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Automation: You Can Do It!

Job shops are incubators for innovation.

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Job shops are incubators for innovation. Increasingly, they are applying automation to operations that traditionally were manual. A shop we visited to do a video about its lean initiatives is an example of this trend.  

Vanamatic, Delphos, Ohio, has a number of hand-load operations on lathes, tap machines and drill presses. All day, an operator puts one part after another in and out of a collet. Many tasks involved in the operation do require a skilled machinist — setup, inspection, tool changes, maintenance and more — but moving parts in and out of a collet is low-skilled work and very time consuming. 

The company is targeting these low-skilled tasks and replacing them with simple pick-and-place automation so its most-valued assets can put their talents to better use. What’s interesting is they design and build much of this automation in-house using readily available commercial components. Engineer Adam Wiltsie uses off-the-shelf 3D modeling software to design his automation projects and imports engineering drawings of the components he needs from vendors’ websites.

 “The latest pick-and-place project has been extremely successful,” Mr. Wiltsie says. “We have run close to 1 million cycles so far on a family of about 10 different hex parts. A part is loaded into a collet while the part in the other collet is being machined. The pick-and-place operation is fast enough to complete the unloading and loading of a collet during the machining time so the mill can jump back and forth, machining parts at rates as low as 7 seconds per piece with efficiencies in the 95-percent range.”

The total hard cost for the automation components and integration is just over $20,000. Cylinders, sensors, a conveyor, a couple of collet blocks and some custom fabrication turned a 100-percent-manned operation into simple machine tending and part verification. It now takes fewer people to operate the cell, and those in the cell are doing more value-added work in place of loading collets.

“This kind of automation is affordable, flexible and well worth the investment,” concludes Mr. Wiltsie. Click here to see our interview video of Mr. Wiltsie talking about his lean initiatives at Vanamatic.