I’m among the first to dive into the latest manufacturing innovations and see how they can improve our customers’ operations. Yet, I’m also among the first to advise them to pause and ensure that the fundamentals of their manufacturing processes are in place before adding something new into the complex mix of functionality and desired outcomes. If the basic elements aren’t robust and consistent, then no sophisticated tool, pallet stacker, advanced toolpath, or factory information collection capabilities will help. In fact, adding all those elements could just make scrap parts faster or slow the process flow down as problems surface.
The foundation of the system is the machine tool. Every facet of a manufacturing process is an outgrowth of the machine’s fundamental design and construction integrity. The ideal is a core competency machine—perhaps even an application-specific one—with high volumetric accuracy designed to run for 75,000 hours and hold the process together through that time period. This is true whether you are a global OEM or a small job shop.
In fact, it’s those high-mix/low-volume scenarios familiar to subcontractors that can benefit the most from an investment in a reliable machine tool with a robust process, advanced automation and the latest software. Too many times I have seen a system making good parts, only to discover the process failing a few months later. The equipment simply couldn’t last for the long haul.
Assuming longevity and reliability are built into the foundation—the machine tool—process improvements can ensue on the march towards efficiency and cost savings. Process improvements usually relate to cycle time reduction, tool life extension and quality assurance. The goal is to make more parts in less time with the confidence that each part is within tolerance and, voila, a profit is made.
There have been advancements in controls and software so that users can now look at all aspects of machine functionality, part geometry and tool life—in real time. The result is that when the process starts to slip for whatever reason, it can be addressed before a failure. This allows for using planned downtime to take corrective action, keeping deliveries on schedule.
Monitoring the process also reveals operator interventions, which could signal process issues that can be corrected and streamlined. Further, adding macro subroutines can narrow the tolerance window to keep critical part features in the nominal range, compensating for cutting tool edge wear that can push the feature to the top of the tolerance limit. If problems are caught early in the process (remember to check the raw material, too), the current work flow in the factory isn’t impacted.
Not everyone likes to have metrology devices within the machine’s work area; however, if a reliable machine with high volumetric accuracy is on the job, all that’s necessary is to check a couple of features to ensure tolerances are still in the sweet spot. New contact and noncontact scanning software allow operators to quickly verify if the component is correct or not. However, it’s even faster to simply use a highly accurate machine tool from the start to keep work-in-process (WIP) down.
Another key anchor to process reliability are the cutting tools. Quality tooling—with good edge preps designed for certain materials and applications—works exceptionally well with matched, application-specific machine tools. The initial price of that cutter may look higher than others, but if it lasts longer and the reliability of that cutting edge is better, then there is optimal work flow through the shop. That “expensive” tool becomes the most cost-effective tool.
As one customer said to me, in the end it’s all about “reliable monthly output.” The goal is to get workpieces in, consistently process them, unmanned if possible, and get finished parts out. How does that happen? With system and process reliability, built-in, from the foundation up.