Automating Everything in Machining

By Kip Hanson

Shop-floor automation goes beyond a ready-to-serve fleet of droids. There are also automated pallet changers and flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) that allow machining centers to run unattended for hours or even days at a time; on the turning side of the shop, magazine-style bar feeders perform a similar function.

At its core, automation is all about one thing: eliminating waste. In the case of material handling systems, waste is measured as machine downtime, but many tools are available that can be used to kill various other forms of waste:

  • Waste in the estimating process: Automated quoting software can eliminate the tedious calculations needed to determine machining time and manufacturing costs.
  • Waste during programming: Semi-automated CAM systems, cloud-based tooling models, and toolpath simulation can help avoid crashes once the program has hit the shop floor.
  • Waste during machine setup: Automated probing systems and a tool crib can transmit presetter data directly (and automatically) to the machine control.
  • Waste on the shop floor: Waste that results from operators shoveling chips into a bin or sucking coolant out of a machine sump can be avoided by spending a few bucks on chip conveyors and suitable coolant management systems.

Additionally, there’s the waste of manual shop-floor data collection (eliminated with computers and barcode readers), waste caused by unexpected breakage of cutting tools (eliminated with tool-life management software and sound process control), waste of time spent measuring parts (eliminated with automated systems such as vision or coordinate measuring machines), waste in parts packaging . . . you get the idea.

Of course, robots and other material handling systems will always be the heavy hitters in any automated production environment, but it’s important to recognize that there’s more to the story than those electromechanical golems. Without supporting forms of automation, returns on investment in automated machine tools will be limited. The bottom line is this: Automation of any kind saves time (thus reducing waste). It’s automatic.