CNC Robotics – Sweet Machining Dreams

Martin Doyle, Managing Director of the Engineering Technology Group, examines the increasing benefits of ‘lights-out’ production/CNC robotics and why the decision to machine through the night shouldn’t be taken lightly.


There’s an old saying that ‘will the last one to leave, please turn off the lights’. It has been traditionally used in a negative context and to depict some worrying trend that pretty much suggested there was no turning back.

‘Lights-out’ in today’s manufacturing world conjures up an altogether different scenario and one that is very much in demand if recent machine tool installations by the Engineering Technology Group (ETG) are anything to go by.

Over the last eighteen months, the company has seen an increase in the number of customers exploring the possibility of running their factories through the night…basically more investment in CNC robotics and removing some of the labour out of the equation.

And it’s not difficult to see why. Manufacturers are increasingly under pressure to reduce costs, increase efficiencies and to up volumes, often at very short notice.

“There’s only so much our clients can do when faced with this dilemma,” explained Martin Doyle, Managing Director of ETG.

“Taking more people on or increasing shift patterns is one answer, but not necessarily the right one in an age where technology can provide a much better and cost-effective alternative.”cnc robotics halter

He continued: “Our technical experts are now taking on a number of ‘lights-out’ production projects each month, where we will work with sub-contractors to explore the possibility of producing components through the night without any labour costs.

“Advancements in technology means this scenario is not purely the property of the big boys, with millions of pounds set aside to introduce it. No, instead SMEs from all sectors are now switching on to the benefits of this new industry trend of CNC robotics can bring.”

CNC Robotics: What are the benefits?

Although the key driver of ‘lights-out’ is to reduce labour costs, it is also possible to save money in other areas of the business. Having longer production through the night will enable more time to do shorter batch runs during the day for example.

It will also enable machinists to use their time more efficiently to set up the machines and CNC robotics for overnight production and you also have to take into consideration the fact that electricity companies provide a lower tariff for usage during the evenings. An often overlooked, but very welcome spin-off benefit.

“Whilst there are many advantages, it is not a decision you enter into lightly,” pointed out Martin, who is a passionate advocate of CNC robotics.

“Assuming that the components our customers want to produce are suitable for unattended operation, there are still some basic issues to take into account. Machine reliability is the first one, as there will be no engineers around to deal with unexpected stoppages so you’ll need to have full confidence in swarf management and coolant systems working on their own.”

The former engineering apprentice went on to add: “Other questions to answer could be ‘is the machine tool stable and rigid and can it operate continuously with additional option to aid lights-out, such as in-machine probing and tool-life management? Will the control system also monitor processes and provide corrective actions without human intervention?”

“Then you have to factor in the material handling equipment. Do you have the right CNC robotics, gantry or bar feeder solutions that make continuous production possible?”

CNC Robotics – ETG’s Role:

There are a lot of answers to provide, but that is where the Engineering Technology Group comes into its own.

All of the machines it supplies – whether it is a Bavius, Hardinge Bridgeport, Chiron, Nakamura, Quaser and STAMA – have the technology capable of achieving lights-out manufacturing.

Better still, ETG’s strategic partnerships with the likes of CNC automation specialist Halter and monitoring software provider CIMCO can give customers a lot of the tools they need to make the process as simple as possible.

“Our aim is to help clients get maximum production out of the machines available to them and all of our engineers have a fantastic knowledge of CNC robotics, gantry solutions, fixtures and automated workholding changes,” continued Martin.

“We can also provide preventative maintenance packages that reduce the risk of machines breaking down overnight and can install remote monitoring so that immediate alerts are sent to computers and mobile phones if issues around cutting tool breakage or machine failure arise.”

He concluded: “Lights-out manufacturing needs to be co-ordinated from every angle of the business. It’s a systematic change for everybody involved and it is essential to ensure that everyone in the company understands the plan, their roles and what it means moving forward.

“Get it right and the benefits are huge in terms of reducing costs, improving productivity, freeing up capacity and increasing volumes.”

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