For many machine shops and precision cutting tool suppliers, speed is often the name of the game. How fast can I get my order of indexable inserts? Can I get a quote within the next hour? How soon can you complete a project?
Digital technologies are a key factor in enabling machine shops to work faster than ever before. But how are they doing it? And what technologies are driving efficiency?
Enter the Digital Machine Shop
Despite their dependence on technology like heavy equipment and engineering tools, many machine shops are what some would consider “old school”. A more appropriate description of these businesses is that they rely on a business model built during the 20th century.
But that’s quickly changing today with the arrival of Industry 4.0 technologies like automation, robotics, additive manufacturing (i.e., 3D printing), and the Internet of Things (IoT).
According to a 2019 Oxford Economics report, integrating more robots in the manufacturing industry could add $4.9 trillion to the global economy by 2030. Meanwhile, the World Economic Forum predicts that 42% of the time spent on manufacturing tasks will be automated by 2022.
‘Working Smart’ with Tech
But how do these new technologies work in your average machine shop? Contrary to what many people think, digitalisation is not just about fancy robots installed on immaculately clean assembly lines.
Automation is perhaps the fastest and most practical way to embrace digital manufacturing. When done right, it can improve the efficiency of your processes and free your workforce from having to spend hours on manual, repetitive tasks.
Let’s look at how a CNC machine shop typically accepts orders for parts.
- Before a customer receives their product, they first need to request a quote for their desired item.
- Because of finite resources, different customers will often have varying lead times and alternative price quotes, depending on the complexity of their order.
- Silos also contribute to inconsistent lead times and quotes. Your sales reps and machinists may not be communicating as often as you’d want to, leading to poor collaboration.
Automation won’t give you access to more resources, but it does give your shop a clearer overview of all your processes, creating a more efficient operating model.
For example, CAD automation will ensure that your shop’s sales representatives automatically get approval drawings and visual documentation confirming the final product your customers need. This helps set clearer expectations between your sales reps, your customer, your supply chain and your machinists, helping everyone be on the same page during the development, production and installation of a product.
More Detailed and Accurate Quotes at Scale
In addition, digital manufacturing powered by automation supports smarter, more comprehensive quotes enabled by better visibility between design teams and machinists.
For example, you can deploy an automated system that identifies order features that are difficult to machine or require specific materials upfront — well before the production process begins. This makes it easier and faster to make modifications during the design stage and avoid costly reworks, which leads to customer dissatisfaction and has a knock-on effect on your other projects’ timelines.
In contrast, traditional manufacturing methods often depend on an experienced machinist providing feedback on a requested part. That’s fine if you have a small operation, but it simply cannot be done at scale quickly and efficiently. By bringing automation to your quoting processes, direct feedback can be returned to your product designers or engineers in a matter of hours — if not minutes.
These improvements may not seem much at first, but they can make a world of difference to your capacity, leading to:
- More consistent lead times, even for custom orders
- Reduced supply chain risks
- More reliable pricing
- More agile on-demand production
- Better visibility of plastic and metal material options for customers
- Faster prototyping capabilities
- Reduced risk of downtime.
Embracing digital machining offers many benefits. But ultimately, the improvements introduced by automation will address often-ignored inefficiencies, saving your digital machine shop time and money. This means getting products to market faster, having a better view of your supply chain and fostering better collaboration between the different teams in your business.
Gary Clegg has been in the manufacturing and engineering industry for over 35 years, working his way up from an apprentice to production manager. Gary is a time-served CNC machine engineer and has experience in all fields of engineering, including milling, drilling, turning and threading. After leaving the shop floor to join the tool supply industry, he gained additional knowledge and experience in the tool and work holding category, making him an expert in static and driven tools, with contacts with all leading CNC manufacturers.