How to Optimize Your CNC Operator in a Tight Labor Market

In today’s tight labor market, it can be challenging for manufacturers to find and retain skilled workers to operate their CNC machines. This is especially true in industries that rely heavily on CNC technology, such as aerospace, automotive, and medical device manufacturing. One solution to this problem is to incorporate robotics into the CNC process. 

Most machine shops today aim to optimize their machines to increase productivity and reduce costs. However, by using robots to supplement operators, manufacturers can significantly impact productivity and reduce the costs incurred in their facility beyond what’s possible in a machine-centric focus. In this article, we will explore the current challenges manufacturers face, a novel perspective for optimizing your processes, and some strategies for implementing these systems in your manufacturing operations.

Common Challenges Modern Manufacturers Face

Modern manufacturers face several challenges in today’s tight labor market. One of the main challenges is simply finding enough skilled operators to run their machines consistently. With unemployment rates at historic lows, there is a lot of competition for skilled workers, and it’s challenging to attract and retain the talent you need to keep your operations running smoothly. Another one is to actually get your CNC operators to accept the technology, which is another topic discussed in this article: Getting Your CNC Operators to Accept a CNC Robot.

In addition to these challenges, manufacturers face increasing materials and labor costs. Companies still feel the lingering effects that the COVID-19 pandemic is still having on the international supply chain. While the cost of raw materials and other inputs have fallen somewhat in recent months, they still haven’t fallen back to pre-pandemic costs. Additionally, wages for skilled workers are rising as competition to fill positions becomes more challenging. These rising costs can make it difficult for manufacturers to remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace.

Finally, manufacturers are also facing heavy competition, both from domestic and international sources. With so many companies vying for market share, it can be difficult to stand out and attract customers.

To address these challenges, manufacturers can incorporate automation into their operations. Robots and other automation technologies can help manufacturers increase productivity, reduce costs, and improve the quality of products. They can also scale their operations, as manufacturers can easily add them to the production line to meet increased demand. While filling open positions can be challenging, expensive, and labor-intensive, adding more automated equipment to your facility is relatively straightforward and more cost-effective. However, many manufacturers make the mistake of focusing their automation equipment on maximizing the efficiency of their machines. This thinking is flawed because it fails to address their most valuable asset–their people.

The Traditional Perspective on Optimization is Outdated

For many years, manufacturers focused on optimizing their machines rather than their labor force. Operators and engineers were trained to focus on metrics such as parts-per-hour and uptime. The intent was to get as much production as possible out of their most expensive and valuable asset–their equipment. This machine-centric approach made sense in the past when the cost of equipment was much higher than the cost of labor. 

However, modern manufacturers must revise this way of thinking. When HAAS introduced the VF-1 in 1986, they listed this machine for $49,990. That’s over $135,000 in today’s dollars. Today, a manufacturer can order a HAAS VF-1 for $55,000. If you consider the time value of money, the real cost has actually gone down. A machine operator in 1987 made about $15,000 per year. Now, that same operator makes a median salary of $47,730. In today’s tight labor market, the cost of labor is often the driving factor in manufacturing costs. Labor is often more difficult to hire than buying another CNC machine. This sea change means it’s more important than ever to focus on optimizing your labor force to remain competitive.

Optimize Your People – Not Just Your Machines

To optimize their labor force, manufacturers need to shift their focus away from machine-centric metrics and toward optimizing the productivity and efficiency of their workers. This effort primarily involves implementing automation technologies and new operator workflows and processes around these new machines that help them work more efficiently or at a lower effective cost. Robotics enable operators to scale their impact across an entire machine shop floor instead of just one or two machines and limit their direct involvement in operating the machine.

A single operator might oversee and manage 5 to 10 CNC machines tended by robots. However, that same operator might only be able to run one or two CNC machines effectively using manual methods. In addition, many manufacturers operate in a high-mix environment where part changeovers are frequent. Managing these changeovers across multiple machines while still directly operating and tending those machines is an immense challenge for operators and is a crucial factor for every manufacturer to consider when exploring potential automation solutions. 

Many automation solutions aim to improve the performance of the machine directly by focusing on optimizing specific KPIs around machine performance for a particular part set. Unfortunately, this approach often fails to adequately address improving factors like how operators handle changeovers–a critical step for high-mix manufacturing facilities. Many of these automation solutions are purpose-built for a narrow use case or a single part. However, these systems will offer little to no benefit to manufacturers in high-mix environments because changeover time is a secondary consideration.

Furthermore, this operator will need to take breaks, might get pulled away for other tasks, and their productivity will fluctuate throughout the day, ultimately limiting productivity and increasing labor costs significantly. Manufacturers looking to improve productivity are often tempted to optimize machine-centric factors like minimizing CNC cycle time without considering the more considerable cost of their workforce. 

Choosing the right automation equipment that elevates their operators’ performance is a critical decision for manufacturers. It’s essential to focus on how an automation solution will improve the effectiveness of the operator by analyzing features such as how it can handle part changeovers. By instead taking the approach of optimizing their people instead of investing more into their CNC machines, manufacturers can get much more production and lower the effective cost of a single operator than they could by focusing solely on the machine. 

Automation equipment is a tool leading manufacturers apply to increase the effectiveness of their people–not their machines. It’s easier to find new equipment than to find skilled operators. While there are many options for purchasing or leasing new machines and automation systems, it can be difficult to find and train workers who have the skills and knowledge to run them.

VersaBuilt is a company that specializes in helping customers optimize their labor force through automation. We offer standard automation systems for mills and lathes designed to multiply the effectiveness of your operators by increasing productivity and lowering costs, making you more competitive in a tight labor market. Contact us today to get started on your next automation project.

998 329 Al Youngwerth

Al Youngwerth

I’m a robotics and technology enthusiast, innovator, engineer, and inventor. My passion is developing industry-disruptive, high-value products that improve processes and bring new benefits to people’s lives. I believe there’s a better way, and I am committed to finding it. That belief drives my work and is exemplified in my most recent start-ups: VersaBuilt Robotics and Rekluse Motor Sports.

All stories by : Al Youngwerth
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