3 CNC Machining Processes which Automation can Enhance

19 April 2023
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Image Credit: Pixel B via Shutterstock


The drive to automate is not a particularly new concept in CNC machining. In fact, the prospect of reducing human input in production, letting machines shoulder a larger portion of the work, traces back to the technology’s roots.

NC machines first emerged in response to demand for accurate and complex parts within the aviation industry, beyond the standards that manual human labor would be able to deliver.

Running initially on manually formed punchcards to administer machining instructions, it was not long before this process became computerized, giving way to CNC as we know it today.

The ways in which automation is opening up opportunities to streamline manufacturing operations are much broader than the functionality of the machines themselves.

Extending beyond the scope of manufacturing as an isolated process, automation can augment the overall operative success of CNC machining businesses, offering a vital helping hand to compete within today’s tough market.

In this article, we’ll be running through three examples of automation’s implementation in CNC machine shops. From adopting small repetitive tasks, to facilitating broader shop floor independence, the spectrum of meaning contained within ‘automation’ is increasingly able to drive almost every dimension of a product’s life cycle.

1. Part Handling

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Image Credit: Andrey Armyagov

Automation may once have been considered a strategic business move only truly beneficial at an enterprise level, where the cost of investment is balanced out by the profit such technology can reap.

Today, however, ‘automation’ is no longer this exclusive. With so many different ways to automate appearing on the market, users are now more easily able to control the degree to which it is adopted, suiting its implementation to their business at every stage of its development.

Seeking to venture into automation can be a daunting process – to counter this, Modern Machine Shop’s Emily Probst recommends starting small, targeting low level yet still significant operations.

Part handling processes – such as workholding, workpiece transfer and loading – are perfect examples of this.

Coordinating a part’s journey is absolutely critical to simplifying machining processes and maximizing throughput. However, the activities in and of themselves can be sorely repetitive, tiresome, and even dangerous where heavy components require transfer.

According to Hubspot’s ‘Automation Guide For Metalworking Manufacturers’, ‘a production process of a part can consist of tens, even hundreds of different phases’ – inefficient part handling can begin to negatively impact business performance when order volumes are this high. Part quality is risked where manual work cannot ensure consistent repeatability.

This is where automation’s value begins to shine.

Identifying particularly inefficient instances of part handling within your machining lifecycle would be the first action to take – a corresponding automation mechanism can then step in to shoulder the task.

Whether this is a robotic loader, an offline setup mechanism, or quick change workholding, tailoring automation investments to your machine shop’s particular needs is crucial. From here, it’s a question of how and whether to expand further.

Making the move to automation where part handling is concerned brings about manifold benefits; accelerated production and consistent quality allow for operative improvements, whilst machinists can drop repetitive and tedious tasks from their to-do lists, improving their engagement. Employee productivity is also likely to increase, with less time absorbed by low level tasks and more available for more complex projects.

Small instances of automation can make a considerable mark on machine shop success.

2. Machine Shop Quotation

Image Credit: Sven Mieke via Unsplash

Moving away from the shop floor and into the commercial dimension of machine shop operations, automation continues to offer an alternative method from which to approach labor-intensive tasks. 

Amongst the many administrative responsibilities of running a successful CNC machining business, quotation is arguably one of the most important.

Marking the introduction of a B2B or B2C relationship, quotation quality can set the pace for a project’s ultimate success. Fostering a healthy and productive customer relationship can greatly impact your business’ market reputation in the long run. However, even more importantly, quotations are core drivers of whether prospective clients opt for your business in the first place. 

Enhancing quotation procedures is absolutely essential for securing machining jobs. However, quotation is largely conducted inefficiently manually within the CNC machining sector. 

This concern gains particular momentum in the context of 2023’s market. Today, customer satisfaction is founded on higher and higher standards.

Responding to a customer inquiry in under 5 minutes, for example, increases the likelihood of lead conversion by 21 times, according to Lean Data. This 5 minute sweet spot is exceedingly difficult to achieve, particularly when developing a quality response takes time and care. 

Quoting for CNC machining is a nuanced process, requiring careful mathematical skill, expert CNC machining knowledge, and an astute understanding of both a business’ capabilities and its position in the market. 

Once more, however, automation can offer a solution. 

Moving to digital quotation – in which quotations are automatically generated by a sophisticated and honed algorithm – offers a surefire method by which to enter the commercial fastlane without jeopardizing quotation quality. Quotations are not only delivered to customers with unparalleled speeds, satisfying heightening customer standards, but can achieve levels of accuracy inaccessible to the error-prone judgment of a human operator. 

Since the entrance of automated quotation into CNC machining practice, the difficulty of aligning speed of generation with quality of content has been one of the central factors dissuading potential users from its adoption. It felt unrealistic that a computer program working at whirlwind speeds could produce carefully considered quotations, taking a variety of nuanced and fluctuating operational and commercial factors into account – changing audiences, changing machining possibilities, changing competition. 

However, in 2023, rapidity and high quality are no longer incompatible properties. 

One company putting this new reality into practice is AMFG. Well known for their prominence within the 3D printing industry, the company has now broadened its horizons, expanding into CNC machining capabilities. Taking the building blocks that have aided hundreds of 3D printing businesses to successfully scale their operations, AMFG’s new module for CNC machining quotation has now been released. 

Uniquely, AMFG’s solution employs machine learning to fully configure quotation generation to each machine shop’s unique business parameters. Quite literally allowing the ‘machine’ to constantly ‘learn’ from the patterns it observes, AMFG’s software studies the practices of the expert machinists using it, adapting its own operations to follow suit. Contained within each rapidly developed quotation, then, are the principles each machine shop has trained its software to follow. 

AMFG’s new module marks a new chapter of possibility for CNC machining businesses, with the power of automation sitting right at its core. Register your interest for our upcoming whitepaper on the subject, ‘How Digital Quotation Can Accelerate CNC Machining Revenue’, and find out more.

3. Lights Out Manufacturing

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Image Credit: PJ66431470 via iStock

Both hardware and software can greatly benefit from automation. Yet, it is the coming together of these two instances that a large-scale, world-changing phenomenon is beginning to come into focus: lights-off manufacturing. 

Humans are not built for 24 hour work, and they never will be. Machines, on the other hand, excitingly surpass the biological restraints of the human form, working around the clock without breaking a sweat. 

Automation is opening up the possibility of machine shop operations continuing from sunset right through to sunrise. If humans work approximately 8-12 hours a day, 5 days a week, lights-off manufacturing extends the glittering opportunity to dramatically increase production throughput by over double. 

In our heavily consumerist culture, enamored by constant waves of new and exciting products, successfully running lights-off operations could boost output and revenue for CNC machine shops with unequaled force.

Amidst this optimism, it must be acknowledged that lights-out initiatives have failed in the past. 

As articulated in a 2020 article from Forbes, approaches to this genre of automation have failed due to a single fallacious assumption: “if automation is more efficient and less error-prone than humans, then more automation will lead to greater efficiency”.

This is only the case if automation is not regarded as a replacement for manual labor. Some processes simply cannot be automated, their overly complex nature making any attempt to do so a minefield for complications and delays.

In 2023, however, we have reached a pivotal realization: instead of a replacement, automation must be equipped as a tool for enhancement

This starts with carefully choosing what is manufactured in these conditions. Repetitive, simplistic jobs – those which are driven by well known and consistent operative patterns – are perfect for this purpose. Leaving less room for error, operators can sleep soundly with an assurance of production success. 

Furthermore, moving these operations out of the way clears the way for machinists to put their hard-earned skill to work on more complex jobs, those which automation is less suited for. As well as increasing production efficiency, a more enjoyable working environment comes as an exciting result, with each day delivering engaging work to machinists in place of repetitive tasks. 

The logistics of running lights-out autonomous operations still has some way to go before success can be guaranteed. However, we are inching closer, slowly but surely.

Automation: A Dual-Headed Weapon

Deciding to adopt an automation solution, whether with hardware or software driven processes in mind, is a unique form of investment. Here’s why. 

Business solutions often pitch their services towards improving one of two things: processes, or results. One kind of investment might make life easier for employees first and foremost. Another might aim to increase the revenue, monetary or otherwise, that a business is able to acquire. 

Each of these respective objectives is, of course, likely to indirectly benefit the other. However, with automation, both processes and results are targeted head on. 

On the process side, automation greatly simplifies the work administered to machinists, granting more time for genuinely interesting work by shouldering repetitive work. 

On the revenue side, the speed and quantity of production witnesses improvement, increasing output and directly impacting profit. 

Automation’s benefits are powerfully all-encapsulating, with no need to rely on the contingency of an ‘indirect’ improvement. As automation technologies become more sophisticated, this phenomenon is gaining acceleration momentum towards taking the manufacturing world by storm.

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