It may seem strange to characterize an expensive capital investment this way, but perhaps the goal of any modern production machining process should be to become just like a bin.
That was what I came away thinking after my visit to Champion (Let Assembly Be The Inspection). This plant experimented with how far it could take a multitasking turning center in the production of its pistons, and it discovered it could take the machine far indeed. The precision parts could be machined complete in one setup. The plant realized that if the same process could just take care of loading and unloading, then the operator would be free to perform assembly right at this station. So the plant will install a robot. Once the robot is in place, the operator will simply take each part as she needs it—just as if she is reaching into a bin of parts.
The analogy is not perfect. When the assembly starts to feel snug because of a drift in a part dimension, the operator may adjust a CNC offset. Beyond the need for occasional attention such as this, however, the operator’s interaction with the robot-loaded machine will consist of simply grabbing parts.
We are used to thinking of machine tools being located in machine shops. One reason for this is that machine tools generally have benefited from being close together because they performed related work on the same part. Some machines do turning, for example, and others do milling or drilling. But that is not the case in the piston application, where one machine does all of the work. As far as the pistons are concerned, this machine is the machine shop.
Another reason we are used to thinking of machine tools in machine shops is that employees historically have needed special knowledge or skills to run them. That is still the case with the piston machine, but the need for oversight is much less.
In the “bin” model of the machine tool, it makes more sense for machining to occur where a bin would be located. That is, where the parts are needed. Thus the machine tool, or perhaps even an integrated machining process, moves out of the machine shop to reside wherever the next step after machining is being performed.
Consider this “outside the box” thinking in a literal sense. In fact, Champion had another box in mind when it started down this path. Seeing machining go to another country was a real possibility. With the process that behaves like a bin, the plant realized a solution that was more cost-effective than an overseas shipping container.