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How Machine Shops Can Optimize During a Lull

Advice for using downtime to improve your machine shop.
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CNC Machining Touch Probe

Investing in new technology, like this touch probe, is one way to improve your operation.
Photo Credit: AMT – the Association For Manufacturing Technology

Many organizations in the manufacturing sector have had to hit the pause button during the COVID pandemic. If you are dealing with a temporary downturn or lull, Gisbert Ledvon, director of business development — machine tool at Heidenhain Corporation, offers some advice for how to use your time productively. In a recent interview for IMTS, Ledvon mentioned the “OPTIMIZE” acronym for improving business operations:

  • Optimize operations throughout your company and supply chain.
  • Purchase locally, even if it means seeking out new suppliers.
  • Train your staff — teach your programmers and CAM operators more about the CNC control.
  • Invest in new technology — the cost of borrowing is at an historic low and government incentives are available (including tax credits).
  • Monitor your efficiency — how much time is the CNC really making chips?
  • Innovate — get out of your comfort zone and explore new markets.
  • Zoom — the new method of conference calls is here to stay, so use it to stay in front of customers.
  • Execute on new information and data gathered.

Ledvon explains how these principles work to improve operations for all kinds of organizations.

Optimize

“First, don’t focus on the negatives during these challenging times. There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ledvon says. He encourages companies to stay in touch with customers and suppliers and use the time to optimize their operations.

“We recently worked with a mid-sized, family-owned job shop that moved from a three-axis machine to a five-axis machine. The ability to cut more part geometries with a single setup really opened their eyes,” he says. “They purchased a second five-axis system just eight months later. Now they can bid on different types of parts and bid more competitively.”

Purchase Locally

Acu-Rite, which produces readout systems, precision glass scales and CNC controls, is part of the Heidenhain family. In 2018, Acu-Rite shifted some production from New York state to Schaumburg, Illinois. With all the job shops in the area, Acu-Rite chose to connect with one of them to source brackets and other mechanical components to support the retrofit of knee mills.

“Because of the depth of local resources in northern Illinois and Wisconsin, we can save a lot on shipping costs compared to buying brackets from overseas,” Ledvon says. “If there is a production issue, we are just 500 yards apart, so it’s easy to see what is happening at each other’s facility.”

Using local suppliers can lower shipping costs, eliminate shipping delays and allow collaboration, improving the supply chain. For a more detailed look, Ledvon advises companies to perform a total cost of ownership analysis, which includes using this online estimating tool.

Train

Even good programmers benefit from training. In one case, a programmer was proud of the program he wrote for a drilling cycle because he couldn’t find that function on the controller. In reality, all he had to do was use the CNC control’s right arrow key to move the menu over to open up the drilling cycles and many others.

“We often see people who do not understand how to use three-point alignment functionality so that when you use our touch probe to locate a part, your five-axis machine will automatically align the plane. As a result, you don’t have to shim the part,” Ledvon explains. “It’s like our smartphone. They’re very powerful, but we are only aware of a fraction of their capabilities.”

Another example he cited was programmers and operators who were unaware of the software function that lets them use a touch probe to inspect a part and generate a report before removing the part from its fixture. This can reduce rework, especially for the first few parts in a lot or if the part will be difficult to re-fixture.

Invest

Now is a good time to explore new technology. Users can start with simple automation, such as a pallet changer, a load/unload robot for cells dedicated to longer part runs or a cobot to support workers.

“The touch probe we just mentioned cost a few thousand dollars, but so many people don’t use one. Adding it to the tool carousel can really help you become more productive,” he says.

Monitor

“Large companies are looking for more data acquisition from their machine tools,” Ledvon says. “Understanding efficiency within and between locations first starts with better monitoring of your cutting machines.”

Heidenhain offers StateMonitor software to help companies monitor machine status. It automatically conducts analytics and generates data points. It can send out messages to operators, programmers or maintenance personnel. New functions include the ability to monitor specific sensors on the CNC, such as for a coolant tank, spindle or ballscrews.

“We had one customer connect 70 machines to their internal network. Through the StateMonitor, they quickly identified bottlenecks,” Ledvon says. “For example, they learned that even though the machine was available to run the part, machine operators were still waiting for the programs to be delivered, so they focused on other tasks and the machine went unused for an even longer period of time.”

Using the StateMonitor, the company in this example also learned operators were overriding speeds and feeds on the machine tool — not to gain time, but to slow it down because they were uneasy with instructions from the programmer. The operators lacked confidence and were worried about causing damage.

“This company addressed their operators’ fear factor through more training,” he says. “Now that operators have verified the programming for themselves, they’re no longer worried about crashing a half-million dollar machine or scrapping parts.”

Innovate

In challenging times, companies need to move outside of their comfort zone and look at new industries and opportunities.

“Who could have known that we would need to shift our manufacturing capabilities to masks, ventilators, protective equipment or pill dies? We can make anything if we just put our mind to it, so what can we make new or better? The crisis will cause new industries to be born and old manufacturers to realign themselves.”

Zoom

Customers in some states could not travel because of quarantine requirements, yet they had made investments in millions of dollars of CNC machines. Heidenhain developed a hybrid solution of virtual training to visually communicate with customers using Cisco’s Webex (of course, Zoom or Microsoft Teams accomplish the same objective).

The hybrid part comes from creating a control simulator that has the actual keyboard and screen from a Heidenhain TNC 640 control, but with a video camera embedded in the screen.

“One company set up their control simulators on picnic tables in the shop so they could social distance, and others put them up near the CNCs in the shop, which are spaced more than six feet apart,” Ledvon says. “Training starts with two hours of our instructors working with them on the simulator, then the operators and programs move to the real machine for another couple of hours, and then they reconnect with the instructors in the afternoon. Our instructors have a head-mounted camera so students can follow their movement as they are working inside the machine and see the strokes on the keyboard.”

Execute

With information gathered from monitoring and programmers/operators equipped with new skills, companies need their executives to live up to the “execute” part of their name.

“You can’t run a business efficiently relying on raw emotions from operators or your own gut instinct,” Ledvon says.

“Data really opens people’s eyes, and the before and after situation when we install a StateMonitor follows a familiar pattern. People think they’re running at 70% efficiency. The spindle may be spinning, but the data shows they’re only cutting 40% of the time. More importantly, the data identifies the bottlenecks they need to remove, and that gives management the confidence to execute changes.”

The entire world is moving through uncharted territory, but it is moving forward. If you find yourself with more time on your hands than usual, use it as an opportunity to employ the OPTIMIZE strategy. You may uncover ways to become more profitable, explore new lines of revenue and become your own light at the end of the tunnel.


This article first appeared as a part of IMTS spark’s Rebuilding the Supply Chain category. Read the original: Eight Tips to OPTIMIZE Your Operation During the COVID Pause.

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