A short drive through the verdant hills of the Basque country from the resort town of San Sebastian, the Machine Tool Museum occupies a rustic open space in the center of the small city of Elgoibar. The museum tells the story of the region's machine tool industry— beginning centuries ago, when ironworkers took advantage of high-quality local ore to create grillwork for cathedrals around Spain, and people began developing machines to shape those pieces. Spain's machine tool sector is now the third largest in the European Union.
From bicycles and guns in the early part of the last century to airplanes and automobiles today, the industry has continued to grow and innovate, propelled by research on how to meet ever-changing consumer needs. This research takes place both within companies and at a network of research centers funded by local companies in partnership with national and local governments.
Process of Creation
Behind nearly every product in use today are the machines that created it. "Machine tools are enablers of almost everything in the world, " says Javier Eguren, managing director of the milling-machine manufacturer Nicolás Correa, who was recently appointed president of the European Committee for Cooperation of the Machine Tool Industries. "They transform prime materials, metals, and other components, to get the shapes needed. " Processes such as cutting, stamping, milling, drilling, grinding, and boring all form part of the process that, for example, creates the tools and dies to turn sheets of metal into automobile parts.
Machine tools have gone through a number of technological revolutions. A hundred years ago, many machines in a room were often powered by a single motor that turned an axis that propelled a belt whirring along the ceiling. That belt transferred energy to axles, which in turn transferred it to the machines themselves. A major change was the introduction of machines with their own independent motors. In the 1970s came computer numerical control (CNC), in which machining operations are directed by software. Today the vast majority of machine tools produced in Spain are equipped with CNC.
"That was really the largest change in the industry, " says Eguren. "Since then, I'd say the major changes have been through advances in productivity and precision. " Machines today are exponentially faster and more precise than those available only 20 years ago.
A number of innovations have made those changes possible. As machines increase in both size and speed, retaining precision remains a challenge. The machines heat up as they work, and this increase in temperature causes metal to expand. "So measuring precisely is one of the big research areas in this industry, to know exactly where you are at all times with your tool, " says Eguren. One research goal, he says, is to reduce errors down to the order of only a few microns.
Nicolás Correa has made milling machines for more than 50 years, selling them around the world; it is now the top milling-machine producer in Europe. These machines tend to be geared toward shaping large components, such as dies for shaping the body of a car or the structural components of an airplane. More recently the company has focused more closely on the growing energy sector, creating machines to shape components of windmill blades. It also creates specialized, flexible machines.
To add value to its machines, in 2007 Nicolás Correa spun off a company called GNC Laser, which patented a laser technology that could repair, for example, holes in components caused by a slip in the machining process. This same technology can also harden the surface of dies degraded by the stamping process.