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GRINDING MACHINES Why automation is the future of manufacturing

Jan 23, 2020

With the baby boomer generation close to retiring from full-time operation, manufacturing companies are facing dilemma on how they can maintain the current production levels with fewer skilled workers. The article assesses the various methods grinding automation can supplement one’s workforce and boost production without adding personnel at workstations.

Automation offers manufacturers the promise of greater profitability and efficiency despite the shrinking skilled workforce. Two commissioned studies of manufacturer behaviour reveal gaps between the desire to add automation and the actual adoption of the technology, along with changing trends in automation integration patterns. These patterns support a growing role for manufacturers in automating their own grinding equipment, and for machine tool OEMs in creating automation systems that meet manufacturer expectations.

Grinding manufacturers and automation

In 2015, a study of manufacturers who use grinding equipment showed that few had adopted automation technology, but many wanted to deploy it in the future. Of the survey participants who had invested in automation, more had chosen robotic technology than gantry loaders. Even more significantly, only 10% of manufacturers had integrated their own automation systems. Instead, 90% passed that responsibility to an almost equal mixture of machine tool OEMs (46%) and automation integrators (44%). Clearly, manufacturers lacked the ability or at least the willingness to undertake automation integration themselves, for at the time, only automation integrators possessed the expertise necessary to design and install these systems.

Three years later, re-surveying this manufacturer population showed persistent large gaps in automation adoption, although respondents overwhelmingly continued to plan automation investments. The technologies they chose had changed, however, along with how they chose to integrate them. Now, 36% of respondents integrated their own automation systems, and increasingly, those who looked at third parties for automation systems chose machine tool OEMs (56%) over automation integrators (31%). As a result, 92% of manufacturers that now either handled automation need themselves or took advantage of options available directly through the company that created their grinding equipment.

Misconceptions in automation implementation

Manufacturers face growing pressure to thrive in a marketplace that demands higher production levels at lower per-part costs, often in a high-mix, low-volume environment, with increased competition for customers and a dwindling skilled-labour pool. Automation adoption patterns reflect some of these complex stresses, and the trends within these results offer enormous opportunities for machine tool OEMs to assist customers who want to obtain automation systems directly from them. To take advantage of these opportunities, however, machine tool OEMs must counter misconceptions that continue to deter automation adoption. These persistent, recurring objections reflect history rather than present-day realities.

  • Technical restrictions

    Both grinding automation research studies cited above found that technical restrictions, investment costs, project complexity, integration of ancillary equipment, quality risks and operating costs ranked in descending order as perceived obstacles to automation technology adoption – but the respondents identifying technical restrictions as a barrier to technology adoption dropped from 71% in 2015 to 40% in 2018. Real technical restrictions do exist in some cases – including the need to function within FDA guidelines when creating products for the medical industry – but some manufacturers overestimate the presence of these limitations. Additionally, many of these constraints vanish with the seamless integration of machine-tool OEM automation.

  • Costs

    Many manufacturers continue to believe that automation technology costs more than they want to invest, which creates an opportunity for OEMs who can introduce capable, relevant and appropriately priced systems that serve defined customer needs. The studies cited above discovered that many manufacturers value cost over unattended operations, opting for $100,000 systems that may require human intervention twice an hour instead of $300,000 systems that can handle an entire production shift.

  • Skills gap

    Interestingly, the 2015 survey also found that manufacturers plan to invest in grinding automation first to increase productivity, second because of the skilled labour shortage, followed by an interest in raising repeatability and quality on the production line. At the same time, however, even if employers do not yet feel the full pressure that will apply when the majority of the ‘baby boom’ generation retires from fulltime employment – taking with it an in-depth mastery of many complex manufacturing processes – that skilled-labour drought will arrive by 2028, adding to the rationale and urgency about automation adoption. In fact, research conducted Deloitte predicts that employers will fill only 2.2 million, leaving 2.4 million – 53% of openings – to lie vacant.

Price competition and equipment diversification have accompanied the continued maturation of automation technology. Although robotics holds the lead among automation types, gantry loaders remain useful in some installations while pallet changers expedite parts fixturing and loading to increase machine throughput. OEM development and integration of automation systems for grinding equipment continues to rise as manufacturers increasingly expect OEMs to offer standard options with new machine purchases or as retrofits for recentgeneration equipment.

Manufacturers who adopt OEM automation on new machines skip the need to integrate, assemble and troubleshoot diverse products, or to select a system integrator and rely on its ability to accomplish the task. For example, once United Grinding established its ‘Automation department’ to develop new automation products and systems, it began to produce an increasing roster of standard systems along with custom automations of specific equipment combinations from among the company’s eight grinding machine brands.

Creating the perfect automation system

The best automation systems start with objectives that customers identify and use customer feedback to refine prototype designs. The automation epartment took exactly that tack – understand and meet the customer need – in creating its flexLoad system, a standard loader for many Studer models of OD and ID grinding machines. Additionally, customer input prioritised load/unload times of six seconds on a system that can include Statistical Process Control (SPC) for parts inspection and handling of rejects. An operator can open any of up to three completed-parts drawers while the grinding machine continues to run at full speed, all without altering the machine’s internal working temperature. To clear coolant from chucks or tooling, United Grinding added an air nozzle mounted on the flexLoad system’s robot arm. The system also can incorporate gauging, barcode scanning and other operations that add functionality without increasing cycle time unduly.

Along with production speed, safety tops the list of necessities for automation systems. For this reason, the company has opted to create a full-system enclosure for its flexLoad with a flanged side door between the machine and the robot. Because this portal remains closed unless the machine operator issues an explicit request for entry, the system provides necessary safety precautions without using a collaborative robot. This side-entry design also cuts six to eight seconds from overall cycle time compared to a front-door access design. Additionally, the engineered ID-machine version of flexLoad puts the system on the left side of the machine instead of the right, which necessitated creating a mirror-image design.

Automation integration: DIY or OEM?

Whether manufacturers add grinding automation systems through new hardware purchases or as retrofits for existing equipment, they face important considerations that shape the options they buy and how they use them. Engineering expertise becomes critical in selecting and installing automation products as manufacturers increasingly either opt to integrate their own grinding automation systems or look to equipment OEMs to supply the technology. Ideally, automation integrators offer detailed, thorough knowledge of the technology they sell, but they may lack detailed understanding of the grinding machines that host the automation. By contrast, selecting a machine tool OEM as the source of an automation system assures that skilled personnel with intimate knowledge of the grinding machines themselves as well as the automation systems take on the responsibility for installation and training. To keep automated equipment operating correctly, manufacturers must consider the effects of systemic failure and plan ahead to overcome them. Some manufacturers simply bring in temporary workers and revert to manual operations because they lack a stock of repair parts and the proficiency to install them.

Redefining with automation boom

Manufacturing stands on the verge of an automation boom, with an upcoming dramatic rise in the number of jobs that technology will replace, redefine or create. As these changes arrive, some manufacturers will source and implement their automation systems themselves while others will rely on machine tool OEMs to create integrated, tested turnkey solutions. Those manufacturing companies that opt for systems specifically designed for their equipment will benefit from the cross-functional talents of an OEM staff. Machine tool OEMs such as United Grinding see the future clearly and support its positive impact on the businesses their customers operate, elevating the state of the grinding industry while they dispel misconceptions that slow down automation adoption.

Courtesy: Automation Department at United Grinding

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