Advanced Precision Machining

Machine Shop Automation and the Quest for True “Lights Out” Milling and Machining Capability

[August 8, 2018] At Advanced Precision Machining’s Colorado machine shop, we do our best to bring readers of this blog, and anyone else who’s interested, the latest information revolving around what makes our industry tick; from technology trends, to milling and machining tips and techniques, to political and economic news affecting our livelihood. The good news is that the milling and machining sector of the US manufacturing economy continues with its steady improvement. Although we are still facing the ever-present skills gap, new jobs are being filled at a positive rate, “reshoring efforts” are making headway, and new technology is revolutionizing the machine shop floor. Most notably, advancements in the industrial internet of things (IIoT), blockchain technology, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), collaborative robotics, augmented reality (AR), big data, and more are changing how manufacturing operations work. This made us want to revisit an interesting trend that continues to ramp up, especially on the eve of this new, industrial era; the concept of “lights out” manufacturing.

To shed some light on this topic and present a brief primer, we'll keep it simple. The transition to a “lights-out” machine shop has already begun, one in which various forms of automation are utilized to leave machines running unattended during the day and again after hours, with little or no human intervention on site. For example, a multiple pallet system is normally employed in which a CNC milling machine is fed raw material via a tooling tower allowing it to run unattended for hours, producing desired parts. The benefits are immense; from lowered labor costs and greater productivity to less capital equipment and more consistent parts. In addition, in a “lights-out” environment, the need for qualified set-up operators is reduced, along with CNC machine set-up times and the overall run-times for all jobs. As an added benefit, there are even energy use considerations. Many power companies offer off-peak usage discounts (nights and weekends), and when the shop floor is unstaffed, HVAC costs go down, resulting in further profitability.

The idea of replacing human beings with equipment that will produce parts for the same job faster, better, and cheaper is deeply ingrained in manufacturing. But, the ever-evolving technology involved with “lights-out” machining is in no way a solution to the current staffing level problems many precision machine shops still face today, and many fundamentals need to be in place in order to achieve success. Therefore, continuous unsupervised automation remains a challenge in a precision machining environment. But, the idea that a manufacturer can turn off the lights and go home every night while unattended mechanical minions crank out parts is an intriguing concept. Thanks to recent advances in technology, we are well on our way! In the meantime, we don't foresee automation as filling the role of a qualified CNC machinist, but instead augmenting it.

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 need 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 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 and a partner 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.




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