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Go “Unattended” With Pallet Changing, and Solve Your Machine Shop Productivity Challenges

May 5, 2022by Gerry Dillon

For any precision manufacturing operation competing in today’s business environment, maximizing productivity and increasing efficiency takes on a critical role in order to turn a profit. This rings especially true for small and medium-sized facilities, including Advanced Precision Machining’s Colorado machine shop. By staking our reputation on meeting our client’s needs for high-precision parts delivered accurately, on-time, and on-budget, we are constantly in search of ways to gain a competitive advantage. Success and profitability are dependent on whether resources are being used in an efficient manner, and this has proven even more difficult given current economic conditions, supply chain issues, the skills/job gap, and mounting challenges CNC machine shop owners face as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic. All of this, coupled with an ever-increasing demand for high-quality parts, means that milling and machining businesses must place an even greater emphasis on efficiency and productivity. Thankfully, more modern technological advancements in today’s precision machining tools mean many machine shops have the ability to streamline their operations, and one such consideration involves transitioning from more traditional approaches to precision machining and implementing some form of automation on the floor. 

 Automating CNC machine shop operations is a big decision for any owner, but pulling the trigger and opting to automate certain functions has become easier as the use of more technologically advanced milling and machining centers has become increasingly widespread. More and more precision machine shops are now striving for “unattended” or “lights-out” capabilities that incorporate the best of what today’s machine tools and accessories have to offer. The idea is simple on the surface; Minimize labor costs for each part made, thus lowering overall production costs by allowing automation to replace manual labor. By improving workflow processes, automation can help solve many of the productivity challenges machine shops face by reducing machining cycle times, setups and teardowns, while at the same time increasing production/output, improving both efficiency and profit margins. Not to be confused with robotic automation, in a precision machining environment automating machining functions unattended commonly refers to the use of a CNC machining center accessorized with a tool magazine, an automatic tool changing mechanism, and most importantly, a multi-pallet changing system/device for parts to be machined. 

The use of pallet changers has revolutionized efficiency for shop owners, especially in an age where labor market deficiencies and the ever-present skills/jobs gap mean simply finding more qualified CNC machinists is not feasible. In simple terms, a pallet changing device is a part handling subsystem that enables a part to be loaded while another is being machined – somewhat like a tool changing system but instead of switching out tools, pallet changers allow the operator to change out an entire bed of parts. Pallets can be cycled outside the cutting area once completed as the machining center automatically brings in a new one. The integration of a “pallet pool” even allows for multiple part beds to be set up in advance and scheduled for future runs, letting a machine run unattended for quite some time. All of this allows for multiple setups to be built, or unloading operations to take place, while milling and machining goes on uninterrupted. CNC machinists don’t have to wait for the machining process to complete itself. The end result is a significant reduction in part cycle times and non-cut times (spindle-idle time). All of this adds up to increased productivity and a reduction in costs, including labor. 

When the decision is made to automate certain machine shop operations, there are options when it comes to choosing what type of pallet changing system is best suited to particular needs. Cost, space, a shop’s capabilities, and other factors such as production capacity all come into play. Manual pallet and shuttle systems are designed for small job, low-volume lots and are cost-feasible taking up very little space. Loading and unloading is done by the operator. Automated pallet changers (APCs) are designed to work with traveling-column or bridge-type CNC machining centers and typically feature electric servo drives for transferring and indexing pallets. Stationary, dual, rotary, towers, and shelving units – the list goes on. The two examples provided only scratch the surface of what’s available depending on machine shop needs and what various manufacturers provide.

The bottom line is that in today’s competitive precision manufacturing environment, one that is fraught with new challenges, no machine shop owner can let tools or CNC machinists sit idle. Pallet changing can save a lot of money in production costs by significantly reducing part loading and setup downtime.

Need help with an upcoming project? APM’s reputation for quality parts, on-time reliability and exceptional customer service cannot be matched! We’re happy to discuss any machining needs you have. Call us at 303.776.1910 or send us an email.

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About the Author

Gerry Dillon is a co-founder, current owner and certified CNC machinist at Advanced Precision Machining (APM), a full-service machine shop located in Longmont, Colorado. Before making his home in the United States in 2000, Gerry was born and raised in Ireland and took an interest in milling and machining from an early age, ranking #1 in the Irish National Apprenticeship Program. In 2005, he began what’s grown into a leading Colorado machine shop. Gerry brings over 30 years of machining experience to the shop floor, and is certified in all aspects of geometric dimensioning and tolerancing.

by Gerry Dillon

Gerry Dillon is a co-founder, current owner and certified CNC machinist at Advanced Precision Machining (APM), a full-service machine shop located in Longmont, Colorado. Gerry has over 30 years of precision milling and machining experience under his belt.