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How does a small supplier operate more profitably in the machining sector?

Many small suppliers in the machining sector are struggling with the issue of how to increase the profitability of their machinery. Companies that can operate their machines for 16 to 24 hours a day through shifts can quickly recoup their machine investments, whereas small suppliers have to do this in eight hours. In terms of automation these big companies can make their main series unmanned, or to require significantly fewer human operators, through customized automation.

This is not so easy for small suppliers, as the types of orders they get require much more flexibility. Workpieces and series sizes can vary from day to day.

How can a supplier currently operating only eight hours a day derive more profit from their machines? Are there any suitable forms of automation for them? What results can they expect from automation in terms of the bottom line? This blog provides some answers to these questions.

How to get more out of your machine

A machine is a substantial investment. Fortunately, this machine is available to you 24 hours a day to recoup that investment. The more time the machine is in operation, the faster you can earn it back. You can also achieve shorter delivery times to the customer, which makes you more attractive in the market.

By automating your production process, you earn more money during the unmanned hours of the day. Your costs are the lowest during this time, while production continues.

The simple answer to the question ‘how do I earn as much as possible from my machines’ is obvious; ‘automate’. But in practice, it does not appear to be a feasible solution for small suppliers. The series are small (from about 10 pieces) and production times per part are short (1-10 minutes).

At first glance, this dynamic and labour-intensive production method seems inconsistent with automation. For a long time, this was indeed the case. Today, however, we have made a big leap compared to the inflexible linear automation systems of the past, and there are now automation solutions that meet this need for flexibility. We discuss these in more detail in the next section.

Automation for small suppliers

Which forms of automation offer a solution for machining shops to make better use of their machines? We highlight three: traditional pallet handling, complex customisation and multifunctional automation.

Traditional pallet handling is a known automation solution where a product is clamped onto a pallet and the pallets are moved to the machine by a robot. For small series of compact components, however, this is far from ideal. The process takes a lot of preparation time (clamping of raw material onto a pallet, and entering the appropriate information in the control panel), money (pallets are expensive) and space (all pallets must be stored).

Complex customisation is often used to automate the process for a particular product family. This makes it highly valuable for manufacturers with predictable production volumes, but less suitable for smaller machining shops. These suppliers do not have guarantees from their clients for long-term, stable production, so this investment is not realistic. Moreover, this type of customisation cannot be used for alternating series. After all, if adjusting the automation settings costs more time than the throughput time of the product, no machining company will consider automation.

Multifunctional automation is set up flexibly from day one to be used for a wide range of products. This form of automation does not limit you to one form or one type of material but can be used flexibly to process a variety of products. This makes it particularly attractive for smaller suppliers, where the motto ‘you demand, we produce’ certainly applies.

Within Cellro’s range of automation systems, Xcelerate is a clear example of multifunctional automation. The system can handle virtually all components up to 20kg. The easily configurable production programs, universal inlays and gripper fingers allow you to quickly process a wide range of different products, even within one series. Xcelerate’s compact size and portability further enhance its flexibility and usability.

What kind of results can small machining shops expect from automation?

Nowadays, there are suitable forms of automation for small suppliers. But do investing in these automation systems pay off? The answer to that question lies in the number of hours of automated operation in your production process.

On average, a flexible multifunctional automation system such as Xcelerate is already profitable when used for four hours a day. You recoup the investment after two to three years, while the system will continue to have a useful life of between 15 to 20 years thanks to the high-quality components and flexible configurability.

Automation will benefit your bottom line in three ways. Firstly, you need fewer people, so you save on labour costs. Secondly, you will produce more per hour, up to 20%. Finally, you can produce for longer, which means you will be using your machines for 12, 16 or even 24 hours a day. In all, these effects will significantly reduce the costs while increasing production and efficiency. You can benefit from this in the form of a higher operating profit, or by reducing your market price to become more competitive, or both.