1) What’s the best way to start machining automation?

Identify machining processes/applications that could benefit from automation. Understanding automation’s advantages and your goals will greatly assist in selection. Are you seeking improved spindle utilization, increased machining productivity, reduced scrap, and/or improved ergonomics? When evaluating potential applications, answer the following questions:

  • What type of machining do you need (5-axis or 4-axis, aluminum or titanium)?
  • What is the part mix/ volume: high mix or a single part type?
  • How frequently do parts need to be inspected?

A cross-functional team can consider all process aspects.

2) What determines a successful implementation?

Thorough process evaluation:

  • How is raw material delivered to the system?
  • Is preparation required (raw material pre-inspection)?
  • Are there unique needs (in-process checks, part surfaces that cannot be damaged)?
  • Is post-processing required (part wash, sub-assembly)?
  • Do you need part tracking and data collection (machine number, fixture number, inspection data)?

Automated systems missing processes/requirements will be inefficient and prone to failure.

Disciplines responsible for all aspects must be included in selection, design, and implementation. An automation champion within the company must be involved from design/engineering through installation and startup. This individual will continually improve the installation and identify future applications for automation.

3) Who should be involved in automation planning?

Manufacturing and process engineers; operators; and representatives from maintenance, quality, and safety should all be recruited to a cross-functional automation team to consider all aspects of the processes. For example, rearranging the shop’s floor plan might improve operations. Changing part fixturing, revising quality monitoring, and reconsidering part-inspection frequency are all considerations.

An outside automation/integration partner should also be included to bring potential automation solutions to the application. An appropriate integration partner can help define system details and provide solutions to problems that arise during the definition phase.

4) How do I choose an integration partner?

A single-source supplier can coordinate all automation integration needs into the machining process, including auxiliary support equipment. The integrator must have the electrical, mechanical, engineering, and robotics experience to automate operations, and provide:

  • Project management
  • Specifications: System operations descriptions, design reviews
  • Mechanical engineering: Robot end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) design
  • Controls engineering: Controls system layout
  • Robot/cell programming: Cell control software, part tracking, data collection
  • Installation/startup support: Run-off, training, post installation support

A single-source automation integrator can also reduce finger-pointing between providers, reducing the risk of problems arising late in the project.

5) What types of automation systems best fit an application?

Automated machining ranges from one machining center with a pallet changer to complex machining cells that handle different part types using several machining centers.

Automated machining systems can move parts between operations or move fixtures pre-loaded with parts. Fixtures can be mounted on 650mm x 650mm machine pallets or on 148mm diameter pallets that can be handled by operators.

Answering the questions posed above can identify the appropriate automated system design/implementation for the targeted machining application.

Automation is daunting. Defining goals, system planning, equipment selection, and system installation isn’t easy, but the results can dramatically improve capacity and quality.

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