Is my machine process suitable for automation?

For most companies, automating the manufacturing process is worthwhile. This includes the machining industry, too. However, many companies are not sure whether their machine process is in fact suited to automation. Indeed, some companies have too many unpredictable factors in their manufacturing process, leading them to have significant doubts about automating their manufacturing process.

Yet automation is also suitable for small and medium-sized machining companies. There are two important reasons for this:

  1. Flexible automation solutions
  2. Process stabilisation is often easier than you think

It may come as a surprise that you can stabilise your manufacturing process and make it more manageable in a few simple steps. In this article, we will explore the importance of a stable manufacturing process in automation. In addition, we will summarise the most crucial factors for ensuring the stability of your manufacturing process. You will see that process stability – and therefore automation – can be controlled.

The importance of a stable manufacturing process in automation

To achieve the maximum productivity of your CNC machines through automation, it’s preferable to make your production process as stable and predictable as possible.

At first glance that seems difficult, as many areas of your manufacturing process may well be hard to predict. What is the lifespan of a tool? How easy is it to ensure consistency when processing the materials? What are the temperature conditions? Automation requires a certain amount of control over these factors, and this doesn’t come about overnight. In practice, automation will therefore be phased in, starting with the manufacturing tasks best suited to stabilisation.

What are the conditions for a stable machine process?

A stable manufacturing process requires the management of tools, materials, chips and environmental conditions.

1.     Tool management

The lifespan of tools is an unstable factor. This varies, particularly for machines that are controlled manually. When automating the manufacturing process, you should assume that tools will wear quicker than they actually will. By doing so, you can guarantee a stable process. Although this will involve a slight increase in tool costs, the increase in efficiency will more than compensate for this.

2.     Material

Do you primarily manufacture the same materials or related parts? If so, it’s advisable to stabilise the process per material group or family group. The same process should be applied within a group. Furthermore, this contributes to the management of tools and chips. However, the process is always different for other types of material, as one material may be easier to process than another. For example, plastic and aluminium are usually easy to process, whereas steel, stainless steel and exotic materials are more difficult. The more precisely you record your processes for each material, the more you can shorten production times and increase your output.

3.     Chip management

Improving chip formation leads to an improved surface finish. What’s more, good chip management reduces the risk of tool breakage and faster wear. The secret behind good chip management is continuity, where chip formation remains the same and the tool is spared. Continuity not only makes your manufacturing process more manageable, but also increases your product quality. The extent to which chip management can cause problems is strongly dependent on the type of process. As a rule, good chip management is easier to achieve when milling than when turning. In this regard, die-sinking EDM and wire-sinking EDM are stable processes.

4.     Environmental conditions

Cooling and lubricating a machine ensures production continuity. These factors should be kept at the right level to ensure that production can run unmanned for an extended period of time.

Limit the (unpredictable) human factor in process automation

If you satisfy the above-mentioned conditions, you have taken the first step towards a stable manufacturing process and process automation. The good news is that satisfying these conditions is not a problem for most companies. However, it’s not quite that simple just yet. It is also important to exclude unpredictable factors from your manufacturing process as far as possible. Humans are the biggest cause of instability.

For successful process optimisation, it is essential to prevent the machine process from being disrupted by arbitrary human factors. Allow robots to do the simple tasks, while the specialist of the future remains responsible for managing the process and maintaining stability.

Low-threshold process automation

A 100% stable process does not exist. You can start automating in phases even if your process is unstable. Make it simple. Start by automating recurring and manageable tasks in your production and you will quickly see an increase in your turnover. Furthermore, you can relieve your specialists of the easier, more repetitive work, enabling them to focus on the kind of work they trained for and you to manufacture more efficiently.

A compact solution that can be deployed in a flexible manner such as Xcelerate is extremely suited to this. On average, Xcelerate pays for itself even if you only use it for four hours a day. Once you have started automating, you will gradually discover the ways in which your manufacturing process can be further stabilised. This will allow you to continue to optimise your automation process as well as expand it little by little. Stability is therefore both the prerequisite for and the result of automation.