As it adapted, Okuma endured – and will continue to thrive, through the best and worst of times.
Okuma America has gone through evolutionary stages that matched machine development and market needs. Once a manufacturer and now more focused on distribution, the Charlotte, N.C,-based enterprise imports parent company machines into a broad trade area. “We sell and service machines to customers in the Americas – north, central and south,” describes Tim Thiessen, Okuma America’s vice president of sales.
But it won’t bring anything in that customers won’t or don’t need. Products purveyed include computer numeric controls (CNC) machining tools, lathes, vertical and horizontal machining centers, double column machining centers, grinders, and wheel machines. All provide the highest levels of throughput and accuracy, thus offering the most reliable solutions related to production machining operations for a range of industries. “We serve many markets. In recent years, each market has become ‘hot,’ meaning quite active,” says Thiessen. “That has been very good for us.”
Indeed, Okuma America has garnered an impressive client list. “For instance, in heavy industry, our customers include John Deere and Caterpillar, as well as the suppliers who service such companies,” reports Thiessen. “We’re also very active in the aerospace industry, working with big-name companies such as Pratt & Whitney, Spirit AeroSystems, Airbus and the Boeing companies, among others.”
He adds that Okuma America actively engages in the locomotive, oil & energy, automotive, defense, fluid power and medical industries. “We’re as widespread as our product range,” he comments.
While it no longer focuses on manufacturing, the company still integrates elements into product – specifically, it designs and builds controls. “That covers about 90 percent of our product line, and it makes us unique,” says Thiessen. “Also, a portion of our product line comes equipped with Fanuc control, which you’ll find in our Okuma & Howa offerings.”
That resulted from the Howa purchase that took place about six years ago, he says, indicating that growth is both organic and via acquisition.
ADAPTING TO MACHINE MARKETS
Okuma America is affiliated with a larger company that boasts its own rich history of evolution: the Japan-based Okuma Corporation, which was founded in 1898 in Nagoya and is now recognized as a global leader in the development of CNC and machining technology. “We’re affiliated with a mature company that boasts the best practices in the way machines are built,” comments Thiessen. “Machine tools Okuma offers may be more expensive – but cost translates into the best built and most reliable machines that demonstrate the longest life.”
The Okuma timeline includes creation of the Okuma America, established in 1984 in Long Island, N.Y. At the time, this US operation moved toward manufacturing, which led it to make new home in its current headquarters in Charlotte in 1987. “There, we began manufacturing machines and, during peak times, we’d produce as many as 120 machines a month,” recalls Thiessen. “We based our Charlotte move on a desire to build more and better machines. Long Island wasn’t the best place to open up a manufacturing facility.”
The search was on, and the company had specific criteria. “We sought an area where property could be obtained at a good price and at a location close to a port of entry,” relates Thiessen. “Charlotte proved the best fit.”
For sure, this company was prescient – the location proved attractive to many other companies. “We were at the front end of the many businesses that decided to move down here,” says Thiessen.
In that location, the enterprise progressed into its next evolutionary step – away from manufacturing. Despite North Carolina’s position as an advantageous manufacturing center, Okuma America shifted its activity focus. “In 2001, we moved beyond manufacturing into configure to order, or CTO,” says Thiessen.
Skeleton machines were imported into the United States and then refigured to customer specifications. This shift involved a high level of assembly, an activity that Okuma America embraced. But the company wasn’t done evolving. It stopped doing that about six years ago, to move on into its next evolutionary step – its focus on controls.
“As we created our own controls, Mechatronics became an important element,” says Thiessen, indicating that the term refers to the marriage of electronics with machine mechanics. “From the ground up – whether designing or revising a machine – we made sure those two components work in harmony.”
Mechatronics is a full-circle approach to equipment engineering, allowing the company to control all aspects of design and production – the result: a harmonious communication between machine and its control. This is what the company made customers realize: sophisticated machinery can hold high tolerances and perform far more precise cuts. This isn’t special; it should be routine – and Okuma made it so.
Production is controlled with the six core components on every machine, assuring expected performance and, in turn, allowing customers to witness better reliability and results.
“Control is what we’re now all about,” says Thiessen.
By chance, if a machine requires service, Okuma America’s robust distributor network is on the spot, with its expert technicians. The company has one of its industry’s most knowledgeable and well-established networks. It includes more than 40 partners, and it offers one-stop resource for sales, service, training, engineering and more. “We’ve developed and deployed a distributor model that engenders the most effective customer service,” Thiessen points out.
Okuma America thinks big – and Mechatronics ties into THINC, which the company launched in 2004. The complicated acronym stands for THe Intelligent Numeric Control, an open-architecture, Windows-based control that engenders Ethernet and USB connectivity to peripheral equipment and accessories and results in increased flexibility and productivity.
It represents just one more step in the company’s evolution. “In the machine tool world, computers became applied to manual machines, which led us into CNC – as the industry advanced – and eventually into THINC,” narrates Thiessen. THINC is an evolutionary – even revolutionary – single processor intelligent numerical control technology. “Think of it as something that you can deploy on your computer desktop,” describes Thiessen.
Deploying the capability of Microsoft Windows™, it combines Okuma’s OSP control with an open architecture, PC-base operating platform, enabling access to almost any application and peripheral, including factory management systems and it interfaces to streamline production. “The whole idea was to place machining onto the desktop,” describes Thiessen. “It can be integrated with new generations of software and hardware technology.”
Okuma America has taken it even further, with its Charlotte-based Partners in THINC facility, which is a think tank – no pun intended – that develops the most innovative ideas and best addresses the most substantial challenges. “From there, the most creative and appropriate applications are developed, which helps many businesses – especially smaller shops looking to an entity that help them put it all together.”
MOVING INTO THE FUTURE
Looking ahead, Thiessen says that Okuma American plans to move forward with the direction delineated by Partners in THINC. “That’s where we’re placing a great deal of our energy,” he says. “Obviously, we need to sell machine tools. That’s how we stay in business. But in this new economic environment, it has become so much more than that. As such, we know we need to not just sell product but sell the most effective solutions.”
But it’s not just about personal success, it’s about US manufacturing survival. “Our success gives us the best chance to shore up US manufacturing,” Thiessen says. “We are looking to help our customers become more competitive on a global scale. It’s not about taking stuff out but bringing stuff back in. We’re seeing that happen. Still, there’s a lot of fear that we’re losing manufacturing. But we are encouraged. Over the past five years, customers – and, again, these include major companies – have begun to realize where true quality resides, and the best price doesn’t always mean the best purchase. Many US manufacturing companies have come to their senses.”
It’s either change or die.
“Change is critical, and through our technology – and the way that we can help customers engage that technology – we feel that we are helping to engender the necessary changes that foster business survival,” says Thiessen.
This company is closely – and strategically – aligned with clients, and privy to their new directions. Okuma is not just a supplier; it’s an architect that helps clients build their future.
So, to conclude, Okuma is an evolving enterprise. It won’t tread the dinosaurs’ path. Rather, it will embrace new technology and strategy without fear and, in turn, prove itself adaptable to changing business environments.
Long may it run.