How to Get Started with Robot CNC Automation: Part 3 – Continuous Improvement

Your new automation system is installed on the CNC. The first part is proven. It’s 5:30 on Friday afternoon, the infeed is loaded with 20 hours of production. It’s time to press the Cycle Start button, shut off the lights and let that shiny new automation system print money through the night.

Monday morning arrives, you open the door to the shop and the first thing you notice is the flashing red stack light on the CNC. That’s not good. The first step onto the shop floor greets you with a splash underfoot; coolant everywhere. Walk over to the CNC and it looks like the robot made it about halfway through the infeed. That brand-new ¾” carbide end-mill looks like it was used in a blender to mix aluminum cookie-dough batter. What went wrong? Was the robot programmed to destroy me? Did I miss an important installation step? Did a gremlin cut a hole in the bottom of my coolant tank?

A failure occurred in the process. Proving out one part is not the same as proving out 20 hours of production. “But I’ve run that part dozens of times in larger batch sizes than that and never had coolant end up all over the floor.” You also had an operator there to observe the process. The operator knows that if she doesn’t empty the tray in the coolant return twice each shift, the chips will start to direct the coolant onto the floor and make a mess.

What now? Is my automation system only good for 4 hours of production? Until you make a change in the process that allows the CNC to run for more than 4 hours without dumping coolant all over the floor, the answer is yes. Fortunately, there are almost always simple solutions to these and other process problems you will encounter along the way. Continuous improvement is how you get more unattended run-time from your CNC automation system.

Every process failure is an opportunity for continuous improvement. What happened, why did it happen and what can I do to prevent it in the future? Continuous improvement in CNC automation requires discipline. Failure to identify and correct a process failure will only ensure that the failure will happen again. Failure identification can be difficult to do under the pressure of tight production schedules but are critical to automation success. Management support is key. You may not always have the luxury (time) to get to the root cause of every failure. That’s ok too.

To prevent “unexpected events” start slow. Let the automation system run for a couple of hours then observe the state of the CNC and automation system. Is a problem beginning to unfold? Chips? Coolant level? Tool life? Part dimensions? What you are trying to understand is how long can the automation system run before it needs operator intervention. Keep in mind that the unattended run time will be different for each part. The unattended run time (number of parts in the infeed) along with the starting conditions (coolant level, chip bins, tool life, first article inspection requirements, etc.) should be a part of the setup sheet for each part.
Getting to reliable “lights-out” production can take some work, especially on the CNC process side of the equation. If your shop has already adopted process control measures like tool life management and scheduled maintenance, getting to “lights-out” will be easier. If your shop hasn’t adopted a lot of process control measures or doesn’t have the resources to do it, don’t sweat it. Although there is no doubt that “lights-out” production is beneficial, don’t fall into the fallacy that you need to have “lights-out” production to justify the cost of automation. An automation system that only runs two hours before operator intervention will significantly lower the dependence and cost of labor in your production facility while increasing production output.


The time to automate your CNC production is now. Contact VersaBuilt at 208-906-0814 or sales@versabuilt.com to get started.

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