Gennady Kurinov | Dreamstime
Robot tending a horizontal CNC machine.

Why Switch to Automated Machining?

Sept. 29, 2022
To achieve productivity, customization, and agility are among the compelling reasons to automate a vintage machining operation – to modernize and optimize production and give a machine shop a fresh start.

Horizontal machine centers are designed with a spindle oriented parallel to the floor. Cutting tools are fitted to the spindle with toolholders, to cut sideways across the workpiece. This set-up means that chips fall away from the worktable, which is an important aspect of achieving the desired dimensional and surface quality in the finished part.

Lately many more machine shops are exploring ways to automate horizontal machining. These are some of the compelling reasons to do that.

Overcome obstacles. At some shops operators have used horizontal machining for a long time before they realize that current methods may need an upgrade. That was the case at 3rd Gen Machine in Logan, Utah, which had relied on basic horizontal machining for 15 years. 

The uses horizontal machining to develop a niche in machining aluminum components for firearms and outdoor recreational products. The process was working well for a while but started to show inefficiencies: It became too time-consuming to load the machines manually, and 3rd Gen Machine ended up with too much scrap material due to chip imprint scratches. The situation worsened due to a spindle crash. 

Founder Evan Jones said that final event resulted in a purchase order for an automated machine-tending system that same day. Once the system was installed and running, and the operators spent time tweaking it, the results were impressive.

The machining time per part was a mere 45 to 90 seconds, even better than the manufacturer’s estimates. Ultimately, the automation equipment was four times as productive as any other items used by 3rd Gen Machine.

The automated cell can even run for hours at a time unattended, freeing workers to do other tasks.

People often choose machining for delicate or detailed work. Employees must remain part of the process, to some extent, for quality control. However, this example shows how moving to automated machine-tending can keep workflows moving smoothly.

Meet customized needs. Another reason many people choose for adopting automation is that they believe it can help them meet specialized requirements. In one case, a manufacturer needed an automated machine to make thin-film disks for hard drives and displays. The shop engaged a service provider that created five prototypes, and soon transitioned into full-scale automated production.

Another instance saw decision-makers at a dental devices and materials supplier investing in two customized pieces of equipment for automated machining. Previous processes required loading the raw materials and finished parts by hand. Now, automation supports a full production run of 200 curing light housings. It also runs unattended for 16 hours every weekday and enables lights-out manufacturing on weekends.

People at the company initially balked at switching to the customized automation cell, worrying that it was smaller than the conventional horizontal machining centers they knew. However, the results won them over and showed there was no reason to fear something new.

More agility. Today machine shops must be highly adaptable to remain competitive and meet customers’ expectations. Automation plays a significant part in enabling that agility.

For example, some horizontal machining centers are modular. Certain solutions on the market let operators coordinate up to 16 machines per system, ensuring they can scale-up their installation, as needed. Some machine shops combine modular automation with palletized systems, allowing them to achieve faster turnaround times on sequential jobs and lower production costs.

Automation also gives operators more control over the ways that production occurs. They can set up machines to make the same part in series. Alternatively, programmers might install an automated system to perform multiple complex machining processes on individual pieces. Many horizontal set-ups with automatic options are ideal for high-mix/low-volume production. Then, machine shops are able to focus on lean manufacturing principles that reduce waste and keep customers satisfied.

Often, shops will synch their automated horizontal machining operations with manufacturing execution systems (MES) and/or enterprise resource planning (ERP) platforms – a combination that allows them to schedule production in advance, responding in the moment when things change.

Combining horizontal machining with automation is an especially clever step when a shop’s machines are “vintage” and ready to be upgraded or replaced. If decision-makers cannot replace all the oldest equipment at once, an alternative is to do a few or only one at a time, and that approach can help the operators see how automation can pay off. It may encourage those shops to keep progressing with their updates as resources allow.

Are you ready to automate?  Automated machining options don’t suit every use case, and may not always be superior to nonautomated operations. However, this overview highlights why many shops become interested in automated horizontal machining and are eager to try it.

If you’re thinking about doing the same, think through the transition carefully and resist the urge to rush. Consider what obstacles to productivity there are in your machine shop now, and how automation could help overcome them. Determine how much you could afford to spend on an automated solution and whether you’re ready to devote the time needed to optimize its performance.

Pondering factors like those will help you determine whether now is the right time to move forward with automation and to what extent you’ll do that. Weighing the pros and cons is an excellent and practical way to feel more confident in your choice.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online magazine exploring the latest industrial innovations.

Latest from Automation and Robotics