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Levels of Automation

Small Shop Sees Big Gains from Right-Sized Automation

Barbara Schulz | Gardner Business Media

A three-person German machine shop applies quick-change workholding and flexible robotic automation to succeed in a high-mix/low-volume production environment.

The key to implementing automation is to recognize that machine shops don’t have to take an all-or-nothing approach to it.

In fact, there are different levels of automation in which a shop can choose to invest. For example, automation sometimes includes sophisticated robotic systems, but other times a bar feeder or quick-change workholding can provide sufficient capacity gains. Shops must identify a starting level of automation and then adjust that level to meet their future needs as they grow in confidence and competence.

In this story, Zelos Zerspanung, a three-person machine shop located in Germany, leveraged quick-change workholding, then a robotic loader and pallet pool, and finally robotic loading of vise-clamped parts to establish an effective process for high-mix/low-volume work. For this to happen, the shop had to identify the level of automation technology that would enable it to efficiently machine a wide range of parts.

Palletization Slashes Setup Time for Racing Shop

Jedd Cole | Modern Machine Shop

Whereas his predecessor had left Big Kaiser’s Unilock pallets in the corner, Charlie Mitchell of Andretti Autosport saw that they could help him reduce setup time on his milling machines in an environment where quick turnaround is essential. 

“Whether the car is going up to North Carolina for a wind tunnel test, or it’s going to Iowa for a road course test, it costs hundreds of thousands of dollars to send people there on the company plane. I can’t say, ‘I’m not going to get that part for you in time.’ I have to hit that mark.” 

– Charlie Mitchell, Machinist, Andretti Autosport


An Automation Roadmap

The first step in automation is often the hardest: beginning. Many shops choose to start with simple forms of automation technology and build it step by step, process by process, to meet future needs.

Stabilizing and Standardizing Processes

Automating the production process often involves tradeoffs. Making small concessions here or there can enable shops to simplify and standardize their production process, leading to long-term productivity and capacity gains.

Lights-Out Machining

For many machine shops, the most promising avenue of expansion is not a new market or an addition, but instead the untapped nighttime hours that could be captured for automated, “lights-out” production.