Automation Machine tool automation – is it right for your business?

Author / Editor: Simon Simmons / Barbara Schulz

UK - There is no denying automation will require capital investment, will occupy some floorspace and may not be as flexible as having an operator stood at the machine all day. However, when applied correctly automation can deliver considerable cost savings and increased manufacturing capacity.

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Pallets of raw material ready for automated loading.
Pallets of raw material ready for automated loading.
(Source: REM Systems)

For many, machine tool automation starts and ends with standalone, multi-axis robots, that have been made familiar by scenes of high volume manufacturing plants with sparks flying from spot welders, or robot arms spray painting cars. “Now is the time for smaller businesses to start to think outside the box when it comes to maximising productivity and adopting lean manufacturing practices,” states Ian Holbeche, managing director of Automation specialist REM Systems.

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“Our typical automation customer manufactures high value components on 5-axis machines. Their production is predominantly complex components in high variety, low volume with 50-off being considered a large batch. This is so far away from what is perceived as typical automation territory, without a ‘typical’ robot in sight." With a standalone industrial robot space is a major issue as the arc of movement of the robot arm has to be accommodated and, if multiple machines are to be supported by a single robot they have to be positioned radially around the robot potentially wasting valuable floorspace.

Tailored to specific needs

A linear system, with the robot moving along a line of machine tools is much more space efficient. So, once the myth that robots only come in one shape is dispelled the next obstacle to overcome is the fear of many small- to medium-sized manufacturing companies that automation is expensive and cumbersome. Modern systems can be tailored to suit particular requirements and they have the flexibility to adapt when manufacturing demand changes.

"Some machine suppliers do offer automation solutions, but they are often restricted to a limited range of automation that can be both expensive and inflexible, and are not tailored to the customers’ specific needs,” Ian Holbeche points out.

For example, many OEM supplied automation systems will feature fixed sized pallets that match the size of the machine table. This is fine if you are constantly machining larger components or can fixture multiple smaller parts for machining. If you are machining a variety of components of differing sizes then a fixed sized pallet is not the most cost-effective route to take.

Having pallets that match the size of the workpiece has several advantages, including better access for cutting tools, and a lower investment cost. Of course, REM Systems customers have a high mix of components that means small pallets are not always the answer. This is why the ability to mix and match pallet sizes within an automation system is essential for efficient operation.

Being able to mix and match pallet sizes and adapt the automation system to the changing production needs is a major benefit of the Erowa systems provided by REM Systems. The ability for a system to support more than one machine tool from a single load station, with only one robot involved is also a major factor in reducing the cost of automation.