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Using Advanced Manufacturing in Your Machine Shop

Be on the lookout for ways to incorporate advanced manufacturing in your shop.
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Labor is always an important topic of discussion in manufacturing circles. I contend that embracing technology and advanced manufacturing is the best defense against a labor shortfall. I decided back in the ‘70s that I would leverage the talented employees that I have rather than focus on people that I don’t. It made sense then to use advanced manufacturing methods to increase productivity and efficiency. And while advanced manufacturing means so many things today, the purpose remains the same. Here are some drivers that led me down this path:

  • Labor is hard to find. Good employees are hard to find—we’ve had five job openings since last summer. This problem has existed for decades and will continue into the foreseeable future. However, I see a group effort addressing these issues in my area of the country. We are bringing back high school involvement in the trades; there is active participation with community colleges; and we’ve seen industry-driven training programs with an emphasis on often-overlooked labor sectors. Manufacturing is hot now, and we need to show people that making things can be rewarding and fun. We’re in the middle of the gray tsunami, plenty of jobs are available, our plants are improving, the trades pay well and the jobs are stable. It’s a great time to be in manufacturing— spread the word.
  • Every person is another set of problems. Less labor equals fewer problems. Is it easier to manage 10 people or 100? I theorized that if I could run my shop with less people, I’d have fewer issues to deal with. What if I invested in technology? As I look back to the ‘70s, I sometimes ponder how many employees it would take to achieve the same output as we do today with 25 people and advanced technology. How many bodies would it take running manual machines and doing multiple setups? Remember that if the handles weren’t turning, you weren’t making parts. I think 100 people—no, make that 150 people.
  • Technology is fun. I love my job, and I love manufacturing. No longer am I defending my career choice to the naysayers. You and I have changed those things ourselves. We are employing technology. We have cleaned up our act; our employees can come to work looking good and leaving the same way. I am intrigued by the advances in machines, machine accessories, probes, inspection equipment and software.

How We Did It

Our road to advanced manufacturing started with a determined (or stubborn) mindset, and the fact that I was excited to explore the advances in technology. I was not afraid of the new stuff as long as it made sense. I jumped on numerical control (NC) in 1980 when I purchased a paper-tape (remember that?) series II Bridgeport. I added a Mazak Quickturn 10 lathe in 1982 that gave us computer numerical control (CNC) technology. In 1987, I invested in a Monarch vertical machining center that cost twice as much as my house. More importantly, I studied and purchased the accessories I needed to advance. I purchased the machine with two pallets. If we were in the middle of a job and couldn’t go any further, off came the first pallet and on went the second pallet (an idle spindle makes no money).

We didn’t stop there. After moving the shop in 1995, we continued to explore the advantages of advanced manufacturing. I was intrigued by the advancements in machine tools and decided to invest in high-end turning centers. We could complete a part with one setup and immediately inspect it or send it to a customer. What labor savings. In 1998, I took a leap of faith and purchased my first horizontal machining center with an auto-guided vehicle and a set of 12 pallets. This decision changed the way we processed rectangular-shaped parts. One operator could keep several machines busy machining parts all day long and even after he/she went home. We routinely ran our lathes and mills all night long without a single person in the building with much success.

We have continued on the path of minimizing labor with advanced manufacturing and continue to look under every stone for opportunities to increase productivity. I hope I’ve made my point that advanced manufacturing can solve a portion of your labor shortage. Some labor-saving methods are simple, and some are very complex. I continue to believe in technology and advanced manufacturing. As it turns out, the whole world is catching on, and advanced manufacturing is everywhere. I hope your shop is engaged with this movement. Let’s “step it up” in 2018.