Automation for the nation


In conversation with Technical Editor Steed Webzell, Phil Cattaneo, Business Development Manager – Automation at NCMT, explains why it’s never too late (or soon) to automate machining

When it comes to automation, it’s no secret that the UK lags behind a number of its major European peers, including Germany, Italy and France. The question is, why?

Phil Cattaneo, Business Development Manager – Automation at NCMT, has his own theory. “The UK CNC machining sector is very reactive in the way it purchases and plans for new investments, which means automation doesn’t always appear as a viable option,” he says. “In addition, the UK’s approach to subcontracting is somewhat different to elsewhere in the world. In mainland Europe, many will specialise, not just on a vertical market like aerospace, but on specific components within that sector, such as fuel injection parts, wing-frame components or turbine blades. They want to be best-in-class at subcontracting in that particular discipline and are able to develop dedicated processes, including automation, to help them excel. As a result, they can plan their future investments with more certainty.”

UK subcontractors are seemingly more varied in comparison, typically spanning a number of vertical markets. Subcontractors want stock machines that are sufficiently flexible to produce any kind of part, making automation more challenging.

 Think again

Despite the UK’s automation gap, NCMT is beginning to see a shift. More machine tool enquiries, from both OEMs and subcontractors, now involve automation.

“It’s encouraging to see,” states Phil Cattaneo. “That said, a lot of enquiries which initially include automation turn into orders that only include the machine, with customers planning to add automation later. But there’s a problem with that approach: they start running their new machine and subsequently decide they are too busy to stop and retrofit automation.”

Any machine shop in this situation is missing out. Automation can enhance productivity dramatically, providing fast return-on-investment.

“I regularly visit machine shops with say 20 machines, where often only four or five have green lights to indicate they are running. The rest are idle for whatever reason. Achieving 20-25% spindle uptime isn’t making the most of their investments; this is what automation can put right.”

But what type of automation? There are so many variants, with selection hinging on the specific application. There are industrial robots, collaborative robots, stacker cranes and more. Moreover, automation is about far more than robot arms. For instance, NCMT can enhance machine tools from its principals, Okuma and Makino, with options that include pallet changers, gantry loaders and fixture-plate handling systems, to list but a few.

Pick and choose

“If a machine shop needs flexibility for 1-offs and small batches, or the parts are very complex to handle or expensive to fixture, a pallet changer is a good option,” says Phil Cattaneo. “A human still performs the loading, but the company benefits from extensive unmanned running. The operator returns when the batch is complete, unloads the fixtures and loads the next parts.”

If the component is not particularly complex, then a gantry loader is more efficient and user-friendly than a six-axis robot arm, he suggests.

“Another advantage is that the gantry arm can remain within the work area during machining. This provides the machine shop with an option for running the 2nd Op of the part on the sub-spindle, while the gantry arm is inside changing the part over. The result is reduced cycle time as there is no opening or closing of the door and waiting for a robot arm to enter and exit.”

An integrated (on-machine) robot arm such as the Okuma ROID series becomes attractive for parts such as detailed castings or components with difficult edges, and sometimes when the machine shop needs more flexibility or undertakes tasks like in-process inspection. Machine-integrated robots avoid the large footprint associated with robotic cells and negate any requirement for dedicated personnel to program the robot’s movement.

“We can also source stand-alone robot arms from third-party suppliers, before performing the integration and any necessary customisation in-house,” says Phil Cattaneo. “We sell the customer a turnkey package with single-source responsibility from NCMT. This provides additional support, particularly for first-time automation investors.”

Leading the line

NCMT also offers full production line automation via flexible manufacturing systems (FMS) or transfer line.

“We build FMS around subcontractors with repeat orders or OEMs that have a wide variety of regular parts to manufacture,” he explains. “Using an FMS means any part can go anywhere in the system at any time: all stations are available and ready. Software algorithms work out most efficient route.”

In contrast, if a customer has a dedicated part to machine in high volume, a transfer line is typically the best option. A transfer line involves a machine tailored to Op 1, another machine tailored to Op 2, and so on. Each machine is a stopping point at which a specific operation takes place, such as machining, deburring, washing or inspection. Automation connects the machines, with parts on the automation moving one workstation at a time, synchronously.

With so many automation options available, the advice of a specialist such as NCMT can clearly prove invaluable when it comes to specifying the optimal solution.

“We always provide a consultative approach to arriving at the best outcome for the customer,” says Phil Cattaneo. “There are no gaps in our portfolio and we’re not tied to any type of product or brand. In my opinion it’s never too late, or too soon, to talk about automation. Machine shops planning to add automation in the next two years might think it’s not yet time to contact NCMT. But it is, because it can take time to figure out the actual requirements and devise the optimal solution. The sooner we start the process, the better.”









Want to know more about this article?
Ask us below...

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.