Mill Automation Enables Lights-Out Production for Machine Shop

Innovative Fabrication leveraged The Mill Automation System to fill labor gaps and increase revenue by over 20%

Customer Profile

Innovative Fabrication is a North Carolina-based machine shop specializing in steel, aluminum, and stainless steel fabrication for the aerospace, defense, fiber optics, medical, and metals industries.

The Situation

Innovative Fabrication found themselves struggling to keep their mills running. They relied entirely on human labor to load CNC machines without experience with automation. A thin labor pool was forcing them to fall behind on orders. These labor gaps meant Innovative Fabrication couldn’t consistently maintain two full shifts. These factors led to increased pressure from customers to deliver on time. The COVID-19 pandemic only exacerbated these problems. 

Innovative Fabrication needed to find a solution fast.

Potential Solutions

Innovative Fabrication initially considered purchasing a new lathe to produce parts faster. However, they quickly realized that the issue wasn’t capacity; instead, they had a labor issue. At this point, Innovative Fabrication began exploring automation solutions.

Innovative Fabrication explored a UR-based solution from another provider. However, that solution was too specific to a single part set and wouldn’t be able to cover the customer’s broad range of parts without software and hardware updates.

Ultimately, depending on contract system integrators to reprogram the robot and provide a new gripper to support new parts would cost Innovative Fabrication $20,000 – $30,000 per new part. This shortcoming was a significant issue for this customer’s high-mix production environment. 

While exploring other options, another supplier recommended VersaBuilt to solve the customer’s door opener requirement. They then discovered VersaBuilt’s Mill Automation solution.

VersaBuilt promised an automation system that would allow Innovative to add new parts to the automation without an expensive system integrator, complex robot programming, or custom gripper fingers for each part.

VersaBuilt Automation Systems in Action at Innovative Fabrication.

Project Requirements

  • The customer needs to be able to integrate their own parts into the automation system with the workforce they have, and without significant training
  • The solution must include a door opener
  • The solution had to support a high-mix workload

Challenges

The primary challenge for Innovative Fabrication was employee acceptance of automation. As a company new to automation, the prospect of installing a robot resulted in initial resistance from the employees. 

Innovative Fabrication overcame this challenge by:

  • Focusing on retraining vs. replacing employees
  • Trained operators on how to set up the automation system for new jobs and trained the machinists on how to add new parts to the automation system
  • Moved the employees into more fulfilling and engaging tasks

“Now we have a couple of guys that are resetting, reloading, making their own changes, and making their own programs. They’ve been able to pick up on it quickly and learn the system.” - Michael Yarur

Since this was the customer’s first experience with robotics, they feared there would be part quality problems. This concern led to a lot of focus on part inspection. However, the customer quickly realized that this wasn’t required–the solution was such a good fit for their application that they found there was no need to increase their inspection requirements.

Why VersaBuilt Won

Michael Yarur, the owner of Innovative Fabrication, says, 

“VersaBuilt was a real save for us. The [other] systems we evaluated were too piecemeal. We were talking about getting custom grippers made, multiple Schunk vises–there were just so many different pieces, and how would we integrate them? VersaBuilt has a system where they have their vises, their grippers, and a complete package for us to integrate. It was really impressive.

The Mill Automation System will handle any shape parts with its gripper’s machinable soft jaws.

Additional features of the VersaBuilt system that led to Innovative Fabrication choosing their solution include:

  • Support for multi-operation parts (over 90% of Innovative Fabrication’s parts required more than one op)
  • A full-package solution, including a door opener
  • Ability to handle different parts and support quick changeovers
  • The easy-to-use app made part integration and setup easy to learn–even for those with no robot programming experience
  • Dozens of parts have been added to the system and the VersaBuilt software eliminated the need to do any custom programming.
  • VersaBuilt’s team was incredibly supportive and responsive throughout the entire process

VersaBuilt Automation Systems includes all the components needed to automate your CNC machine in one package.

Measurable Outcomes

The VersaBuilt solution quickly and positively impacted Innovative Fabrication’s business. Yarur states that his team got comfortable and confident with the Mill Automation System in about one week. The results they found afterward were astounding.

Workforce Impact

Innovative Fabrication needed to fill significant labor gaps. The VersaBuilt solution delivered. Innovative Fabrication can now run lights-out production on their automated mills–an impossible prospect before integrating the Mill Automation System. The customer’s ability to advance from being unable to maintain two shifts to running 24/7 production had an incredible impact on their productivity.

Business Impact

The increased throughput potential allowed the customer to meet their customers’ demands and keep up with production. This increased profits for Innovative Fabrication, and they saw a 20% increase in revenue due to the VersaBuilt solution. This incredible financial boost allowed them to recoup their investment in the solution within three months. 

Additionally, Innovative Fabrication could now maintain pricing for their customers–even in the face of increased material costs. Without the VersaBuilt solution, Yarur says they would have been forced to raise prices for their customers. This result gave them a competitive advantage against their competitors and positively impacted Innovative Fabrication’s relationships with their customers.

Continuous Improvement

The success of the Mill Automation Project led Innovative Fabrication to search for other opportunities in their facility. As a result, they now have two Mill Automation Systems and one Lathe Automation System from VersaBuilt–and a welding cobot from another supplier.

Innovative Fabrication is now exploring new automation tasks, such as making a mobile solution to move their robots between machines quickly, automating part cleanup applications, and machine tending solutions for other machines in the facility.

VersaBuilt Lathe Automation System in action.

Final Thoughts

For anyone on the fence about using the VersaBuilt solution, Yarur says,

“Just commit and go for it! You’re going to get what you pay for [and] you’re getting a lot of bang for your buck with VersaBuilt.”

Are you interested in learning more about Innovative Fabrication’s solution? You can learn more about the Mill Automation System HERE.

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