Jeff Estes, director of Partners in THINC, the Okuma-founded manufacturing solutions group, says that machining facilities today are more interested than ever in unattended capacity. They are coming to Okuma and its partners in search of equipment and procedures able to provide lights-out machining.
However, he says many of these shops are looking to run lights-out not for a shift or a weekend, but just for a few hours per day. Having this much extra capacity is often enough to let the shop to meet its increased production demands significantly increasing overhead. When the goal is just this small amount of lights-out capacity, says Mr. Estes, typically a low-cost automation solution will do the job.
For example, what about a bar feed? A bar feed mated to a lathe with milling and drilling capability represents a versatile automated system. With an entire series of parts programmed into a common bar size, the machine can be left alone to run through the cycles for one part number after another. He says two Partners in THINC companies, Edge Technologies and Iemca, provide bar feeds with interfaces designed for unattended operations.
For even less investment, Mr. Estes suggests looking to the tombstones in the shop’s machining centers. Perhaps a two-face tombstone in the shop can be replaced with one that has four or six faces. The increased clamping area might make it possible to set up more jobs to run on a machining center before operators leave for the night.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle for any shop that is new to lights-out production is worry, he says. Shops ask, What if something goes wrong when no one is around? A legitimate response might be, “What if something goes wrong when someone is there?” A crash or tool failure in a modern machine happens too quickly to try to control the effect. Mr. Estes says the key is to prove the process by making a few parts prior to leaving the machine unattended. Most bad things happen during setup, first-piece machining or after some type of adjustment has been made by the operator.
But the concern does point to one factory automation device that isn’t even part of the factory. A challenge of unattended production knowing when and why a machine stops. Sophisticated controls today can address this challenge by sending detailed machine status information via e-mail. That is why one of the most valuable automation resources Mr. Estes sees is a PDA or smartphone used to receive alerts and operational status information from the machine. In a modern unattended machining process, personnel can leave the shop without ever having to be far from knowing just how the machines are doing, and how far along they are on the unattended run.
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