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Process Mentality Essential for Full Productivity

Tom Funke
By Tom Funke Component Engineered Tooling Manager, Seco Engineered Solutions

Without a fully optimized manufacturing process, individual machines and entire manufacturing operations fall short of their full productivity and cost-effectiveness potentials. To avoid this fate, shops should take advantage of engineering and process optimization support services typically offered by manufacturing equipment suppliers. Such services can encompass just a few lines of code for a cutting program or a comprehensive, turnkey solution for the development and maintenance of an entire production line.

This represents a major evolution in thinking about processes. For many shops, “process improvement” begins and ends with the purchase of a new machine or component. The approach is simple, but expensive, and frequently results in just replacing a suboptimal process with just a newer suboptimal process. The sophisticated technology in the latest machines, fixturing and tooling requires equally sophisticated process management.

Those shops that make continuous improvement a core part of their strategy should seek out a process optimization partner. Whether beginning work on a new family of parts or making large capital investments in the form of state-of-the-art machines, process optimization experts can make recommendations on tools, CAM software or even entire machine lines to reap the greatest potential return on investment.

To obtain the best results, shops must begin with the part and ask themselves what is the most optimized way to produce it. One might cut a pocket using dynamic milling, high-feed milling or plunge milling. Unfortunately, what frequently happens is that most shops simply opt for the cheapest available machine or an easily implemented process. A process optimization specialist, on the other hand, would, in this case, point out that a high-precision, high-speed milling cutter used to plunge will cut pockets poorly, while a long-edge tool that performs dynamic cutting would work best. Armed with this information, process optimization experts can build an entire workflow around the part’s production, from the machine to the individual tools and cutting data.

Of course, beginning the optimization process prior to even purchasing a machine can be impractical. In these cases, a specialist will likely gather the available data about the current manufacturing process.

Then, the optimization process begins with this question: “What is the most efficient result that can be obtained with these inputs?” This often involves a look through the archives. Few projects involve any real unknowns for a sufficiently experienced group of engineers, none of whom want to reinvent the wheel. Instead, the experts apply their own know-how to the customer-supplied data to evaluate such things as cost-per-unit and projected cycle times and create a documented process with recommended cutting data.

This approach to process optimization is nothing new, but it has become much harder to accomplish in-house for all but the largest of companies. For everyone else, retaining the engineering and operational talent necessary to craft optimal processes is difficult. Few manufacturing suppliers offer turnkey process solutions with their machines, and most shop managers are uninterested in process optimization when they have worn-out machinery to replace.

So shops have many reasons to seek out a manufacturing supplier with process optimization expertise. Automakers, for example, often continuously improve their processes. An automotive OEM might redesign its vehicle wheel styles twice a year, and in those instances, machine tool optimization would ensure that they find a reliable set of standard tooling that will allow them to execute those changes without buying a new tool for every new wheel rim design.

At the other end of the spectrum, an aerospace firm may produce fewer components a year, but each one will see daily use for decades. Process managers can oversee changes to tooling, technology and processes over the components’ lifetimes so they can speedily solve production hiccups.

The process mentality is essential. It is no longer enough to buy the best machines or hire the best operators; to stay competitive, firms must design and implement optimal processes. With the help of an optimization service, firms can close the loop from programs to machines to tooling and arrive at a process that obtains the best possible results.

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