Automation Is the Future of Manufacturing | Okuma America

Automation in manufacturing, the use of computer-controlled equipment and software to perform manufacturing production processes, was developed to improve quality, efficiency, and productivity in manufacturing operations. 

From loading and unloading to conveyor or pallet systems, automation allows you to optimize the flow of production without an operator performing repetitive tasks. 

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With precise actions and timing, automation eliminates human error for seamless, highly accurate manufacturing.

The following is a guide to all types of automation—when it was created, how it has evolved, and how it can benefit your shop.

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Automation in manufacturing is not just the act of moving parts in and out of a machine. It involves designing an entire system to perform routine tasks automatically. From the planning phase, with software and control tools that drive data, to execution with robots or automation systems fulfilling those functions, automation takes steps to simplify manufacturing processes and bring consistency to routine operations.

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Leveraging CNC automation on the shop floor allows machines to do what they do best and people to do what they do best.

An operator in front of a machine performing repetitive tasks such as loading and unloading will never be as productive and consistent as a machine performing the same work. When these types of processes are automated, an operator can perform tasks that a machine can’t, such as critical process decision-making. In its best form, automation does not take away jobs; it allows for a more productive shop floor where machines and people are able to do tasks at which they are most efficient.

The idea of lights out manufacturing entered the manufacturing vocabulary by engineers in the late 1980s. In the beginning, automotive manufacturers were some of the earliest adopters, but today, the automation that makes lights out manufacturing possible is found in a wide variety of industries and companies of all sizes.

When working with some of the earliest automation systems, every pickup point had to be taught to the robot. It was a time- and labor-intensive process which required a dedicated robot programmer or integrator to manage, as well as multiple technicians to keep them running.

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Today, AI technology plays a key role in automation, bringing a level of smart decision-making and adaptability to manufacturing that previously wasn’t possible.

Any automation solution you seek to implement is designed to create a variety of benefits. With the ability to optimize your manufacturing processes, CNC automation solutions can increase your shop's productivity, efficiency, and accuracy--and limit downtime, too. Shops that adopt automation also experience increased machine tool ROI. For example, when the market price of a part or product is predetermined, the only way to ensure you're getting the maximum ROI is to produce more parts than your competitors and ultimately lower costs.

CNC automation can have a powerful impact on operators and other shop floor staff. Anything that is repetitive is a good candidate for automation—not just because automation brings efficiencies and results in reduced downtime, but because it can improve the operators’ physical and mental health when they’re no longer doing the same repetitive tasks and can focus on complex projects.

Experience all the benefits automation can bring to your shop floor, including:

  • TACKLE MORE WORK: Maximize spindle utilization. Automation enables continuous machining, which greatly increases production efficiency, even during non-operational hours.
  • INCREASED PROFITABILITY: Less time and material spent per part, less downtime, and more efficient operator utilization will lead to reduced costs.
  • REDUCED DOWNTIME: With reduced human intervention, the risk of making mistakes and the likelihood of unwanted downtime are decreased.
  • ATTRACT TALENT: Appeal to and maintain a highly skilled workforce with engaging tasks, ergonomics, and safety.
  • SAVE ON UTILITIES: Overhead costs such as lighting, HVAC, and even floor-space requirements can be reduced.
  • REDUCE SCRAP: Reducing human interaction provides greater consistency and lowers error rates.
  • INCREASED CONSISTENCY AND ACCURACY: An automated machine will be more precise because of less human error and fewer setups, resulting in consistency across the board.
  • INCREASED COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE: The ability to produce the highest quality part possible with high efficiency sets your shop apart from the competition

For manufacturers with high-volume production, introducing automation on the shop floor can have a strong impact since the time savings from an automation solution can result in more parts being made over time.

And, for manufacturers with low-volume, high-mix production, an automated machine can internalize functions that would otherwise be spread across several different machines. By putting those functions in a single machine, you simplify the automation. All you need is to get the part in and out of that machine.

Watch the video below to see how automation can be a cost-effective solution for low-volume parts manufacturers:

Automation has a wide variety of applications—manufacturers in any industry can utilize automation and see positive results. The scale of the improvement depends on the type of manufacturing, level of production, and type of automation system utilized.

It’s important to analyze where changes need to be made and where manufacturers want to create efficiencies to identify the best automation solution to fit those needs.

During considerations to add automation to your shop floor, it’s important to know baseline productivity to seek out benefits and make improvements. How much does it cost to make your part? What is your current spindle run time? Once you’ve established your current baseline, you can look ahead to how you can improve, whether that’s by cost, time, or streamlining labor.

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When you understand opportunities for improvement, you can easily identify anything in your process that’s standing in the way of achieving success, take measures to fix those areas, and implement automated processes that will help you meet your goals.

Start with the simplest, most recognizable barriers to meeting your goals. Once you’ve fixed the most obvious problems, you can track the data, see improvements, and potentially identify more areas that can be optimized.

There are many ways CNC automation can be implemented on the shop floor. In most machines, automation technology is built-in, allowing you to work on the machine and the automation controls simultaneously.

In other cases, and for manufacturers who want to automate machines currently on their shop floor, a custom automation solution can be implemented.

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Depending on the type of machine you’re looking to automate, certain types of automation will serve a different purpose and will match better with certain machines.

Prior to implementing an automation solution, operators and other technicians need training not only on the ins and outs of the machines but also on the new technologies they’ll be using. For a turnkey multi-robot system or a load-and-go system, it’s important to have training on your machine’s new automation functionality.

Watch the video below to see five key automation considerations that will minimize your process pains and boost your productivity gains, including workholding, tool management, and more.

Depending on your shop floor’s needs, different types of automation solutions operate in different ways and at different levels of control. Explore all of the automation solutions that may benefit your shop floor:

BAR FEEDERS are an entry-level automation solution for most Okuma lathes in a low-mix, high-production manufacturing environment. With a consistency of production, bar feeders can provide regular time and material savings over the course of operations, bringing higher efficiency and leading to cost savings.

AUTOMATIC PALLET CHANGERS use stationary pallet stands and a pallet transfer unit on the compact structure of a single-level storage system to provide flexibility and productivity in a minimal footprint. APCs can provide hours of unattended machining for vertical lathes, machining centers, and double columns. Choose from in-machine, single-level, or tower APC options.

FLEXIBLE MANUFACTURING SYSTEMS seamlessly operate numerous machines—even different models. FMSs are configured to manufacture a variety of parts and are able to adapt to changing levels of production.

OKUMA GANTRY LOADERS don’t have as much flexibility as a robotic cell but are able to perform faster, with a moving headstock that allows the loader to enter the machine regardless of turret position. OGLs are perfect for Okuma lathes or grinders. A built-in solution for efficient part load, unload, and turnover, OGLs significantly increase productivity.

PRE-KITTED AUTOMATION CELLS are preconfigured automation packages that are easy to integrate, quick to implement, and designed for all machine tool categories.

INDUSTRIAL AND INTEGRATED ROBOTICS are pre-engineered solutions for straightforward integration with configuration flexibility for specific applications.

COBOTS are a collaborative and customizable automation solution with programming, speed, safety settings, and intelligent features for insights into smart manufacturing.

OKUMA’S ROID SERIES features Okuma’s robot offerings, ARMROID and STANDROID. ARMROID is built into the machine tool to maintain and streamline operations. STANDROID is a standalone robot package that provides multifunctional and efficient manufacturing on a compact footprint. Both products in the ROID series provide flexibility to innovate at your optimal level of control.