Unattended machining is the Holy Grail for shops of all sizes. The question is, how to go about it?

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By Kip Hanson

Ask any shop owner to name their biggest beefs and there at the top of the list will be the inevitable, “We can’t find people.” This sad statement more than anything is the driving factor behind the increased call for automation in recent years, but even before that, machine shops and sheet metal fabricators were looking for ways to gain those two shifts (more, if you include weekends) of so-called “free” production. 

It’s a lofty goal, to be sure. So where do we start? The answer depends on the type of work you’re doing. A sheet metal shop with a spare million or so can invest in a fiber laser and tower system and cut parts until the cows come home. A similar tale can be told for a machine shop with the cash and floor space needed for a few horizontal machining centres served by a linear pallet system, or a self-contained, drawer-fed robotic machining centre or multitasking cells. I’ve spoken with dozens of shops that have turned such late-night shop owner fantasies into reality, always with excellent results. 

Still, each of those is a big ask. How many shops have that kind of credit limit or available cash to climb such a technology mountain? Also, wouldn’t it be better to walk before attempting to run? Of course it would, which is why it’s critical to focus on all the other stuff that shops should be doing before turning off the lights.

I’ll tick off some of my favorite productivity-boosting go-to technologies. Ready?

Start by reducing setup times. For machine shops, this means quick-change toolholders, zero-point workholding, offline tool presetting, and toolpath simulation software. Sheet metal shops have similar tools available to them. It also means studying the setup process and removing wasted motion. This step is as important as the investment in new tooling, and best of all, is free. 

Then develop a robust tool crib strategy, one with a tool management system (TMS) at the helm and smart cabinets that know what’s coming and going, where it went, and who took it. Ditch the side-lock holders that the shop owner started with two decades ago, buy some shrink-fit, hydraulic, or mechanical toolholders, then start balancing them. Your tool life and machine spindles will thank you. 

A Lean practitioner will tell you this all falls under continuous improvement. She’s right. Unless a shop is always on the lookout for ways to trim fat, no amount of investment in new technology will bring the desired results. And that brings us to the most important precursor to unattended manufacturing, and here again, it doesn’t cost a fortune to acquire: productive yet predictable processes. 

Don’t settle for “good enough” or “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” On the flip side, don’t push your tools to the breaking point or aim for the shortest cycle time possible. Use a scientific method to find the balance between tool life and cycle time, but always with an eye towards predictability. Then and only then will it be possible to go home at night, sleep soundly, and come in the next morning to green lights and big stacks of high-quality parts. SMT

Kip Hanson

Technical Editor Kip Hanson has more than 40 years experience in the manufacturing industry. He is the author of Machining for Dummies and Fabricating for Dummies, and has written over 1500 articles (and counting) on a diverse range of topics, among them machining, sheet metal fabrication, 3D printing, automation, software systems, Industry 4.0, and the Industrial Internet of Things.

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