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[12/22/2015] Automation has truly come of age today on the CNC machine shop floor as the use of technologically advanced milling and machining centers has become increasingly widespread. More and more precision manufacturing operations strive for “lights-out” capabilities that incorporate the best of what today’s machine tools and accessories have to offer. In an effort to improve workflow processes, automation can help solve the challenges of 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, “lights-out” automation commonly refers to the use of a CNC machining center accessorized with a tool magazine, an automatic tool changing mechanism, and most importantly, a pallet changing system/device for parts to be machined.
The use of pallet changers has revolutionized efficiency for machine shop owners, especially in an age where labor market deficiencies and an ever-present skills 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, 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. Want to learn more, or have a question about our range of services? Contact the expert CNC machinists at APM’s Colorado machine shop for all of your milling and machining needs.
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 on the emerald isle of Ireland and took an interest in milling and machining from an early age, ranking #1 in the Irish National Apprenticeship Program. In 2005, he partnered with his friend and colleague, Kirk Tuesburg, currently APM’s machine shop manager, together launching 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.