Keen to improve the productivity of your factory using a Flexible Manufacturing System? Wish to build your own flexible manufacturing solution with your CNC machine tools?

In this article, you will find out how these automated and semi-automated manufacturing solutions works, understand the benefits of flexible manufacturing, and learn five ways to build a flexible manufacturing solution using the right CNC Machine tools and technologies.

What are Flexible Manufacturing Systems?

A Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS) involves setting up a manufacturing system that allows some flexibility for it to be adapted for changes in manufacturing parts or processes. There are two types of flexibility in such systems: 

  • Routing flexibility which looks at changing the system’s ability to produce new parts or product types; and 
  • Machine flexibility which allows different machines to perform the same operation on a part.

In a part-manufacturing factory, an FMS may integrate two or more CNC machine tools, automated material handling as well as tool handling solutions. By doing so, an FMS has the flexibility to perform repeated yet varied operations or change the order of operations executed on a part using a predetermined schedule with minimal manual intervention.

A subset of an FMS is what we call a Flexible Manufacturing Cell (FMC) – this generally includes one machine and a pallet or other automated system to handle either materials or parts. Often such solutions are more common due to their lower initial investment and ongoing operational costs compared to using multiple CNC machines in a full-fledged FMS. 

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What Are the Benefits and Features of Flexible Manufacturing Systems or Cells?

Increasingly, more manufacturers opt for flexible solutions in their production facility. Like these manufacturers, you can enjoy multiple benefits should you choose to do so.

The first is the ability of these systems to identify and distinguish between the different parts processed by the system. This allows for a quick changeover of operation instructions as well as from one part to a different one during the making process.

Second, Flexible Manufacturing Systems (FMS) and Flexible Manufacturing Cells (FMCs) allow production lines to use 24/7 machining strategies. 

FMS and FMC-based facilities also ensures that your company can meet the challenges of “High Mix – Low Volume” production. Doing so helps you to utilize available resources like space and manpower more effectively. 

Flexible manufacturing also reduces nonproductive hours, when a machine needs to be loaded with a new part or material. 

Although flexible systems have been in place for many years in developed countries, their benefits have now made them increasing popular in lower-cost manufacturing countries. Such automation solutions significantly improve the productivity of machine operators – an important consideration given rising labour costs and skilled manpower scarcity.

With FMS and automation, you may need to hire more qualified operators to design, manage and run your production facility. However, these qualified operators will be more effective and productive – a win-win situation for company owner and employees.

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5 Features of Flexible CNC Manufacturing Systems with Automated Solutions

Today, a wide range of flexible manufacturing automation solutions are available for every need, space or budget. But what should these solutions for your CNC machining system have? 

Here are their five more important features.

#1 CNC Machine Tool Interchangeability & Flexibility

First, your manufacturing system should allow for either your workpieces or tools to be flexibly interchanged. 

You can use an Automatic Workpiece Changer (AWC) to allow different tools, located within the machines ATC (Automatic Tool Changer) to work on your various part. An example is the D2-5AX 5-Axis Machining Center from Hwacheon, which is available with an AWC with 8 or 20 station and with maximum 60 tool stations ATC. 

Alternatively, you can employ a Multi Pallet System (MPS) such as Hwacheon Multi Pallet (HMP) which is available in two pallet sizes – 400 x 400 mm or 500 x 500 mm pallets. These can be available for one or two machines with different setting levels as follows:

1 machine:    1 Tier / Level has 7 pallets

                        2 Tier / Levels has 14 pallets

                        3 Tier / Levels has 21 pallets

2 machines:   1 Tier / Level has 4 pallets

                        2 Tier / Levels has 8 pallets

                        3 Tier / Levels has 12 pallets

For each HMP system, a one set-up station is normally included at level one of your machine tool setting. Such multi pallet systems are available for the following Hwacheon CNC machine tools:

They are also available to work with any selected two machines with one HMP in the middle. This will be the version for two machines with a reduced number of pallets. You can also mix one 3-axis CNC machine with one 5-axis CNC machine if necessary.

Such systems are provided with the purchase of a Hwacheon machine and a Hwacheon Automation system.

#2 Consistent and Repeatable Machining Processes

The second feature of FMS and FMC solution is their ability to achieve consistent and repeatable production. They can be adjusted to better handle variations in High Mix – Low Volume productions such as modifications in process sequence, production volume changes, design changes and many other changes.

#3 Flexible Management of Tool & Fixture Settings

Thanks to their greater modularity, flexible and interchangeable tooling and fixtures can be set ahead of actual production. However, it is important for your CNC machine’s internal software to monitor the status of your tool – timely warning should be provided if your tool life is ending so that you can either change your tool manually or do so automatically using a “sister tool.”

Effective tool preparation is an important discipline in an FMS. Doing so allows you to organize your various fixtures with new raw material or parts in a timely, systematic and problem-free manner. By connecting and coordinating between your tooling and fixture departments, as well as the operators of the machines, you can design a better organized material flow and cutting tool management process. The timely allocation of fixtures, new material or parts as well as cutting tools also helps you to avoid downtime in your FMC / FMS system.

An example of a tool monitoring system is Hwacheon’s M-Vision. Developed and perfected from Hwacheon’s years of operating our own FMS systems in our factory, it can cater to a wide variety of FMS systems such as machining a wide selection of various casting parts or the high-volume production for automobile parts. What’s more, you can use Hwacheon M-Vision to monitor the status of single machines or multiple FMS/FMC arranged units.

#4 Common Programming Standards

To ensure inter-operability, you should consider the use of standardized available software so that your engineers and operators can access or share the same files. Having standard operating parameters and coding procedures ensures that the same tools can be used in the same way to product repeatable results. This also means that you should know the range of tools available and keep them in larger magazines in your machine.

Note: Do be mindful about having too large an ATC tool magazine – these are not only costly but may result in tools being kept for too long without proper maintenance. This could result in dirty tool holder tapers that negatively affect your spindle’s accuracy over time. To prevent this, ensure that you have a regular cleaning programme.

#5 Regular Preventive Maintenance

One of the best practices in flexible manufacturing is to include a regular preventive maintenance programme. 

Simple tasks like the regular cleaning of exposed moving mechanical parts, clearing of chips, and the checking of oil levels, coolant or airflow tend to be disregarded. In the long run, this will have a negative impact on your flexible machining processes and the reduce the overall efficiency of your machines and system. In short, clean, replenish and replace – you can enjoy more savings than the initial costs of your machines by ensuring their long term productivity and accuracy. 

Summary and Conclusion

A flexible manufacturing system provides cost-effective way to improve your shop-floor productivity and produce quality parts on time and every time. It also allows you to manufacture many variations of parts in small quantities – from single parts, small and medium batches, to series productions – allowing for High Mix – Low Volume production.

By incorporating an FMS and FMC system, you can increase the efficiency of your production schedule while minimizing downtime. Over time, you can duplicate and expand your manufacturing systems and improve your competitiveness.

This allows manufacturers like you to not only accept more and newer orders, but handle a wider variety of orders, hence improving your facility’s bottom line performance.