Lean, Lithe, and Powerful - Fastener & Fixing Magazine

May 28, 2008
It took "pride of place" on the NM Group Global stand at wire 2008 Dusseldorf, drawing plenty of attention. It has an outstanding pedigree and the attributes to meet today's fastener manufacturing needs, anywhere in the world. The place to really get to know it is Suzhou, China - so that's where Phil Matten went.
NM Group Technologies (Suzhou) Ltd, National Machinery’s 100% owned subsidiary in China, has just celebrated its first anniversary. The company started with eight people. Forty-five surrounded the birthday cake on April 17. The 4,000 square meter, custom built plant is home to a very new National. Where better to catch up with Group CEO, Andrew H. Kalnow and senior vice-president of engineering and IT, Gregory A. Smith, to find out what is causing all the excitement.

Depending on where you are in the world you’ll know it as the LeanFX or the PumaFX. Either way National is committed to making it the pounding heart of the fastener manufacturing industry. Designed at Tiffin, Ohio – the 130 year home of National Machinery – and owing its lineage and core technology to the formidable Formax series of formers, the LeanFX is manufactured in Suzhou by an intensively trained and supervised team of local workers.

Andrew Kalnow explains the conception of the new machine. “We had on the corporateSP-fig1 chalkboard for some time a question: could we produce a simplified, less expensive Formax? We knew there would be a clear demand in the worldwide market. Customers said to us, ‘Formax, we love it, but for more straightforward fastener and parts production it is more expensive than we would like.”

“Formax is a premium product, with an appropriately premium price. So we took the approach of broadening the market. The core Formax is particularly suited to complex cold formed parts production. What was needed, to compliment it, was a more versatile machine that bridged into the fastener market. While it is not as basic as the machines one gets out of Taiwan elsewhere, it has been carefully simplified and positioned at the right price point that, performance to cost, it delivers the right value equation.”

“When we first came to China three years ago it became clear that such a machine was required for the market here, if we were going to go beyond sales to western transplants. That’s what kicked us into gear. Then we realized that we had something that could be taken back to the rest of the world.”

All of which explains a dual branded machine. For the Chinese market it is the “PumaFX”– a name consciously chosen to emphasize the speed and agility it brings to fastener producers, who need precision and long-term reliability as the platform to step up in the valued-added market. “Those aspirations are very clear to see here,” says Andrew Kalnow, “not just for exported parts but also for burgeoning domestic automotive and engineering sectors.”

“Europe, Japan and elsewhere in the world Formax is well known,” Andrew Kalnow continues. “So in these markets it is about emphasizing the productivity advantages of a more cost effective machine. Lean has become the universally recognized concept that encompasses these advantages. FX is a reminder of the pedigree of the machine and the quality and performance that remains irrevocably at its heart.”

“The engineering strategy was to come up with a simpler, lower cost machine,” explains Greg Smith, “still firmly based on the best of the best, in terms of our proven and market-established Formax design.”

“Of course it is not easy to strip out cost without removing some major features. The LeanFX is not a quick change Formax. The quick change was taken off and replaced with manual adjustment. That allowed us to simplify the electrics, a lot of which related to automatic adjustments. The heart of the machine, though, is still very much a Formax. There is still linear feed, albeit with manual adjustment, there is still a precision zero clearance heading slide and zero clearance transfer. Then, achieving the desired price point is about reducing manufacturing costs. To do that we needed to take it to a lower cost production environment – one which remained entirely under our strict quality control.”

Which is where a National 100%-owned and operated Suzhou facility came into the equation one year ago.


The plant has four 10,000 square metre bays. The first is dedicated to training and demonstration.

There is a classroom style training room. On the main floor there is an array of machine main assemblies, used for maintenance and setting training. There are also two fully operational Formax 2000 machines for demonstration.

“Seeing is believing,” says Greg Smith. It’s a time proven concept in any language or culture. Unlike other parts of the world, Formax was not particularly known to Chinese companies. So we set up the two demonstration machines, which also provide us with the opportunity to trial-run customers’ parts. We can demonstrate the level of engineering invested in each machine and, most persuasive of all, we can show their speed, which radically outperforms any machine most of our visitors have ever seen before.”

The second production zone is dedicated to parts machining and production. The Sp-fig3equipment in which National has already invested is state-of-the-art, much of it from the world’s largest CNC machine builder, Haas Automation.

The team of young engineers, recruited carefully to have a solid grounding in machining skills, are mentored and managed by experienced engineers and inspectors on secondment from Tiffin. Local vendors for materials and parts are stringently assessed and approved. Initial batches of parts produced in house at Suzhou are shipped to Tiffin for rigorous inspection, technically and aesthetically, before they are used. Following the initial success of the parts production facility at Suzhou, National is now looking at a second phase of machinery investment and operative development.

“Currently, 80% of the parts used in the LeanFX come from Tiffin,” says Greg Smith. “It is a deliberate and lengthy process to identify, evaluate and approve local vendors and to develop our own parts production capabilities here. Some components, though, will always be produced in Tiffin, because of the design and manufacturing capabilities required. The best example is the cams. They are the magic in our machine and we want to exercise absolute control over their quality. Between materials, heat treatment and precision these are not parts with which we can take a risk, because they underpin the performance of the whole machine.”

Suzhou’s machine assembly shop currently has a mix of LeanFX units in production and a set of ball headers from a Japanese transplant in China undergoing refurbishment. Significantly, without the Suzhou facility it is doubtful that National would have won the contract for rebuilding the eight machines. Also significantly, it is Suzhou’s five service engineers – one electrical and four mechanical – that have worked on the ball headers, developing invaluable hands on experience under the careful tutelage of Tiffin mentors.

“Over the decades there have been plenty of westerners that have popped into China with good equipment only to sell it and leave the Chinese customer without service and support.” says Andrew Kalnow. “Our on-the-ground commitment to five service engineers based here, and trained literally on the building of the machines, is crucial. That was the original premise for setting up a business here and we have expanded upon that. The principle is simple - make it is easier for your customer.”

The final area of the Suzhou facility is dedicated to NM Global Group subsidiary CTG,Sp-fig4 assembling Ransohoff cleaning equipment for the Chinese market. Back in the meeting room Greg Smith elaborates on the relationship between PumaFX and LeanFX. “The PumaFX serves as the platform. From that we can configure the machine into the LeanFX for marketing to Europe, for which it is CE compliant, and other markets outside China.”

“Currently we offer two M10 four- die machines in medium and long stroke options.

We have received a lot of feedback, as well as a lot of interest, over the last two or three weeks since Düsseldorf wire. In terms of development our first move will probably be to provide more die options for the M10 machine. Then we may be able to consider different size machines. By definition, though, there will never be a full array of options as Formax and certainly not Formax Plus. A key part of the cost equation is standardization, which necessitates us focusing on the volume segment of the market.”

So, one machine, meeting the diverse needs of two markets. For China the PumaFX is without doubt a big cat; its speed, precision and reliability singling it out from other locally produced machinery. This is a National machine through and through, built to perform in the long term and aimed at those companies that aspire to move upstream. It

will run excellent standard fasteners as well as providing the opportunity to engineer special parts to meet automotive and other critical requirements. For the wider market, a name that epitomizes the imperative to produce longer runs of more standardized product economically, but with a constant reminder of an extraordinary pedigree of precision machine building. The first LeanFX, unveiled at wire 2008 Düsseldorf, is now being commissioned at SPS Technologies in the UK. If National has formulated its strategy as thoroughly as certainly appears to be the case, expect to see the many more LeanFX at work across Europe.