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Think automation isn’t for you? Think again.

by Mary Scianna

If you’re reading this article, then you must have some interest in automation.

Still, others may think “automation again? It’s not suitable for my shop.”

February’s premier issue Shop Metalworking Technology Magazine addressed automation for the welding and fabricating sectors. Not surprisingly, some of the topics discussed in the those articles also apply to machining applications. Most important is the idea of automation as an essential competitive tool that all North American manufacturers should be implementing in their operations.

“If you’re not taking labour out of the equation, you won’t be around for long,” says Vince D’Alessio, vice president of Elliott Matsuura Canada, Oakville, ON. “The word ‘automation’ makes people nervous because they think it means spending a lot of money, but it can be as simple as adding a probe in your machine tool or a bar feeder on your turning machine. It’s simply having machines do more operations automatically and taking labour out of the equation.”

There are very few shops that wouldn’t benefit from some level of automation. That’s because, according to suppliers Shop Metalworking Technology spoke with, automation has a broad definition and can range from a simple load/unload unit on a machine to a full manufacturing cell with robotics.

“There are many levels of automation and a broad spectrum of products and systems from simple machine tending to complex gantry style automated cells,” says Mark Rentschler, marketing manager, Makino, Mason, ON. “Then there are automated systems occurring within the machining centres like probing, macro programming, and tool monitoring systems.” 

The many levels of automation combined with a growing trend toward more user-friendly systems is making automation more accessible today to small and medium sized manufacturers and job shops. 

“We see a lot of job shops these days that invest in automation,” says Eike Huebner, manager director, North America – DMG American Inc., Hoffman Estates, IL, who oversees DMG Canada. “We see five axis machines with pallet changers and some shops even have multi-level pallet systems, but they’re fully flexible. It’s not that they produce one part 200,000 times a year; they produce multiple parts in smaller batches. Automation systems and controls today are capable of producing one offs.”

Indeed, as D’Alessio notes, “automation is not a one-thing-fits-all type of process. It’s application specific so the automation you’ll need for a shop making batches of 20 or 30 parts will be different from the shop making batches of 250,000 widgets.”

Most importantly, automation is the key to North American manufacturing success, says Mike Kerscher, product manager for machining centres for Mazak Corp., Florence, KY.

“Automation is what makes manufacturing in North America strong. We’re good at it and we do it better than any place in the world. We make things and can get them to customers with one or two days; this doesn’t happen in India or China. Manufacturers in those countries can’t be as responsive as we are to customer demands. Good companies in North America are learning to survive against foreign companies with automation and it’s a critical advantage.”

Elliott Matsuura

Makino

Mazak

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