Competing With Automation

Who would have guessed that an electrical discharge machine could work so fast that it would need a robot to keep it busy when everybody had gone home for the day? Who would have guessed that mold making, the epitome of skilled craftsmanship in metalworking, could lend itself to some of the most advanced automation in manufacturing? Who would have guessed that molds could be designed with so many cavities and inserts that all the electrodes and components needed to produce such molds would multiply and multiply and multiply? Who would have guessed that completing a complex, high quality mold in one half or one third of the normal time could be the new standard for mold work around the world? Who would have guessed that workers in mold shops overseas could be so talented, well trained and well equipped yet paid so little? Quite a few mold shop owners and managers in our part of the world did guess right about these things. They figured out what was happening years ago.

Columns From: 2/5/2002 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Mark Albert

Mark has been writing his Mark: My Word column every month since January, 1981.

Who would have guessed that an electrical discharge machine could work so fast that it would need a robot to keep it busy when everybody had gone home for the day?

Who would have guessed that mold making, the epitome of skilled craftsmanship in metalworking, could lend itself to some of the most advanced automation in manufacturing?

Who would have guessed that molds could be designed with so many cavities and inserts that all the electrodes and components needed to produce such molds would multiply and multiply and multiply?

Who would have guessed that completing a complex, high quality mold in one half or one third of the normal time could be the new standard for mold work around the world?

Who would have guessed that workers in mold shops overseas could be so talented, well trained and well equipped yet paid so little?

Quite a few mold shop owners and managers in our part of the world did guess right about these things. They figured out what was happening years ago. Many of them didn't waste any time investing in the technology that allows them to compete with mold shops anywhere on the globe.

They put in robots to load and unload EDMs and CNC graphite mills. They created cells that could keep work moving from one high speed process to another without manual intervention. They computerized job planning and shop routing to streamline workflow. They set up integrated closed loop inspection systems to virtually guarantee that results would be on target.

The idea is to let machines and computers, rather than skilled people, do as much work as possible and with as few interruptions as possible. This minimizes the labor costs in each mold so that neither high wages nor low wages are much of a factor. Likewise, it minimizes lead times by making use of almost every minute and hour of the day.

However, there's one other thing that a mold shop needs to win at this game: enough work to keep the whole system sufficiently loaded so that it generates adequate revenue to pay for itself and turn a profit. If the mold work is out there, then automated shops have the best chance to get the share they need.

So, at this point, what are the chances for the non-automated shop trying to catch up?

That's anybody's guess.

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