ASK THE EXPERT: Makino’s Craig Voss on automotive part production challenges for job shops – PART II

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The light-vehicle market shift to electric will bring profound change in componentry. Yet many components will remain the same. How can job shops best meet the challenges and opportunities of this intermediate “twin path” stage? In PART II of our two-part ASK THE EXPERT series, Makino’s Craig Voss addresses how automotive parts suppliers should be dealing with machining new alloys and the expanding role of automation.

SHOP: High strength aluminum alloys are growing in automotive use. What challenges do these alloys present for machining and how can those challenges best be addressed?

VOSS: In order for a die cast type material to be used in a structural application, it needs a little more ductility than we see in some of the typical aluminums. So they’re alloying different elements that allow for that ductility and what that’s leading to is different challenges in the machining. One of those is stringy chips. Typically a die cast aluminum part would chip very easily with no issues but with the new alloys required there are more stringy chips coming off tools. Those pose all kinds of problems for the tooling, the machine, evacuation, and chip conveyors. On that front I would say Makino is ahead of that curve already with some technology on the controls that can be put on many of our machines and that is called GI Breaker. It allows us to process a part and by using this function eliminate those strings and create the small chips that the chip conveyor will handle very well. In the past this was handled by peck drilling, which is very slow, inefficient, and hard on the machine. We’ve taken that to the next level. When you watch a GI Breaker cycle and a normal drilling cycle you really will see virtually no difference. It’s literally milliseconds difference in time but it eliminates these problems.

On the aluminum side there will definitely be some changes with all the structural parts. That will likely drive tooling technology as well. It’s not just the machine side. The tooling technology around all these parts is also going to evolve to find the most efficient ways to process these parts. If we go back several years, we were seeing lots of different designs for the very early EVs. What has happened is that some of those designs have evolved. Some of those designs were using a lot of extrusions because of the cost factor. For lower volumes an extrusion and maybe a weldment made of several extrusions made sense from a price standpoint. Once we get into larger volumes, we are seeing all those parts are moving towards castings, higher volume production methods and I think what you’re going to see is the designs evolve around the manufacturing methods. The goal is always to cost down. Tesla is already there in terms of providing lower cost vehicles in order to grow that market. With that the price point has to come down. If they can find ways to change designs so that they fit current manufacturing methods a little better, it’s going to be a lower price point. If you can build faster and more efficiently that will lower the price point. That’s what I think we are seeing the beginning of right now and that’s going to continue for a while.

SHOP: What role can automation play in helping meet that challenge?

VOSS: Automation will definitely be a part of that all over the world and especially in North America. Here we have some of the highest labor rates in the world so obviously you want to minimize your labor costs. That is usually the first ask, reducing manpower. But the point that doesn’t get considered as often as it should be is the impact of efficiency. We see customers running older vertical equipment with running efficiency in the 50% range. That’s not where you want and need to be. Anything you can do to increase efficiency with the equipment you already have is going to keep you from needing to invest in more equipment and operators. This should be the initial focus: how to increase efficiency to the point where you can hit 85-90%. The biggest bang for your buck is taking very low efficiency processes and bumping up the efficiency and that’s exactly what certain types of automation can do for you.

SHOP: Looking at machine tending, when does it make sense for manufacturers to consider adopting such automation and what benefits does it provide?

VOSS: I assume you mean part handling automation with a robot loading a part. The first decision to be made is what type of automation. We break it down into two general categories: part handling automation vs pallet handling automation. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.

Part handling automation we see as better suited toward low-mix parts that are very high volume. If you’re making 500,000 of one part type, that is ideal for part handling type automation and that’s usually where we would start. We already see that in the ICE market parts with lots of part handling automation based around systems basically dedicated to a part. With that said, the type of equipment we use is agile and it can be adapted for the future, whether it’s part changes or a new variant of a part. We perform retools on our older equipment when a manufacturer has a new part or a modified part. It can be the best of both worlds in some cases where you have a bit of flexibility, but you also have very efficient automation to keep your spindle turning 85-90% of the time.

Pallet handling systems have their place as well. When you have a high mix of very different part types that you run at lower volumes, that’s one of the biggest challenges. That’s what a lot of those small shops are doing. They don’t have the 500,000 annual volumes for a part. They have 10,000 and less. We have customers who make hundreds of different part types, and they make them in quantities of  500 to 5000 annually. Pallet handling systems, like our MMC2 systems, allow them to run those parts extremely efficiently. They can have two work set stations with two operators dedicated to just loading production parts and those two work set stations can be feeding five or six machines. And then at the same time have a third work set station where you have a job set up technician setting up for the next job. So it’s completely seamless. When done running Part A you can immediately start running Part B because it’s set up and ready to go. All the fixtures and unique tooling is housed in the machine, so nothing needs to be swapped into the machine. It’s all ready to go. Those smaller shops that’s what we see a lot of. They make a move into pallet changer machine and are doing much better. And then they have the challenge of all the different part types they have to make so then the next logical step is to put in a pallet handling system. It’s not unusual to see efficiencies of 85-90%.

SHOP: For shops that have yet to adopt any kind of machine tending, where’s the best place to start?

VOSS: We need to circle back to efficiency. It obviously depends on what the starting point is with any customer and where they are on their journey but with a lot of the customers we see they’re running single pallet vertical equipment and manually loading. So your loading time becomes a big part of your process and your spindle is not turning. You have to rely on operators showing up every day and reliably loading those parts consistently, which usually results in a pretty low efficiency. It’s not always about robots. Sometimes, it can be as simple as moving a process from a single pallet vertical to a pallet changing horizontal. The pallet changer itself becomes a form of automation. It’s going to swap that pallet around, it’s going to allow the operator to load while the other part is being machined in the work zone and right there your production numbers can grow drastically. That’s the simplest way. People see the big automated systems and while that is where you may want to be that’s not necessarily where you need to start. If you want to go and automate everything in your plant all at once, the learning curve will be very large. I think the simpler the better from a starting point. It doesn’t take much in some cases to improve efficiency drastically and then as you learn and grow you get to the robots and part tending.

SHOP: Looking at process automation, which processes best lend themselves to this kind of automation?

VOSS: Sometimes the decision comes down to process length. That will lead you toward what’s the best process to automate. When we see longer pallet times in the machine, those are cases where a single pallet handling system allows manufacturers to load up the system with pallets that are ready to go so they can have unattended run time. Maybe they operate one or two shifts a day and they can load up enough material on pallets ready to be machined and let the machines go overnight unattended. If you have a part with a quicker pallet time, then maybe you want to go with some part tending automation. 

SHOP: What should shops consider when they are evaluating providers of automated machining systems?  

VOSS: You need a supplier who will support and service the equipment. With Makino, you have a single source supplier. We not only provide the equipment, we are going to help you set it up, help you get it running, help you optimize it, and we are a phone call away and can be on site with you when things don’t go as planned. There are a lot of manufacturers who market a lot of shiny new equipment but have very little on the other end to support it. The key is getting your personnel trained, having support when you need it, and you definitely need a partner. You need someone who will be there by your side because there is a learning curve with automation. We have customers who have been with us for 10-15 years and we are still going back in and helping them modify their automated systems to accept a new cylinder head or a new part.

The manufacturers themselves have to be committed too. The ones that do the best with automation are the ones who commit to growing some of their internal resources. On the machining side you have to have process engineers and technicians who can program and maintain the machines. Grow an automation team that can support the basics of the equipment.

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