TECH TIPS: Running 24/7 lights out manufacturing

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Thanks to advancements in technologies, automation now incorporates a very flexible realm of products that can aid in increasing productivity on any shop floor. PHOTO courtesy Okuma.

By Luke Lofland

Once proven efficient and effective, industry trends and technologies that start with larger manufacturing companies often find their way into the smaller job shops. Machine tool automation systems are doing just that – and at an adoption rate faster than ever.

However, when looking to evaluate automation systems, machine shop owners and management often envision a complicated puzzle. On the contrary, using larger manufacturers as influential case studies, there are several key takeaways job shops can mimic to successfully move to operating with automation systems – even to the extent of lights out manufacturing.

Let’s walk through a high-level look at making a case for automation systems within your machine shop.

Machine shop management may view automation as only being suitable for very high-volume manufacturing and not for the variable environment of high-mix, low-volume jobs that they find themselves making daily. However, with advancements in technologies, automation incorporates a very flexible realm of products that can aid in increasing productivity on any shop floor.

So, at what point should your shop begin to evaluate automation as a viable solution to solving problems or enhancing processes on the floor? Here are a few scenarios that may tip the scale toward starting a conversation with your machine tool provider about an automation-adoption strategy:

  • Evaluate the tasks currently being performed by humans within your production processes. Are these repetitive, dangerous, or costly to perform? If so, there may be an automation system that can aid and even improve the task.
  • Inventory the automation options available for the machines currently in use by your facility. You may be surprised to learn that some form of automation, from simplistic bar feeders to automatic pallet changers to more sophisticated industrial robots, is compatible with most machine tool categories.
  • Are you currently running machine monitoring software that is showing inefficiencies within the manufacturing process that you feel an automation system could potentially bridge the gap and improve?
  • If the current state of the labor shortage is affecting your day-to-day productivity, automation systems and products can be used to level-set your shop’s activities.

The Human Element of Machine Shop Automation

Automation is somewhat of a hot topic within the industry, as it often bears the sentiment of replacing the human element within a job setting. However, automation is never a true replacement or alternative for highly skilled people and, if used correctly, is actually a viable way to amplify and support these individuals at machine shops of any size.

Quite simply, highly knowledgeable individuals cannot be replaced due to the value they bring to the machining process. Unfortunately, people with these characteristics often participate in repetitive, low-value tasks instead of the higher-value tasks that drive business – and profitability – forward. Machine shops should look to see how automation systems can overtake those monotonous, low-value processes and, in turn, place skilled individuals in activities where their minds are being fully challenged.

It’s important to use these employees to not only set up and manage higher-value tasks, machine monitoring software, and even the automation systems themselves but also to harness their skill set to improve processes and make your shop floor a more productive and efficient environment in which all employees thrive.

Increasing Unattended Machining and Making the Shift to Lights Out Machining

By directing the energy of your skilled machinists to the more complicated, higher-touch tasks and utilizing automation systems for the less sophisticated processes, your shop will see an uptick in productivity. The use of unmanned machining will also more than likely start to grow. And as the interactions between humans and automation become more of a comfort zone, this may present a strong business case for lights out manufacturing.

Known by multiple naming conventions such as 24/7 manufacturing or dark factory, this philosophy is the utilization of untapped resources (machine tools) during typical downtimes of operations (nighttime) that are fully automated and require little to no human presence on-site to operate. Oftentimes, machine shops move to lights out manufacturing once the automation system(s) in place proves reliable during the daytime hours while humans are present. That trust is then transferred to the nighttime unmanned hours.

More machine and job shops are turning to lights out manufacturing philosophy due to the understanding that a continuous-improvement model is required to stay competitive. When evaluating lights out manufacturing, you may learn that the most profitable span of time can be when no one is physically located at the shop, yet your machine tools continue to run.

How Automation Benefits Machine Shops of Any Size

The expected cost savings and increased profit margins are pushing shops to adopt automation. What are some of the tangible and financial benefits of adopting a wide range of automation from entry-level to fully running lights out?

  • Efficiency improvements: Tackle more work and increase machining hours without adding to your overhead expenses or cost of labor.
  • Increase intake of job opportunities: Take on additional work to be manufactured during traditional non-operational work hours.
  • Reduce lead times: Manufacturers can deliver quicker due to the extra hours of fully automated manufacturing.
  • Scrap reduction: Removing the human element in the process will provide greater consistency and reduce the introduction of errors.
  • Energy conservation: Utilities such as lighting or HVAC requirements can be minimized or eliminated.
  • Reduced accidents: Automation system(s) reduce the potential for injury and increase workplace safety.

Who Can Help My Shop Move Forward With Purchasing and Implementing Automation?

As mentioned, automation encompasses a wide array of product solution sets that range in their compatibility with different machine tools by category and even OEM. While price points and benefits of automation are very attractive, your shop will more than likely look to the advice of a local distributor on the correct automation system that is perfect for your application, as well as provide aid in the integration process.

At Okuma, we believe in being there for your shop during the entire process. Even before you begin the automation conversation with our team of experts, we have been working behind the scenes for decades with members of Partners in THINC, as well as other third-party suppliers, to ensure full harmony with our high-quality machine tools. So, when you are ready to execute an automation strategy, our team of trained automation professionals will be available to walk you through the process.

Hold Your Machine Tool Accountable for Your Profitability

Machine tool automation does not have to be complex. The trend toward investing in automation produces benefits of higher quality, reduced cost and labor, increased safety, and overall improved efficiency – and potentially consistent 24/7 production.

Luke Lofland is a Regional Sales Manager with Okuma.

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