Okuma’s new DS1 (Dream Site – Number 1) manufacturing facility is a showcase for the latest in state-of-the-art automation and flexible manufacturing. Phil Hayes takes us on a tour.

In 1898, a young and aspiring innovative engineer named Eiichi Okuma established the Okuma Noodle Machine Co. to manufacture and sell noodle-making machines. It may seem an unusual field of technology to enter, but the consumption of noodles was (and still is) very high in Japanese cuisine and an invention to cut down the massive labour content in producing them was indeed revolutionary.

Eiichi Okuma went on to make several automated machines, most notably cigarette-rolling machines and even textile-knitting machines a little later. However, it was in 1904 that machine tools became Okuma’s focus as industrialisation really took hold, and by 1918 Okuma Machinery Works Ltd was formally established and the volume production of the OS Lathe commenced.

By 1937, Okuma was the number 1 machine tool producer in Japan by value. The company’s growth remained rapid through the 1950s, and in 1963, it launched the OSP control with its unique absolute position feedback encoder, thus becoming the only machine tool builder to build its own machine and control – a remarkable feat that remains valid among the major builders of today.

In 1973 Okuma established the Okuma Melbourne Liaison Office, the predecessor to Okuma Australia, marking the Australian operation as the first overseas office for Okuma. Okuma Australia remains based in Melbourne, and now has offices in Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth with affiliated branches in Auckland and Christchurch, New Zealand. Together, the Australian and New Zealand markets are home to about 2,600 Okuma CNC lathes, machining centres and grinders. In Japan, Okuma Machinery Works Ltd changed its name to Okuma Corporation in 1991, and today has grown into one of the world’s largest machine tool builders.

Leading the way from the factory floor

Few people connected with heavy engineering, fabrication and assembly would not know of the typical plant layout and the overall process consequences of this type of business. Lots of work in progress and general environmental “mess” have accompanied just about every 20th Century active manufacturing facility – and right up to today! It is taking time to break the mould, but the exceptions to the old ways are now delivering fantastic outcomes.

Okuma decided that the direction that it should take to the future had to change. Big time.

The company first rewrote the factory design books with the construction of the 1.13m-square-foot unmanned complex at Kani, some 45 minutes from its main plant in Oguchi. In 2007, Okuma added its largest single-roof building, known as K5. Dominating the skyline, K5 is the assembly ‘hall of all halls’ for the flagship trademark Okuma double-column machining centres.

About 40 of these huge machining centres are assembled at once inside the K5 plant. Each machine is meticulously assembled in individually-adjustable assembly pens, with a unique multi-crane system that provides lifting within each pen as well as the movement of major components or completed machines to and from each pen. Up to 60 tons can be moved right over the top of all the assembly pens.

The Global CS Centre at the main Oguchi plant includes: a display area with more than 30 machines on permanent display; a presentation area to introduce the latest machining technologies and applications; a retractable theatre; and an NC School where visitors can deepen their understanding of Okuma machine tools in a short time through effective and practical training. The Global CS Centre enhances communication with customers to help them overcome difficulties through technical innovations and information on advanced technology.

Adjacent to the CS Centre, a Memorial Gallery has been established. It offers a view of Okuma’s past, with exhibits ranging from their famous noodle-making machine (it still works) on which the company was founded, to the LB15 lathe, a model that was central in spreading the use of NC machine tools worldwide. The more than 20 machines and controls on display in the Gallery all gave rise to universally adopted innovations in their time. The exhibits serve as a broad introduction to the importance of machine technology and the contributions have been delivered to day-to-day life.

But the best was still to come

In 2013, Okuma opened the new DS1 (Dream Site – Number 1) facility, after just 12 months of construction. Automation and flexible manufacturing are keys to the advanced productivity levels achieved in the new facility, which boasts energy-efficient operation as well. DS1 actually looks like a factory of the future because of its blend of machine technology, automation, and expertise.

Operating 24/7, 365 days a year, DS1 has enabled twice the production of machinery with half the lead time previously required, while maintaining roughly the same amount of workers. As for energy-efficiency, attached to the side of the facility and covering most of the gigantic roof of DS1 are around 5,000 solar panels, which are reducing energy costs by 30 – an incredibly valuable system in light of recently imposed power capacity limitations throughout Japan.

Automation was another mandatory area of focus. The principal way the plant expanded capacity was not by adding space or people, but by taking advantage of time and space that previously went unused. In the past, plant operations ran two shifts a day and no weekends. However, with flexible robotic loading of machine tools, relatively free capacity is now possible after hours and on weekends in a ‘lights-out’ environment.

In addition, with machining centres in a flexible manufacturing system (FMS) environment, high volumes of tools tend to add greatly to the required floor space. In DS1, many of the machining centres have very large tool magazines that are relatively vertical and use free space above the machine, rather than taking up precious floor space around them.

However, the most visible and extensive type of automation in DS1 is the FMS, whose technology was drawn from experience gained from the eight FMS lines installed at the Kani 2 semi-unmanned plant. Various lines in the facility consist of multiple Okuma machining centres united by an RGV (Rail Guided Vehicle)-style pallet-loading system, which in turn draws work from a multi-story rack of pallets accommodating the set-ups for the parts requiring machining by part number. By swapping pallets in and out of the machines as frequently as needed, this configuration enables the machining centres to keep running efficiently even though batch sizes are small and the variety of machined parts is large. The approach even makes sense when the parts themselves are large.

The biggest of DS1’s FMS cells is 120m long. The RGV pallet system in this case unites four Okuma double-column machining centres, which each have 2.5m between columns. This FMS for large parts machines 80 of the plant’s biggest parts.

Following an approach that could be termed “intra-sourcing”, the DS1 plant seeks cost efficiency by combining nearly all of the steps in machine tool production under one roof. Raw material input, machining, kitting, subassembly, final assembly, inspection and shipping all occur within the one facility.

A philosophy of consolidation drives the plant’s approach to assembly as well. Machines do not move from station to station as they are being built. Instead, for greater simplicity, each machine carcass is laser-levelled and then remains in one place on the assembly floor, with components and subassemblies all carted to the machines as they are needed.

Beyond the investment in automation and machines within the facility, there is a lot of software and hardware behind the scenes that underpin the success realised with DS1. The production control implementation delivers the necessary information to co-ordinate accurate start-to-finish scheduling, for on-time part delivery to the machines in assembly. And as Okuma’s on-line statistical production records show, it works seriously accurately! The result is the elimination of extensive warehousing of parts.

To summarize the DS1 accomplishments:

  • Productivity is doubled.
  • Manufacturing time is halved.
  • FMS, Robots and Automation systems all work 24/7, lights out at night.
  • Self-contained, start-to-finish processes run from raw materials input to shipment.
  • Features such as solar panels and natural lighting reduce energy costs by 30% while reducing the environmental burden.

More than a century in the making, a start in noodle-making has followed a phenomenal path for Okuma today. Plans are under way for more expansion at the Oguchi site, following the lead set by Okuma’s amazing Dream Site No 1 – no doubt there is more to come.

Phil Hayes is the Managing Director at Okuma Australia + New Zealand.