Robotic CNC Automation Advantages and Challenges (Is it worth it?)

Experienced, reliable, and dedicated CNC operators are in short supply, and all indications point to the problem getting worse. Many CNC shops are foregoing opportunities because they know they can’t meet the demand. Other shops consistently fail to meet customer expectations because they can’t meet their production targets. Automated machining is one of the most powerful tools to solve production and expense problems in your facility.

Let’s discuss the benefits and challenges of CNC automation and how it can solve many of your machining operations problems.

5 CNC Automation Advantages

Combining CNC manufacturing with robotic automation drives powerful results for modern manufacturers. Machine shops find significant increases in productivity, quality, and efficiency beyond what was possible with their previously manual processes.

1. More Output

CNC robots will consistently produce more output with less labor than operator tending. Higher throughput tends to be the most desirable benefit for manufacturers. CNC robots are always ready and waiting when the CNC completes its cycle and can work into the night after the operators have left for home.

2. More Consistent Quality

Robots are nothing if not consistent. By their nature, they follow a list of instructions and repeat the same motions every cycle. Robots are capable of moving to the same position within sub-millimeter levels of precision–well beyond the capabilities of people. Automatic CNC workholding creates more consistent clamping pressures. When using CNC robotics, you can be sure that the workpiece is loaded into the CNC machine in the same position and orientation every time, leading to more consistent production than operator tending.

3. Better Reliability

The reliability of robotic automation is unrivaled. Fatigue, breaks, shift changes, and distractions don’t apply to CNC robotics. These machines work consistently to keep the CNC fed as long as they have workpieces in the infeed. These characteristics allow for maximum production output even when staffing is short.

4. Reduced Expenditures

Increased machine uptime has a huge impact on bottom-line revenue. However, reduced expenditures also help increase overall profit margins. The amortized monthly cost of an automation system is a fraction of the monthly cost of an operator, and an automation system can work 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. The robot’s consistency leads to less material waste and costly errors. Using CNC robots for machine tending reduces the cost of production.

5. Elevate your Workforce

By using a robot to handle repetitive CNC tending tasks, you free up your workforce to handle tasks that require critical thinking. This elevates the skill level and productivity of your workforce. It also leads to a more fulfilling work experience reducing turnover. Furthermore, this reallocation of resources removes operators from directly handling parts. This reduces the risk of injuries associated with tending CNC machines which include lacerations, impingements, and entanglements.

How Does CNC Automation Help with Labor Shortages?

The labor shortages in manufacturing are well documented. However, a closer look at the numbers can be startling. Per Forbes, if every skilled worker in America were employed, there would still be 35% more unfilled jobs in the durable manufacturing sector. This crisis has forced manufacturers to develop new solutions to survive today’s market pressures. Automation is one of the tools that companies leverage to ease the tension.

Filling the Gaps

The thin labor pool leaves CNC machines unattended in machine shops. This phenomenon reduces a manufacturer’s potential output. Ultimately, these shortages can hurt a company’s ability to maintain existing contracts and win new ones long-term if they can’t prove their ability to ship parts on time. CNC robots help fill these gaps by tending machines that might otherwise be left unmanned.

Reallocating Resources

CNC automation enables manufacturers to reallocate labor to more productive and challenging tasks. Machine tending is repetitive and doesn’t take much skill or critical thinking. Once robots begin tending the CNC machines, companies can move employees into roles that can more significantly impact the business.

Attracting the Next Generation

The manufacturing labor shortage is, in part, due to younger workers becoming more interested in more challenging and technical roles. Roles that provide the opportunity to interact with robots are more engaging than traditional manual roles. Younger, prospective employees interested in automation technology are more likely to find automated facilities enticing places to work compared to manually operated facilities.

Challenges of CNC Automation

While CNC automation is a massive boon for today’s manufacturers, some challenges can reduce its effectiveness. Despite these challenges, specific solutions and system configurations often keep CNC robots as a net positive in the face of less-than-optimal setups.

High-Mix, Low-Volume Production

Most CNC production is high-mix, low-volume that can be more of challenging to automate. Setup and changeover time of the automation system must be considered when deploying a CNC robot in these environments. The automation solutions evaluated must have low part integration costs and low part changeover time. These considerations will help ensure that your robot system won’t struggle in this production environment. 

VersaBuilt’s MultiGrip allows CNC robots to handle high-mix applications better. Part changeover of the automation system typically only requires swapping out the jaws–an operation that takes minutes.

Integration with Different CNC Machines

Another challenging aspect for CNC automation is the robot-to-machine connection. Different brands–and even different machine versions–can have different hardware setups and interfaces. Most CNC automation system needs to be customized on the spot depending on the machine brand, type and options. However, we are starting to see new products that can standardize the connection between your robot and your CNC.

The communication interface can be handled through network and/or I/O connections. It’s important to understand how your robot system will interface with various machines in the facility for successful operation.

Multi-Operation Parts Machining

Multi-operation processes are those that require a part to be flipped in-between CNC operations. It is one of the most challenging tasks for CNC automation systems because many geometries after the first operation are hard for traditional grippers to handle and they usually need part-specific, custom regrip fixtures.

Traditionally, robots have used custom regrip fixtures outside the CNC machine to perform this task. In order to avoid the difficult-to-implement regrip step, most automation systems are doing batches of op1’s and op2’s with the operator manually flipping the parts between batches. This results in a reduction in unattended processing time and overhandling of the parts, leading to mistakes and a reduction in quality.

VersaBuilt solves the regrip problem using its MultiGrip workholding. MultiGrip excels in tasks that include complex geometries or require multiple operations to finish. MultiGrip uniquely performs part flips inside the CNC by simply manipulating the soft jaws instead of requiring a re-grip step with a traditional robot gripper. This innovative solution allows for better performance with complex part geometries and multi-operation parts.

Will Robotic CNC Automation Work for My Shop?

Three primary factors dictate the success of a CNC automation project:

  1. Adopting a Culture of Automation
  2. Selecting the Right Automation Equipment for the Job
  3. Continuous Improvement

Adopting a Culture of Automation

If you’re like most machine shops in the USA, the majority of your CNC production is high-mix, small-batch production. Automating high-mix, small-batch production represents the greatest opportunity for improving production output and reducing labor costs for most machine shops. And if you’re like many machine shops, you’ve probably spent years developing and improving your high-mix, small-batch CNC production. Many companies consider this expertise as their core competency. You need to look at high-mix, small-batch CNC automation similarly.

Developing expertise in high-mix, small-batch CNC automation internally is crucial. Outsourcing turn-key automation for dozens or hundreds, or thousands of part numbers is just not practical.

You can automate almost all CNC production. Using modern automation equipment, your existing team can be trained to operate, maintain and add new parts for automation without relying on a hired robot expert.

Modern CNC automation equipment has become so easy and cost-effective to use that there is almost no cost or time penalty to automate vs. conventional CNC operator loading. Why use an operator to load parts when a robot can do it for 1/10th the cost or less? This newly freed operator can help manage multiple robots or set up new machining jobs, for example.

CNC automation excellence won’t come all at once in one day, and that’s ok. With the proper training and guidance, you should see immediate results. Greater production output through the robot’s immediate service of the CNC machine and a reduction in labor by making your existing labor much more efficient. 

Over time, as you add more automation equipment and more parts to the automation, expect to see a dramatic transformation of your CNC machine shop. More production output, improved quality, lower scrap rates, less operator-damaged equipment, lower costs, and a happier, more dedicated team of CNC operators.

Selecting the Right Automation Equipment for the Job

One of the biggest mistakes shops make as they adopt automation is to design a custom system around a few of their higher volume parts. If you have a single part or family of parts that you’re confident will consume the capacity of one or more CNC machines for 5 to 10 years, then optimizing and customizing an automation system around those parts makes sense. But that’s not high-mix; that’s high-volume. 

Any CNC that will be running different part numbers regularly should use automation designed for high-mix: Single Minute Exchange of Automation Dies (SMEAD). A high-mix automation system should be as flexible as possible. Avoid infeed/outfeed designs, robot grippers, or CNC workholding that significantly limits the size or shape of parts that can be processed or requires significant change over time.

If you process a lot of different parts, the time and cost of introducing a part to the automation process must also be considered. Will new parts require new robot programming? New robot grippers or gripper fingers? What about the infeed/outfeed?

You’re not likely to find an automation system that works optimally for all your parts. You may find that 90% of your parts can work well with a particular automation system, but 10% just won’t work or won’t work optimally.

Don’t let the 10% of your parts drive you to a bad decision for the other 90% of your parts.

Continuous Improvement to Unattended Machining

Failure is a normal occurrence for any system or equipment. 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.


Running your CNC unattended

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? 

You are trying to understand how long the automation system can run before it needs operator intervention. Remember that the unattended run time will differ 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” CNC 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 many process control measures or doesn’t have the resources to do it, don’t sweat it. 

Although there is no doubt that CNC 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.


Most Important Variables to Consider for Your CNC Automation

Integrating new equipment into your facility is not a minor decision. There are many variables for you to consider when determining if such a project will benefit you. It’s tempting to only look at flashy metrics like, ‘how long can I run lights-out?’ or ‘how fast can it go?’ However, some other variables tend to be more impactful on the long-term effectiveness of your CNC robot system.

Cost to Integrate a Part

The cost to integrate new parts is a significant initial cost to the overall project. Integration costs can include design, installation, and programming fees. For example, new parts might require reprogramming and setup changes. Furthermore, new parts might require design changes to existing tooling. The system might need additional hardware to support the new parts. 

These additions impact the cost of ownership of the equipment over time. It’s important to invest in solutions that will be flexible with the changes inherent to your business. If new parts require significant investment, then it’s hard to justify the cost of automation except for the largest volume part sets. MultiGrip workholding  levels the playing field when integrating new parts. Instead of expensive new gripper hardware solutions, new soft jaws are used to manipulate the new parts–a cost difference of thousands per part.

Programming costs can run into tens of thousands of dollars in direct and indirect costs. Robot programming can be expensive to outsource. Alternatively, trying it on your own can take time and lead to costly mistakes if you’re learning on the fly. VersaBuilt’s Mill Automation System, equipped with MultiGrip workholding, lowers the bar of expertise required to program new robot jobs. This saves time and money and allows you to support high-mix loads on your automated CNC.

Changeover Time

Tool changeovers are required when swapping between part sets. These changeovers can include the workpiece holder, end-of-arm tooling, bits, or some combination. Changeover time of the automation and CNC system should be at the top of your priorities when selecting automation for your CNC machine. 

Understanding how these changeovers affect uptime and productivity will help you calculate your CNC robot’s effectiveness. Optimizing for changeover time effectiveness will maximize your automation system’s effectiveness. Lower changeover time directly improves the throughput of high-mix loads. Especially poor changeovers can make automating high-mix loads impractical. Integrating a system that prioritizes efficient changeovers makes your system more flexible in handling different types of jobs–not just high volume.


CNC automation ROI vs. Cost of Capacity

Return on investment (ROI) is a typical measuring stick to determine the efficiency or profitability of a capital equipment purchase on your business. But is ROI the best perspective to take when considering such a purchase? 

CNC automation ROI requires you to make static assumptions of variables that are constantly changing. For example, customer demand has a significant impact on ROI calculations. Forecasting customer demand for many machine shops on medium or long timelines is challenging. Additionally, capital costs are high enough, and timescales for positive returns are long enough that inflation is another changing variable to consider. 

Instead, most companies should think about their cost of capacity.

This concept asks you to consider how much it costs for your production facility to produce a given amount of parts over a period of time. Consider how you can fill that capacity, given your current labor force and equipment.

Once you fill that capacity, what adjustments can you make to allow for more capacity? Answers include hiring more employees, buying more equipment, and automating—usually choosing the lowest cost option.

Automating is especially useful because it both increases capacity and allows you to run your business at a lower expense. Cost of capacity is a more straightforward calculation and a better indication of a facility running efficiently and scaling healthily.


How Does VersaBuilt Automate CNC Machines

How do you automate a CNC machine? Some manufacturers might opt to configure their solution. They do this by buying individual components and building a custom solution for a specific part set. These systems aren’t very flexible and can be difficult to reprogram to operate on other machines or parts. VersaBuilt provides a better solution and solves common problems that manufacturers encounter when trying to automate in-house.

The Complete Standard Solution for CNC Automation

VersaBuilt offers a standard solution for CNC automation. Standard solutions are designed to cover a broad range of parts and configurations while requiring minimal adjustments to the setup or hardware. 

Custom solutions leave you dependent on the integrator to make adjustments and design new hardware to support new parts. Standard solutions are designed to be easy to use and reprogrammed by those with little to no robot expertise.

Solving Robot-to-Machine Communications

Arguably, the biggest challenge for machine automation is robot-to-machine communications. It can take days for end-users to figure out how to wire their robot to their CNC for proper communication. The VersaBuilt Robot2CNC offers a solution to this problem. The Robot2CNC is a plug-and-play method of connecting your robot to your CNC machine. 

The CNC Mill Automation and CNC Lathe Automation systems both include Robot2CNC. These packages provide a complete solution for robotic CNC automation–including the challenging robot-to-machine interface. These systems offer the best way to save time and money setting up your robot and CNC machine connection.

Solution for Multi-Operation Part Machining

Most parts run in a milling machine require two or more parts. Most other robotic CNC machine tending systems for mills are limited to one operation at a time. VersaBuilt’s MultiGrip workholding makes multi-operation automation a snap. No part-specific custom programming, no part-specific re-grip station. Virtually any part can be enabled for multi-operation processing with MultiGrip

Ease-of-Use by Eliminating Robot Programming

Custom solutions often require the robot to be reprogrammed to handle new parts. This can be very time-consuming and costly. Not to mention, most machine shops don’t have trained robot programmers on staff.

VersaBuilt understands that most robotic CNC automation applications have a similar workflow, but simply differ in a few key parameters for each part the robot handles. Parametric configuration allows users to modify simple parameters in a form on a smartphone, tablet, or computer instead of having to rewrite the robot program for every new part. This simplification lowers the barrier of entry for adding new parts to the automation system. Those with no robot experience can be trained to configure new parts for processing and operate the automation system without ever learning how to program a robot. 


Key Takeaways

Automating your CNC through robotics greatly benefits today’s manufacturers. By filling gaps in labor, increasing throughput, and reducing expenses, automated CNC shops can optimize their facility to run more efficiently than possible using traditional methods. However, attaining these results doesn’t come without overcoming some potential challenges.

The most successful manufacturers overcome these obstacles because they know  these common challenges. Manufacturers that automate their machines understand that an automation culture and a commitment to improvement are just as important as choosing the right equipment. They know the parameters of their business and have precise requirements for their automation applications. Leading manufacturers also understand the available options for machine automation and select the right solution for their machines. Equipped with this information, you’re better equipped to take on your first CNC automation project.

VersaBuilt is a leading CNC automation provider specializing in standard solutions for high-mix machining applications. If you’re interested in learning more about our solutions and how we can help you, reach out here.

512 268 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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