From the first punch card-driven CNC controls that debuted decades ago to the newest closed-loop boring tools on the market today, automation has touched nearly every aspect of the machining industry. And machine tool automation is only growing more common as technology becomes cheaper and more easily integrated into machine tools. But what is it? What are its benefits, its challenges? Read on to learn more.
What is machine tool automation?
Machine tool automation uses the latest developments in hardware, software and controls to perform machining tasks with less, or no, human intervention. This takes multiple forms. For example, when you program a cut into a CNC control using CAD or CAM, the machining of that part is fully automated. Or, a machine tool could use automated tool loading, which switches out workpieces without any operator intervention.
This automation can be partial (also known as “open-loop”), where an operator still monitors feedback and makes adjustments manually, or total (“closed-loop”), wherein the machine tool itself makes adjustments as it operates. In both cases, the tool leverages software and hardware in order to simplify and speed up operations.
Why machine tool automation is needed
There are many reasons why a shop would consider automating its machine tools. Machinists are facing skyrocketing demand for parts, sometimes on short timetables. Parts may require extremely complex geometries, fine details or other factors that would be very time-consuming without automation. And those parts will only grow more complex as technology grows more advanced—consider what’s under the hood of a sedan from 1995 versus one from 2023.
Along with all this, while employment numbers have bounced back significantly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, shops of all sizes still deal with worker shortages. Operators need to maintain or increase their productivity, despite having fewer people in the shop. Add all this together and you have an industry ripe for automation.
4 benefits of machine tool automation
The advantages of automation are many and vary by operation, but here are some of its biggest benefits:
The more aspects of your shop you automate, the more time operators have each shift. They focus on more fulfilling, higher-level work—and won’t get dragged down by labor challenges when there are fewer people on the floor. Depending on how automated a shop is, it may even be able to run outside of working hours. The end result: more parts machined per day, happier workers, higher productivity and better ROI.
Automated solutions are perfect for dangerous, dull and dirty tasks—the fewer of those tasks humans have to perform during operation, the fewer opportunities there are for someone to get hurt. Even something as simple as better ergonomics lowers the risk of repetitive-motion injuries, protecting workers—and maintaining productivity.
Even the most skilled machinists make mistakes. We’re only human, after all. And the tighter the tolerances, the more complex the part or the larger the production run, the more damaging each error becomes.
When you program a design into a CNC control, you can rest assured the machine will make the same cuts or bores every time. Increasingly sensitive real-time monitoring also ensures that if variance does occur, either the operator or the tool itself can adjust to compensate in the moment, rather than after the part is fully machined. Repeatability remains high, waste remains low.
Performance monitoring doesn’t just spot and correct errors. It can also call out when a tool’s components start to wear and identify exactly where in the machining process the performance is degrading. Components that might have otherwise gone unnoticed and even done damage to the tool are spotted; operators can, as a result, swap out components or tools before equipment failure. Productivity loss is minimal, tool life is extended and ROI reflects it.
Potential challenges for adopting machine tool automation
Machine tool automation presents mostly benefits—but it can create some challenges, as well.
For starters, there’s the initial investment. Automated machine tools can be more expensive—sometimes significantly so—than their less-advanced counterparts. Hesitation is an understandable reaction, especially if owners want to standardize their equipment across the entire floor. But it’s important to remember that these machines offer quicker ROI—and, thanks to boosts in productivity, they add more value over time.
Standardization may also exacerbate the skills gap—that is, the gap between the skills your operators need and the ones they currently have. Even a single new tool with features unfamiliar to operators can cause confusion or slow down production as workers get used to the tool. If a shop doesn’t standardize, workers will have to remember multiple different ways of operation depending on which tool they happen to be using. That’s a recipe for inefficiency. By contrast, the more standardized your shop floor becomes, the more productive it gets (and the easier it is to train employees). Once your most experienced operators get comfortable with new machines, ROI will skyrocket. Plus, younger generations of workers are excited about the possibilities offered by automation; with the right training and onboarding, shops will see boosted recruitment.
Finally, the more digital and online your machine tools are, the more tech support and cybersecurity you’ll need. You may need to establish an entirely new role or partnership dedicated to machine maintenance (at least until operators are completely with the equipment). Plus, as soon as your tools are connected to the internet (or even simply to each other via Bluetooth), they’re vulnerable to bad actors and could be subject to data protection regulations (such as the California Consumer Privacy Act). Machinists will have to adjust to calling tech support or considering cybersecurity implications as they work. Fortunately, it’s not difficult to train for these challenges. The end result is a truly modern workforce: confident with new machines, able to deftly navigate tech support issues and knowledgeable about best security practices.
These challenges are real—but they’re all surmountable. With careful planning, strategic investment and open conversations with staff, your shop can adopt automated machine tools with minimal fuss and maximum ROI.
Industries embracing machine tool automation
The big question here is not “which industries are embracing machine tool automation,” it’s “which industries are not embracing it?” The benefits we’ve discussed apply to virtually every manufacturing sector, and companies are embracing automation accordingly.
Here are just a few of the industries adopting automation in their everyday operations:
What the future of machine tool automation holds
Automation in machine tooling advances by leaps and bounds every year. Some features once thought to be science fiction are already in use—and others are well on their way. Advances in machine vision will soon make tools even better at monitoring performance. Widespread adoption of 3D printing may lead to easier prototyping and faster iteration of new designs.
And things are getting more advanced from there. We’re already seeing the industry embrace digital twin technology, which models a machine’s operation using a programming station. These twins replicate a machine’s behavior, cutting parameters and functions for review—exactly replicating how a real tool would run. This saves the shop floor time they’d otherwise spend on setup, simulation and debugging. It also increases reliability and productivity.
Now consider augmented reality, which is already taking off in manufacturing as a training and diagnostic tool. Touchscreen displays with real-time information are pretty convenient, but imagine if you could monitor the tool’s performance with a 3D view of each component overlaid on the actual tool itself. Special glasses and headsets, which are constantly evolving, make such applications possible.
There’s also artificial intelligence and machine learning. Real-time optimization and predictive maintenance are already occurring, but as machines get smarter their solutions become more effective. They can anticipate repairs farther out. And their human operators can work with this information to machine the best parts possible.
So, what does the future hold? In a word: everything. Automation has a way of transforming every industry it touches—making things easier for operators, letting them do more things at once and in general enabling success once thought impossible. Now it’s our turn!