Lights On or Lights Out, Shop Automation Shines

Dylan Welchman

Daifuku flexible manufacturing system working alongside the Okuma MB5000HII

When you think about it, the term CNC automation is somewhat misleading; after all, CNC is automation. Without it, we’d still be machining parts by hand. Rather, it’s the scope and degree of the automation available today that has shop owners excited. And, as with any new leap in technology, the recent advancements in automation offer new opportunities worth talking about.

"For many machine shops today, the most promising avenue of potential expansion is not a new market or an addition to their facilities, but instead the untapped, unstaffed nighttime hours that could be captured for automated, 'lights out' production."

– Modern Machine Shop, May 2019
Okuma CNC machine with automation

Right now, much of the automation buzz is about “lights out” manufacturing, the ability to machine parts 24/7 without human operators. This creates a huge new opportunity for shops to increase utilization and productivity by adding second, third, and weekend shifts without increasing labor and overhead costs – plus an increase in quality by eliminating human error.

At the same time, these opportunities come with trade-offs, the biggest of which is the upfront cost. Lights out manufacturing requires a significant investment in automation, machines, and advanced technology. You also sacrifice some flexibility; with no one on-site, there is no way to make changes or respond quickly to an unexpected situation, like a down machine or time-sensitive customer request.

The bottom line is that running lights out by leveraging advanced automation can make a tremendous positive impact on a shop’s productivity and profit under the right conditions. Some machines — like grinders, lathes, and horizontal machining centers — are better adapted to running unattended than others. Likewise, some materials yield better results than others. For example, softer materials like aluminum are easier on tools than, say, titanium. So, there’s less chance of coming to work in the morning only to find a basket full of rejects due to excessive tool wear.

The key takeaway is that lights out machining can be great but might not be the best fit for every machine, every job, or every shop. While a lot of the buzz around automation is about lights out operations, there’s still plenty more to say about what automation can do for you when the lights are on!

Let’s Talk Lights On!

Lights on automation refers to the dozens of machining tasks and processes that can be completed without human intervention during operating hours. Automated systems range from simple bar feeders and automatic pallet changers to gantry loaders, robotics, and flexible manufacturing systems. While lights out manufacturing is an excellent capability to have, lights on manufacturing helps pay the bills day-in and day-out, enabling shop owners to:

  • Take on more work and realize better ROI
  • Improve margins by lowering cost per piece
  • Shorten lead times
  • Optimize employee value
  • Reduce scrap
Okuma Gantry Loader
industrial robotic arm loading parts in an Okuma CNC machine

The Evolving Role of the Machinist

Among the significant impacts created by automation is the changing role of the machine operator. Instead of repetitive, task-oriented jobs, machine operators are doing more process management. Automation also handles much of the complex programming for processes that traditionally required a technician, which reduces the training and onboarding needed for new operators.

The Robots vs. Humans Myth

"Despite large-scale deployment of robots, most manufacturers surveyed don’t see automation affecting their labour force.

When asked, 57 per cent said that robots are working alongside human workers in their facilities rather than displacing people from jobs. Almost one-quarter surveyed (22 per cent) use robots in specific sectors of their factories. Only one-fifth of manufacturing leaders surveyed see robots actually taking over jobs. Other organizations mirror these sentiments. The World Economic Forum estimated that robots will affect about 85 million jobs across various industries by the year 2025 but create 97 million new jobs in the process."

– Canadian Metalworking, June 16, 2023

Ironically, automation has often been unfairly characterized as an effort by shop managers to replace workers, creating apprehension among machine operators toward the technology. The reality is quite different. Far from replacing jobs, automation is helping to create more jobs. By increasing productivity, sometimes exponentially, automated systems enable shops to take on more work, which requires additional process management expertise.

Ultimately, it is up to shop managers to ensure that automation is being used for the tasks for which it is best suited and the same for their employees. This requires evaluating every task and process in every cell and asking if it is the best use of the operator’s time and skill set. If not, could an automated solution free up the operator to focus on a higher-value task?

Using automation to fully utilize employees’ talents not only improves production but also creates a more rewarding atmosphere in which employees can grow and thrive. The ability to focus on jobs that keep their minds engaged helps employees feel more valued and decreases the rate of injuries and accidents. Quite simply, highly knowledgeable individuals cannot be replaced due to the value they bring to the machining process.

Still, when it comes to implementing and integrating some automation technologies, many shops feel they are in unfamiliar waters and unprepared to make the best decisions. This is where an experienced partner like Okuma can be extremely helpful. In April 2023, Okuma announced the formation of a corporate division and team dedicated to helping machine shops of all sizes leverage the benefits of automation.

Okuma Factory Automation Division

Okuma’s Factory Automation Division is designed to partner with machine shops to help them uncover hidden potential and develop automation solutions. It brings together automation OEMs like Edge Technologies, Bucci Industries, Fastems, FANUC, and Gosiger Automation with the customer and their distributor to develop and integrate the right automated solutions for any specific job.

These solutions range from introductory automation, such as bar feeders and parts catchers, to APCs, full FMS solutions, and robotic cells. Okuma machine tools work with a wide variety of automation solutions to make automation successful in whatever way it works for your shop.

Okuma’s new division will also assist machine shops in integrating its own array of automation solutions, including both APCs and robots. The launch of this new division coincides with the reignited Partners in Technology program, a fully equipped facility that serves as both an innovation showcase and technology proving ground for Okuma and its 45+ elite partners. Here, customers can meet with Okuma partners, distributors, and Okuma engineers to select and customize automation for their Okuma machine tools.

industrial cobots loading and unloading parts

What Does Your Automation Roadmap Look Like?

Whether they’re large or small, high-volume/low-mix or low-volume/high-mix, every shop and manufacturer can benefit from automation. This is especially true now, as the industry faces a scarcity of available workers. As mentioned earlier, an automated shop is not only more productive but also more attractive to potential employees looking for fulfilling and engaging work.

Now, with such a large ecosystem of solutions and a solid infrastructure provided by partners like Okuma, it’s never been easier for any shop or manufacturer to develop and implement a customized automation roadmap.

Contact your local Okuma distributor for more information on how to start your automation journey.

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