Set Up for Successful Machining

By Kip Hanson

Quick-change toolholders that reduce the time needed to change cutting tools from minutes to seconds. Quick-change workholding that lets shops slap on a new fixture or vise with the push of a button. Offline presetters, spindle probing systems, pallet changers — there’s a wide variety of accessories out there that make shops more competitive and able to meet rapidly changing customer demands. But there are also plenty of steps you can take to reduce setup times and make throughput more predictable, and do so without spending a dime.

Much of it comes down to organization. Without it, your shop can spend millions on new manufacturing technology and the return on investment will be minimal. That’s because organization is the key to shop floor efficiency, whether you work in a flower shop, an auto repair shop, or a machine shop that makes precision medical components (all of which will eventually fail unless well-organized).

Start with tooling. American founding father Benjamin Franklin once famously said, “A place for everything, and everything in its place.” The President of Pennsylvania wasn’t talking about CNC machining, but his words apply just as well here as they did in the laboratory where Ben invented bifocals and the lightning rod.

Take a look at your tooling. Is it organized? Not just the tooling in the crib (you do have a tool crib, right?), but the tooling that’s actually in the machines. For example, some shops have drastically reduced setup times, tooling costs, and unexpected downtime by establishing a series of standardized tooling sets, and then defining the various machine tools not so much by their axis travels and spindle speeds as by the tooling set they contain. The more daring of those shops have even gone so far as to reject work that doesn’t fit neatly within these tooling sets.

When a new job comes along, it gets routed to whatever machine has the requisite tooling. There’s no walking to the tool crib or scrounging in toolboxes, no need to touch-off cutting tools, or enter offset information. The standard toolholders, inserts, and cutter bodies for each tooling set are predefined in the computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) system, greatly simplifying the programming process. In these instances, setup is often a matter of dropping the material into the machine, calling up the correct program, and (assuming you’ve verified the toolpaths using simulation software) hitting cycle start.

The same holds true for workholding. Whether you prefer ball-lock or zero-point, snap-in jaws or pin-lock systems, your shop needs to investigate and adopt a quick-change workholding strategy, then measure it (or download its dimensions), model it in your CAM system, and apply this strategy to all the machines in the shop. It takes a little time and effort, but is one of the most effective ways to increase machining competitiveness.