Today’s shops struggle to get parts out the door faster and without having to increase labor. Machine tool OEMs operate under the same pressures.
And, as they advise their machine shop customers to do, OEMs rely heavily on automation.
Haas Automation Inc. estimates it will produce 15,000 machine tools in 2008, after building 12,500 machines in 2007 and 10,082 machines in 2006. While its output increases from year to year to meet customer demand, Haas has kept its pace without adding significantly to its workforce.
Haas has increased its production nearly 50 percent by boosting process efficiency through automation. Over the past couple of years, the company has invested nearly $20 million in robotics and other forms of automation. Now, with its facility already heavily automated, Haas continues to add automated production cells at the rate of about one per month.
The company’s machining facility houses 16 robotic cells, and 66 machines in flexible manufacturing systems, and it has 979 pallets in use. Nearly every piece of equipment Haas builds is sold, and orders currently exceed production. So automation plays a key role.
As Haas automates, it also must provide automation to its customers.
To simplify the process of integrating robots to machines in its own facility as well as for its customers, Haas developed a robotready interface for its small and medium vertical machining centers and turning centers.
The interface resulted from Haas having problems setting up the robots it uses itself. Every time the company attempted to set up a new robot cell, it had to begin the process at ground zero. The interface eliminates that problem by standardizing communication between robots and machines, and it minimizes the cables needed to do it.
The fact that Haas builds its own machine controls is a plus when incorporating the interface. It also builds its own barfeeders and pallet changers.
There are about 300 machines at work making chips in the Haas factory, two-thirds of which are Haas machines. And within the facility, robots from Motoman and Fanuc work in several types of automated processes, as do overhead part-loading systems.
In one cell for spindle shafts, raw parts move from lathe to lathe and to a horizontal machining center that has a pallet changer for milling operations. Also for spindle shafts, a robot feeds parts for grinding into a Studer S33 grinder.
“We don’t use a lot of multitasking machines. Instead, we would rather use three-machine cells with robots that are extremely versatile,” Scott Rathburn of Haas said. “One multitasking machine goes down and you have trouble. One machine in a multiple machine cell goes down, and you still have others up and running.”
While multitasking machines are effective for complex parts, Haas tends to its complex parts in work cells. For example, it transfers parts robotically from one lathe to another, then to a five-axis mill within a cell.
At Haas, automating a machining process typically results from the company’s continual evaluation and reevaluation processes to shorten machining times and to simplify and automate fixturing.
Feedback freely flows between design and manufacturing engineers. As a result, design engineers sometimes will change designs to simplify production. Haas gets both manufacturing and production floor personnel involved early in the design and production processes.
Rathburn refers to it as the “Haas culture.”
“The extent of automation and a culture of constantly trying to improve processes is a focus that started on day one at the facility,” he said.
In addition to robots, automation at Haas often takes the form of pallet changing systems. Pallet pool machines allow the factory to get more parts off machines with less human intervention.
While automation lessens the labor involved in processes, Haas has slightly increased its workforce nevertheless. However, as the company removes the need for labor through automation, it adds the displaced workers to its general production areas to increase flexibility.
Within Haas’ 1-millionsq- ft. facility, the machine shop takes up 283,000 sq-ft. The company turns out its machines through a combination of assembly lines, where the machine moves from one stage to the next, and set work stations, where the machine remains in one spot and the workers and components come to it. These production lines are flexible and can be moved to different areas or expanded when needed. For added flexibility, Haas cross trains employees so they can move around to different assembly lines.