Why wait? Ask an automation trainer for guidance

As a company dedicated to parts production automation, we estimate that the current automation rate of CNC machine tools tops out at 30 per cent. It seems surprisingly low, doesn’t it, for all the talk about it? For most CNC machine tool users, 30 per cent usage, or even a more realistic 50 per cent, begs the question: Why isn’t something that most manufacturers talk about happening in practice?

We all acknowledge there are sometimes viable reasons for not automating. In non-recurring R&D production, or if the machining center is in a one-person shop, or if a company is fortunate to have enough skilled workers to keep following the one operator/one machine production model. There could be other situations in which automation simply doesn’t make sense.

To make the general question more specific, pose the following sentence as you formulate your next business plan: “Despite the trends, my business can stay competitive without automation because ??????.” If you find there’s not a good word or phrase to fill in that blank, look at it as an opportunity.

Automation is highly relevant now more than ever. The proven profitability and process improvements, the trend of manufacturing reshoring back to the US, the lack of a skilled workforce, and the recent software and hardware technology leaps, particularly in robotics, connectivity and production planning software, are all converging into an explosion of manufacturing advancement. This is a wave you need to surf on and not get hit by.

Our experience with CNC manufacturers who have adopted automation is that they are not looking back. It’s quite the opposite. They are looking at what they can do next. Add more machining centers to the systems. Extend the storage. Integrate deburring or tool data management. Add legacy equipment.

And more. Especially important in the last two years during the pandemic has been the resilience that automation provides. Automation enabled businesses ran higher outputs with the same amount of people and/or they were able to sustain their current production rates even when some personnel were temporarily out. Was your manufacturing covid-proof?

Despite the excitement of living in this fourth industrial revolution, the thought of automating is an overwhelming concept for some. There’s the capital expense of course, although that can be handled with planning and ROI calculations. I personally think it’s more the confusing aspects of automation that cause the delay. A shop owner might know why he or she wants to automate, but automate what exactly? How? Where? When? It helps to have someone figuratively hold the owner’s or manager’s hand through the whole process.

Those of us who provide automation solutions often view ourselves as automation “trainers.” We’re akin to personal trainers, but instead of a gym, free weights, machines, and classes, we work in shops and factories helping companies get fit with the myriad ways, means, and methods to automate production. And, like a person starting an exercise routine, there is listening and learning, goal setting, establishing an action plan, and most importantly to avoid injury – taking it step by methodical step.

This is one of the most reassuring aspects of factory automation – it can be approached. In fact, it’s encouraged to start small and manageable. It’s wise to consult with an expert so that one cool thing can be built upon smartly, that it won’t become an island, but a continuing journey.

In keeping with the fitness analogy, there are times that even those who are in terrific physical shape want to take their workout to the next level, maybe participate in a triathlon, or learn how to avoid a repetitive injury, and wish to seek out a fresh view of their training. Likewise, even for those well on the automation path, there can be stumbling blocks to overcome or additional areas to be automated. A new, objective view from a different source could provide a satisfying solution.

No matter where you are on the automation road, it’s important to keep walking it, maybe even running on it. Sometimes when I miss a beat in a conversation someone will say in jest, “Keep up, Nate,” and we all laugh. But that is what we all must do. Technology is changing so rapidly in manufacturing it’s imperative that we all “keep up.” Having a good partner, a good “trainer” by your side will help you avoid pain and meet your goal. What are you waiting for?

This is the viewpoint of Nathan Turner, President of Fastems and it first appeared in Manufacturing Engineering