Few names have resonated throughout the fastener manufacturing industry for as long or as significantly as National Machinery. A 133-year history has forged and tempered but, despite some tough times, never quenched a name that epitomizes reliable and advanced manufacturing technology. In June, Phil Matten took the trip to Tiffin, Ohio to look behind the National name.
Tiffin is 90 miles south west of Cleveland - the city in which the National Machinery Company was founded in 1874. The company relocated at the start of the twentieth century. By then the New York Daily had already described it as “a mammoth concern” with the “unique distinction of being the only establishment in the world capable of equipping a bolt and nut factory with machinery”.
In 1902 the Tiffin plant occupied 68,000 square feet. Today it covers 600,000 square feet. For the first-time visitor, a walk round National’s superbly presented reception areas is an essential history lesson. By 1915 the new automotive industry was demanding the accuracy and strength of forgings. National responded and by 1928 a certain Henry Ford was lauding the automatic forging machine he had purchased as the marvel of its day.
The 1930s were dark days for many but innovations flooded from National – from the precursor of the famous Maxipres high speed forging machines to a series of bolt makers, long stroke and progressive cold headers. By the end of the 1940s the plant had tripled in size, employing 500 people. In the mid 1950s National developed a new range of 4-die bolt makers, including the biggest of its kind in the world. In 1958 the company entered the European market, acquiring the largest maker of cold forging machinery outside the US – the J. G. Kayser Company in Germany.
With the ‘60s came growing emphasis on forming complex shapes. Again National responded with new five and six die cold formers and a universal transfer mechanism to increase flexibility and forming capability. In Europe, market share continued to grow and by 1972 the one thousandth high-speed cold header was shipped from an enlarged Nürnburg facility. Through the ‘70s and into the ‘80s National experienced record orders while other machinery manufacturers struggled to survive. Competitors fell by the wayside. By the mid ‘80s, though, National also felt the savagery of worldwide recession. Survival was all. A massive sales drive was needed to move accumulated inventory but the real savior was, again, to be innovation in cold forming technology.
In 1989 National unveiled their first FORMAX® parts former at the International Fastener Exposition, Atlanta. For the fastener and parts maker, FORMAX presented an easy-to-operate system that radically increased production speeds and facilitated rapid changeovers. It takes a tour of National’s manufacturing facilities, though, to fully comprehend the significance of the FORMAX ‘revolution’ to National.
It is a plant that cannot disguise its history. It’s also a reservoir of advanced manufacturing technology combined with wide-ranging engineering knowledge that culminates in a flexible, highly integrated machining and fabrication operation.
National Machinery has to be understood in the context of a business that has produced, literally, thousands of parts-forming machines. Their durability and utility means that a huge number continue to operate with stolid reliability in 130 countries across the world.
Historically, many parts were unique to a particular machine type. That means National has produced a staggering 800,000 components. When National upgraded its main IT system, some 200,000 items were still considered sufficiently current to be included. Over 10,000 service parts are forecast for production and active stockholding.
That makes National’s Quick Response Cell a uniquely valuable attribute. Its sole raison d’etre is to support the needs of existing machines in the field. While production generally is controlled by a central IT system and maximizes use of automated processing, the QRC is equipped with more manual machine tools operated by highly skilled technicians. If a field machine goes down, and the parts required are not held in inventory, these are the guys that have to come up with the solution – fast. Not just for cold heading machines, either. National continues to support forging presses that range up to 8,000 ton – which can mean precision grinding a three metre long crank.
A significant proportion of the plant is dedicated to machine overhaul and rebuilds – activity that reflects the current doldrums in the North American new machine market. Again, the diversity of this work is witness to National Machinery’s ubiquity. A bank of single die machines is being progressively overhauled for one customer. Elsewhere a 1-inch boltmaker, the first four-die version built in 1967, is undergoing a full rebuild. The old lady has worked hard in her life, but National hasn’t found any surprises and it won’t be long before she’s good to return to the fray.
There is also a FORMAX FX-5, sold new in 1995 to a customer that has recently been bought out. Before relocation the machine is being requalified – a process that reflects the evolution of the model by installing design upgrades developed since the machine was originally sold. Significantly, on a FORMAX machine those upgrades do not require a full strip down and rebuild.
The key to FORMAX is a design concept that, from the beginning, played to National’s manufacturing capabilities, to allow much greater production efficiencies and component standardization. All except the largest machines are structured on a welded steel plate core as opposed to a casting. Similarly many components are produced from plate or are machined, further reducing reliance on castings, except where structural integrity demands them. The FORMAX design meant National could achieve higher production efficiency, faster throughput and higher utilization of machinery and tooling. It also means higher and faster levels of serviceability for its customers.
FORMAX has, then, a core design that incorporates more standardized options, and provides a flexible platform on which to assemble a package that precisely meets customer requirement. Should those needs change, though, the FORMAX can be readily adapted. Reliability and durability remain core National attributes. Virtually everything on the machines is positively driven, in most cases with complementary cams utilized to ensure positive drive in both directions. Transfers are cam-driven to generate greater machine speed while ensuring high levels of accuracy.
In many cases customers will come to the Tiffin plant for acceptance trials. Machines, though, are not always built for a single part application and destinations are worldwide. National has, therefore, developed an extensive range of validation tooling, allowing it to replicate production of diverse parts types. Validation tests push each machine to its design limits, in terms of tonnage, concentricity and cutoff capability. National also uses a range of wire drawers, pay-off systems and other support equipment to replicate customers’ usage.
Where are these machines going? Based on this visit, National’s global credentials are in no doubt – machines were being built for Italy, Germany, France and Switzerland; for Japan, Korea and China; as well as for Canada, USA and Brazil.
In May this year, that global presence was strengthened further, with the official opening of a new group subsidiary in China. NM Group Technologies is a 4,000m2 facility in Suzhou. It will house a permanent demonstration of FORMAX technology and already functions as sales and service centre for National Machinery equipment. National has a large installed machine population in Japan. Suzhou will be important in providing this important customer base with quicker delivery and lower costs from a significantly larger Asia regional service centre, which will also, ultimately, carry out rebuilds.
As National says - and clearly demonstrates - technology leaders don’t repeat the past… they build on it.