While design opportunities in the factory automation market have dwindled in recent months, some OEM vendors have found success by exploiting other niches.
SKF Motion Technologies here in Bethlehem has doubled its workforce since 1998 by developing actuator systems for applications as varied as french fry makers, office furniture, and wheelchairs.
When McDonald's called seeking technology to speed cooking time for hamburgers, SKF answered with a system that uses two actuators to precisely lower a metal grill over a row of hamburgers. Result: both sides of the meat are cooked at once.
"We delivered prototypes before competitors returned McDonald's phone calls," recalls Poul Jeppesen, general manager of SKF's Linear Motion and Machine Tool Div.
You can understand SKF's urgency: With at least two grills per store, some 13,000 McDonald's restaurants in the U.S. could be retrofitted with the new system. Five or six new stores open each week. Then there's the overseas market, and potential for applying similar technology to other chains.
Wheelchairs are another opportunity. Invacare, the field's dominant OEM, makes very sophisticated chairs for patients with severe paralysis. These units typically require five actuators to recline the back, tilt the seat, position the head, and move the two foot rests. SKF actuators also provide precise patient positioning in MRI, CT scan, and other diagnostic machines.
In such designs, SKF does not just exchange CAD files with the OEM. You'll find wheelchairs, grills, and other end products scattered about the SKF labs. By examining the entire product, SKF engineers can better understand the overall technology. "Even when we don't get the contract, we still learn a lot about these industries," says Jeppesen.
SKF also offers more systems solutions by acting as sales agent for smaller European manufacturers with complementary products. In materials handling, for example, SKF represents Iwis, a German producer of chains, and Always, a U.K., manufacturer of ball transfers.
Finally, in this quest to provide new valued-added engineering design, you can't overlook SKF's large force of bearing sales reps. They are constantly uncovering new applications beyond the factory floor—from hospital beds to power tools.