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[8/12/2020] At Advanced Precision Machining’s (APM) Colorado machine shop, one of our goals is to bring readers of our blog the latest information on industry trends, technological innovation, and the latest news from our milling and machining operation. Although the recent COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing shutdowns have put an enormous strain on the precision manufacturing industry, we’ve established new best practices within our rearranged shop facility, we’ve ramped up to full speed, and have built momentum back to pre-pandemic levels. We have a history of adapting to change, and the unprecedented turn of events in 2020 has provided even more incentive to improve upon efficiency, boost our bottom line, and add to our growing list of machine shop services. One such consideration involves transitioning from more traditional approaches to precision machining by implementing some form of automation on the shop floor. In today’s competitive market, we must put our business in a better position to meet the rising demand for more customized precision parts, and new approaches for the automated fabrication of complex part geometries are needed that balance both flexibility and efficiency.
With this stated goal in mind, automating CNC milling and machining operations is a big decision for many small to mid-sized machine shops like APM, it comes with significant cost and risk, and questions abound. Business owners have to concern themselves with true costs and return on investment, overall impacts to their daily operations, staffing needs and the promises of delivered results. One big question that our industry continues to grapple with is overcoming the ongoing job/skills gap and the difficulty all of us face in finding qualified CNC machinists. After losing many manufacturing jobs to overseas competition over the last decade, there has been a resurgent effort to “reshore” these jobs, and there has been some level of success, but the surplus of skilled workers we have hoped for hasn't exactly materialized. Now, the Coronavirus crisis has only complicated this situation, with many shops having to make difficult decisions with regard to staffing levels. So, what role does emerging technology such as industrial robots and automation play in this story? Why consider automating high speed machining processes and what are the benefits?
For high-volume machine shops, automating certain tasks makes obvious sense. It can help bridge the labor gap and better scale precision manufacturing needs to meet demand. But for smaller facilities with many part numbers and small batch runs, serious consideration should also be given. The job/skills gap has hit smaller shops harder lending more credence to implementing some form of automation. For any size operation, however, the pandemic is reducing personnel in some cases as a result of necessary layoffs. Now, automation is looked at as a cost-effective way to eliminate labor-intensive manual tasks, and many secondary operations on the shop floor can be accomplished with the use of automated machine tools. For example, applications involving surface finishing, cleaning, polishing, deburring, or other contaminant removals can all be accomplished by automating these “offline” processes.
Additional benefits reaped from machine shop automation involve other part processing operations that range from basic bar feeders to automated pallet handling systems and gantry-style robots to load and unload parts can help reduce labor costs. Some facilities have even turned to “lights-out” operations” utilizing automated milling and machining tools to manufacture parts with little or no human intervention. This means continuing with production on hours where CNC machinists are at rest resulting in higher productivity and increased profits. Furthermore, automated tool management systems and integrated shop management computer systems can help with cost-effectiveness. Automation can also help regain lost revenue due to “offshoring” of work by reducing direct labor costs, making US machine shops much more competitive. From strictly a quality perspective, some see automating operations as the answer to producing better parts; the inherent repeatability of robotics is attractive and reduces the human error factor.
The bottom line is that no matter the size of a precision manufacturing facility, automation can provide a competitive advantage as long as production runs can justify the capital expenditure and provide a positive return on investment (ROI). The advantages/benefits to automating your CNC machining operations are numerous and include: Reduced time on production runs and higher volumes, increased part accuracy, less human error/intervention, reduced direct labor costs, improved safety and better organization including time management for CNC machinists. More than ever today, automation cannot be overlooked and is a determining factor if a machine shop wants to remain competitive. It’s not a catchall solution to the current staffing level problems or the ongoing pandemic, instead it simply augments it. Automation works best when the parts fit the process and this should be your shop’s indicator on whether to move forward with implementation.
Learn more about the milling, machining, and automation methods used at Advanced Precision Machining by Contacting our Colorado machine shop.
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.