while another is being remanufactured. Others get quotes on new equipment while continuing to seek out used equipment opportunities.
Regardless of the approach, forging operations have a lot to consider when attempting to meet increasing production demands. Whether repair, rebuild, remanufacture, or new, bringing forging equipment online requires careful consideration, foresight, and an understanding of the options.
“You have to constantly keep a look-out for equipment, worldwide, and do your price comparisons to ensure you stay within the budget,” Kreutzer says. “Usually when we are acquiring new equipment, it is well into the future, so we have adequate time. But there are always timelines that must be met. So, as a company we have to consider all the available options.”
Ajax-CECO, a Park-Ohio Co.
Modern Forge Co. LLC