The unexpected benefits of automating your machining processes

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For many small job shops taking that leap of faith into automation can seem daunting. And yet it's critical. PHOTO courtesy Okuma.

Over the next decade, it’s estimated that there will be more than 3.5 million manufacturing jobs that will become available but a staggering 2.5 million may go unfilled due to the continent-wide skills gap. Industry leaders, fearing this skills shortage will impact their future ability to do business, are increasingly turning to automation to alleviate that shortage by automating some of the more mundane manufacturing tasks.

Since 2010, the global stock of industrial robots has more than doubled, and innovations in engineering and machine learning portend an accelerated adoption of robots in coming years. The global stock of robots, which currently stands at about 3 million worldwide, is expected to grow exponentially in the next 20 years, reaching as many as 20 million by 2030, according to the Oxford Economics think tank.

If you’re a small job shop owner, like most of the readers of our magazine, you’ve likely been battling the talent crunch at your own shop the last few years. Perhaps you’ve also had a chance to experiment with what automation can do with some successful pilots and experiments but have yet to move from pilot to large-scale implementation. You’re not alone. For many small job shops taking that leap of faith into automation can seem daunting. 

The lost time from manual loading of parts adds up throughout the day. Automation makes for much more efficient production. IMAGE: Okuma

Mike Cicco, president and CEO of FANUC America Corporation, one of the largest robot builders in the world, acknowledges as much. Speaking to an audience of seemingly enthusiastic job shop owners at Mazak’s latest DISCOVER event held at its North American headquarters in Florence, Ky., Cicco got very real with his comments.

“I see a lot of people nodding their heads like automation sounds pretty good. And then in the back of your head, you’re like ‘yeah, but I’m still not going to do it,’” Cicco said.

For many Canadian job shop owners Cicco was cutting very close to the truth. Canada ranks near the bottom of the top 20 manufacturing nations in terms of robot density. It’s ranked as 17th by the International Federation of Robotics with a robot density of 198 robots installed per 10,000 employees. It lags behind countries such as Belgium, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark and even Slovenia. And it ranks considerably behind its major trading partner, the US, which is ranked 10th overall with a robot density of 285. Many Canadian job shops complain of competition from China, but Chinese manufacturing has a robot density of 392, good for 5th place on the robot density list. Korea tops the list with an incredible robot density of 1,012 robots installed per 10,000 employees – more than five times Canada’s robot density.

Particularly worrisome is that Canadian business investment per worker has plummeted by 20% over a 15-year stretch, according to recently released Statistics Canada research and that decline is in part to blame for why Canadian manufacturing is struggling to increase labor productivity, particularly among small and medium-sized businesses.

Unfortunately, even for those willing to test the water with pilot automation projects, that doesn’t move the needle on company performance like a full commitment to automation does.

“I want to tell you the biggest hangup is just not doing it in the first place. Just do it. Just make the investment and I promise you, once you do it you’re going to do it more.” was Cicco’s straight advice before adding: “You’re going to find a benefit that you didn’t recognize…A lot of times people make the decision to automate for a certain reason, such as they can’t find people, and once they do automate they start to get a bunch of benefits they didn’t realize they were going to get.” 

In fact, it’s those perhaps unexpected benefits that when added together should help seal the deal on automation. Cicco outlined what these benefits include for job shops wary of taking that leap of faith:

CONSISTENCY:Cicco points to an inconsistency in how many job shops operate that doesn’t make sense: Machinists work damn hard to take milliseconds out of machining time, but when it comes to the loading and unloading of parts into the machine they don’t seem to care so much about the consistency of the time involved. Yet the lost time from manual loading of parts adds up throughout the day.  Automation ensures a consistent cycle time and a consistent load and unload time.

“That robot will move per millisecond exactly the same, every single time, all day long. The millisecond that the machine is done, and the doors open, the robot is going in to change the part. The millisecond that the robot is out of the way the door is closing and the machine is starting,” Cicco says.

Cicco says he often hears job shop owners who have automated say things such as “I didn’t think that we could consistently get 100 parts out of that machine every day” or “I was wondering why my part production fluctuated so much.” When you start to automate, you can get very predictable, he says.

QUALITY: Quality assurance is an area of growing importance, and therefore differentiation, for many industries. Cicco says automation comes with quality assurance checks that can be built in. 

“Now that the robot has the part, while the next machining process is going on, the robot
 itself can bring it over to some device and take some measurement whether it’s with a camera or a CMM or some other measurement device.
You can automate that process as well,” Cicco says. So now you can offer your end customers 100% quality checks on the parts that you make.”

He adds that the precision robots provide also virtually eliminates any sort of misload. Robots are accurate down to tenths of millimeters, so automatic loading is much more accurate than manual loading.

EFFICIENCY: Multiple machines can be hooked up to one robot to boost production efficiency. 

“You can configure the machines so the robot is going in through side or back doors, so it keeps the front of the machine open for some manual operations if needed. This is a really highly efficient way to bring different operations with various machining capabilities together with one robot,” Cicco says.

SAFETY: As shops come to machine increasingly larger and heavier parts, operator safety becomes an important consideration, particularly for operations that require the loading and unloading of heavy parts all day long. While the types of workplace injuries vary, physical overexertion is the most costly for employers. Physical overexertion and handling heavy and/or cumbersome parts is not a good combination. Using cranes or riggers to move parts is safer, but also expensive. Cicco says using robots to move heavy parts is a more cost-effective strategy. Newer robotic technology can better manage bulky, oddly shaped, or inconsistently sized items, thanks to improved sensor technology and AI.

“Right now, we have a FANUC robot that can pick up 5,000 lbs, and there’s nothing special about it. It’s a standard robot,” he says. SMT

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