Status of the Domestic
Machine Tools Industry

The 13th Seoul International Machine Tool Show (SIMTOS 2008) was held at KINTEX in Ilsan, northwest of Seoul from April 8-13 with 3,784 booths from 433 exhibitors hailing from 24 countries, including Germany, Japan and the United States, the biggest exhibition in the Korean machine sector. SIMTOS has evolved into a global top-five machine tools exhibition along with EMO of Europe, IMTs of the United States, JIMTOF of Japan and CIMT of China. Machine tools, referred to as "Mother Machines,"is a key industry that guides the competitiveness of each country by influencing the precision and quality of all industries ranging from basic to high-tech. Prominent integration of the machine tools industry and information technology is noteworthy.
The Korean machine tools industry began at the hands of the Japanese imperial invaders in a demand-supply approach with a humble domestic handicraft industry in South Korea and an infant heavy industry in North Korea, but the Korean War destroyed them both. The industry came back to life in the late 1950s. There were 25 occupational high schools as regular manpower educational institutions, but only Gyeonggi Occupational High School, which introduced American occupational educational programs with the aid of the United Nations, had sufficient educational facilities. It was in the 1960s under the Park Chung Hee government's strategy to promote industry that a German occupational education system was introduced in Incheon and Busan -- the Incheon Korean-German Occupational Training Institution and the Busan Korean-German Occupational Training Institution. Factories deserted by the Japanese in Seoul, Incheon, Daegu, Busan and Gwangju and start-up factories run by Koreans sharing technology with the Japanese resumed operations during and after the Korean War.
Hwacheon was launched as Korea's representative machine tools company in Gwangju, Jeollanam-do in 1952. It was in 1958 that the company developed a belt-type lathe with its own technology, becoming the nation's first machine tool. Hwacheon unveiled the nation's first numerically controlled lathe during the first Korean machine tool show in June 1977 to open a new chapter in the production of high-tech lathes. In other words, it meant that manual machines evolved into high-performance, high-speed, high-precision analog or mechanically-controlled power machines, which have again evolved into digitally-controlled NC machines with such functions as high-speed movement control, multi-tasking capabilities, etc.
The domestic machine tools industry saw 4.15 trillion won worth of production and US$1.8 billion worth of exports last year to rank fifth, sixth and seventh in the world in terms of production, exports and imports, respectively. Japan took the lead in terms of production, followed by Germany, China and Italy, while Germany topped the list for exports, followed by Japan, Italy, Taiwan and Switzerland. In particular, the United States placed seventh in terms of both production and exports.
Foreign powerhouses get bigger and more specialized through M&As, and consumers tend to favor parts makers with excellent technology and reliability. World-class companies step up global outsourcing, jointly develop common core machinery parts and pursue such technological integration as the combination of machinery parts and new material technologies, mechatronics and the incorporation of machinery parts, bio and optical fields.
Unfortunately, Korea depends too much on advanced foreign countries for the development of core parts and systems. The nation has to concentrate on such things as mechanical modules, multi-actuators, multi-sensors and intelligent-controlled machinery to meet consumer-specific demands, ensure the reliability of the production process and promote machinery capable of self-learning and self-calibration.
Building up the industry's software and hardware manufacturing infrastructure is essential. Futuristic machine tools will involve information, telecommunications and control technology, new manufacturing process technology, new concept machines and systems, high-performance peripheral devices and chucking systems, high-speed, high quality and process stability. nw

By Namkoong Chai-kwan,
Seoul National University
of Technology

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