In today’s fast-paced manufacturing environment, automation has become a crucial aspect of CNC machining. Done well, CNC automation can revolutionise your factory operations and optimize its efficiency.
However, incorporating automation into CNC machining can be a complex and challenging process. It often requires careful planning and implementation to ensure success.
When it comes to automating your CNC machine tools, it is essential to consider various factors and to have a well-thought-out strategy in place. The big question isn’t whether to automate, but rather what and how to automate effectively.
What is CNC Automation?
CNC automation transforms how CNC machine tools are used in the production process. By reducing human intervention, it increases your shop floor productivity, reduces costs, improves your working environment, and strengthens the overall quality of your products.
The first aspect of CNC automation is the transfer of workpieces or pallets through the manufacturing process. This involves moving them from one machine tool to another or to supportive devices like washing stations or measuring cells. By doing so, you can streamline your manufacturing process to make it smoother and more efficient, while utilising today’s down-time to increase production.
Another key aspect of CNC automation is the management of information and data. This includes updating production execution plans, optimising resource utilisation and prioritising production orders. Doing so reduces errors and improves overall quality.
What to Automate in CNC Machining
Thinking of what you should automate in your CNC machining process? Typically, CNC automation is broken down into two main components: the physical movement of items, and the streamlining of production planning and management.
#1 Automating Physical Movements
First, consider how you can deploy automated hardware to assist in physical movement and operations on your shop floor. Some of these activities include:
- Transfers of parts which are mounted on pallets or work holding devices to and from the machine worktable.
- Automated parts loading and unloading with the help of robots or mechanical arms onto fixtures.
- Direct transferring workpieces to the machine table or chuck
- Automated tool adjustments or changes
- Gripper and tool changes in robots
- Tool transfers to tool magazines
- Workpiece movements to and from processes like deburring, washing, heat treatment, marking, polishing, and measuring.
- Raw material management and transfers
- Semi-finished product management and transfers
- Easy transfer to measuring systems
The most important benefit in automating these tedious and laborious tasks lies in creating a better work environment for your machine operators. Beyond staff welfare, automation helps to reduce errors, improve speed and efficiency, strengthen part quality, and raise production capacity.
#2 Automated Production Planning
Next, consider how you can deploy automation to streamline your production planning process. There are several aspects to consider here.
a) Information Flows
Automate how information flows between your different data systems, machinery, and cells. This keeps your systems in sync, reducing the chance of errors while improving efficiency.
b) Dynamic Production Planning
Automation helps you to proactively update your production plan based on production orders and their priorities. Orders can be automatically fetched from an ERP system, reducing manual inputs. This ensures that production always runs smoothly with orders fulfilled on time.
c) Improved Machine Operator Guidance
Adequate levels of guidance can be provided to operators. This helps them to take the right actions at the right time, minimising human errors and making the production process easier for operators.
d) Consistent Production Handling
With automation, workpiece manufacturing instructions can be handled consistently. Each production run can be kept constant, with quality maintained.
e) Proactive Resource Management
Improved resource management is another important dimension of automation. These may be anything from fixtures, pallets, grippers, raw materials, to NC-programs, cutting tools, tool data, and off-sets. By monitoring your machining resources and providing reports on any missing resources, production will not be impacted by resource shortages.
f) Monitor Machine and Production KPIs
Automation helps you to better manage the reporting and analytics of machine and production KPIs, such as their utilisation, Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), and availability. The system also provides order progress views, making it easier to track the progress of each order while ensuring that production runs smoothly. You can also gain better visibility over your inventory and work-in-progress jobs.
g) Trace Production History
Finally, the right automation system helps you to record your production history and traceability. This helps to provide a clear picture of what has happened during each production run, making it easier to identify and resolve any issues.
When to Automate Your CNC Machining Operations
Here are some key considerations for manufacturing companies like yours to determine when it might be time to automate your CNC machine operations:
#1 High Workload
When the workload of your CNC machines has increased to the point where manual operations become overly time-consuming or inefficient, automation may be a solution.
#2 Rising Labour Costs
If your staff costs like wages and employee benefits have become too high, you should consider tapping on automation to reduce costs.
#3 Better Quality Control
Automation can help ensure consistent quality by eliminating the potential for human error in your CNC machining operations.
#4 Improve Production Capacity
Are you looking to increase your production capacity and throughput? Automation can help to increase production efficiency by reducing downtime, increasing machine utilisation, and reducing cycle times. Leveraging current downtimes for production purposes can yield significant advantages.
#5 Better Equipment Maintenance
Automation can help to reduce the repair and maintenance costs associated with CNC machines, as well as improve their longevity and performance. (Download our checklist to improve CNC machine maintenance here.)
#6 Strengthen Competitive Advantage
To stay ahead of your competition and be the first to market, you need to invest in the right CNC automation technology. This also allows you to stay abreast of the latest trend towards automation in the manufacturing sector.
Automating CNC machine operations can bring many benefits to manufacturing companies, including increased efficiency, reduced costs, improved quality control, and better competitive advantage.
By carefully considering the above factors, you can determine when it might be time to automate your CNC machine operations.
Benefits of CNC Automation
Should you invest time and money in automating your CNC machining processes? Consider these benefits.
#1 Enhanced Part Precision
Automated part handling results in consistent accuracy. With the right measuring systems in each CNC machine, you can accurately find each part reference point and adjust the CNC programmes accordingly.
#2 Shorter Lead Time
By constantly keeping your production running with unmanned operations, you can enjoy shorter lead times. The flexibility to produce parts on demand enables you to achieve fast turnover times for urgent orders.
#3 Reduced Setup Time
With less manpower required for individual machine operations, part handling and setup is done at designated loading/unloading stations without any disruption to the production line.
#4 Decreased Cycle Time
Operations can be synchronised in overlapping runs, allowing two or more different machines to perform operations simultaneously.
#5 Lower Cost per Part
Enjoy significant cost savings from transitioning to 24/7 operation, as well as reduced downtime and shorter loading/unloading processes.
#6 Space Savings
Consolidating machining operations with automated solutions leads to less floor space being used.
#7 Unmanned Operation
Reduce your manpower costs as a single system can be managed by a single operator.
#8 Improved Machine Monitoring
Reports on machine efficiency can be received and the system can be monitored remotely, even during overnight hours.
#9 Simplified Fixtures
Save your production costs by eliminating complex fixtures.
#10 Efficient Tool Usage
Automation helps you to save on tooling costs by eliminating tooling redundancy.
#11 Increase Worker Safety
The work environment is made safer, especially for the movement of heavy workpieces.
CNC Automation Challenges and Solutions
What are the major challenges in automating your CNC machining jobs and how can you solve them?
Let us look at these CNC automation challenges and solutions here.
Challenge 1: Need to Increase Production Capacity
Every company wants to increase its production capacity, business volume, and profits. Manufacturing orders are often smaller batch orders, which require machinery and operations to be flexible.
To address this, companies can incorporate smart planning and utilize non-productive times, such as breaks and overnight operations, to make more efficient use of machines and manpower. This results in faster production cycles and more cost-effective operations.
Additionally, using production techniques like High Mix – Low Volume production can be helpful.
Challenge 2: Factory Space and Ceiling Height Restrictions
With the scarcity of land in urban areas, more machining facilities are located in high-rise buildings. Such factories face space limitations due to both the available floor space and the height of the ceilings.
This is further complicated by the need to lift machines and equipment from ground level to the second or third floors or even higher levels. Unfortunately, this can be expensive, often requiring two cranes. Passage may also be impeded by walls blocking access to the factory. Breaking down these walls to access the factory requires approval and subsequent rebuilding.
To address these challenges, an integrated CNC machine set-up with multiple smaller work pieces can be a viable solution.
Challenge 3: Limited Power and Air Supply
When a factory has more machining centres, it requires more air, which means expensive air compressors with higher capacity must be purchased and placed near the machines. Additionally, energy costs have increased significantly since Covid-19. If there is a limitation in power and air supply, it can be very costly to increase the existing factory’s power supply level.
However, if a factory uses fewer machines, it can reduce its investment and overhead costs. To address these challenges, consider a CNC machining set-up that can cater to more machining hours while using limited energy consumption.
Challenge 4: Manpower Constraints
There is a global phenomenon of a shortage of available manpower, which has also affected companies in Asia and Singapore. Due to various reasons, such as constraints on recruitment and lack of experience for specific jobs, local manpower is not sufficiently available. This shortage has led to rising costs for companies.
To address this challenge, consider implementing flexible CNC automation systems that can reduce the need for manpower.
Solutions: Flexible Universal CNC Machines with Automation Systems
The best way to improve manufacturing productivity and reduce human labour is to invest in flexible and universal CNC machines with effective and cost-efficient automation systems.
An example of such universal CNC machines is the Hwacheon 5-Axis Machining Center D2-5AX. You may also consider the bigger D3-5AX with AWC 20 (Automatic Workpiece Changer) that allows for multiple and individual work setup stations.
With a workpiece capacity of multiple parts, which can be of the same kind or a mix of different parts, you can “mix-and-match” your CNC automation system to suit your unique shopfloor needs. Such systems are available in 8, 20 or even 40 station capacities. Note that the size of the workpiece magazine selected should be based on your estimated parts cycle times.
The number of parts loaded into the system as well as the cycle time for each individual part will define your CNC machine’s ability to work without human assistance. Typically, a 4-to-8-hour coverage is recommended to finish all parts loaded into the AWC magazine.
By integrating the Hwacheon 5-Axis Machining Center D2-5AX or D3-5AX with AWC 8, 20 or 40, manufacturing cycle times can be improved, resulting in shorter delivery schedules, ability to accept more orders, increased business volume and profit.
Other CNC machines with automation combinations include VESTA-660 / 1000+ with AWC (Automatic Workpiece Changer), VESTA 1300, M3-5AX, SIRIUS UM+ / UL+ with MPS (Multi Pallet System), CUTEX 180 series and Hi-TECH 230 series with Gantry System GR5 or GR10.
Yet another solution to improving manufacturing and logistics accuracy is to use robots. Robots can be added to any type of CNC machine, whether it’s a milling machine or a lathe/turning centre. However, whether robots are suitable depends on various factors, such as the shape, size, and weight of the parts to be produced, as well as the number of parts required. Note that robots are usually not suitable for “High Mix – Low Volume” production runs.
CNC machine automation provides numerous benefits to manufacturing companies. By automating your operations, your factory can achieve improved part accuracy, faster lead times, reduced setup times, shorter cycle times, lower costs per part, and a more efficient use of floor space and production time.
Additionally, with unattended operation and better monitoring systems, factories can minimise manpower costs and improve machine utilisation, leading to increased productivity and profitability. Automating CNC machines further helps to increase safety in the workplace, as it eliminates the need for manual handling of heavy workpieces.
Get started by asking yourself the big question – what and how to automate effectively? Contact us if you would like to discuss possibilities or answer any queries.