Standard vs. Custom CNC Automation: What’s Right for My Shop?

Like most industries in the US, machine shops are facing historic labor challenges. Automating the loading and unloading of CNC machines typically represents the single best opportunity to reduce the amount of labor required to meet production demands. Modern CNC automation systems can be successfully deployed in almost any CNC machine shop to help alleviate labor shortages. 

Machine shop decision-makers are trying to understand how they can best apply this new technology to reduce their exposure to the labor crisis. The question they face is, what’s the right automation solution for my shop? To make the right decision, it’s important to understand the available options and how those options might perform in their own machine shop. In this article, we look at custom vs. standard automation systems.

Custom CNC Automation

Custom automation system designed around a single part

A custom CNC automation system is just that, custom. An automation system designed around a part or family of similar size and shaped parts. Custom automation systems are typically designed and built by small regional robot system integrators or by an internal robot “expert”. One advantage of a custom CNC automation system is that it can be optimized for the part it was designed for. This may allow the custom automation system to run faster or longer than a standard system. The disadvantage to a custom automation system arrives when the CNC needs to make a part that the automation system wasn’t designed for.

Adding new parts to a custom automation system can be costly and time consuming. New robot programming, new gripper, new part infeed. Although some machine shops are able to to integrate new parts to a custom CNC automation system on their own, most will rely on an outside robot system integrator to add new parts to the automation system. When it comes time to change over to another part, a custom CNC automation system can be a significant roadblock to expanding automation in your machine shop. If a custom automation system takes a day to perform changeover, it won’t make sense to automate a part unless a typical batch size for the part runs for many days.

Custom CNC automation systems, when compared to standard CNC automation systems, generally have the following characteristics: 

  • Optimal processing efficiency
  • Longer unattended run times
  • Take longer to deploy 
  • Are more expensive
  • Longer part changeover time
  • Require each part to be custom programmed
  • Often require an outside robot system integrator to add new parts to be automated

Standard CNC Automation

Standard CNC automation is the new kid on the block. The pioneers of custom CNC automation systems recognized a need for CNC manufacturers that needed to tend many different parts with their automation system. Standard CNC automation solutions like VersaBuilt’s Mill Automation System were developed with the needs of high-mix CNC manufacturing in mind.

VersaBuilt’s Mill Automation System is an example of a Standard Automation System

Instead of an automation system designed around a single part or part family, a standard CNC automation system is designed to process a wide range of part shapes and sizes. Another key feature of the standard CNC automation system is technology that make it easy and inexpensive to add new parts to the automation and to perform part changeovers quickly. VersaBuilt’s Mill Automation System achieves these objectives using software and workholding technology developed specifically for high-mix CNC automation.

Standard CNC automation systems when compared to custom CNC automation systems, generally have the following characteristics:

  • Flexibility to run wider range of part shapes and sizes
  • Can be deployed much faster
  • Are less expensive to purchase and own
  • Shorter part changeover times
  • Require no custom robot programming
  • Enable the CNC machine shop to add their own parts to the automation system

One of the common misunderstandings of modern CNC automation systems is just how well they can perform in a high-mix CNC production environment. Many machine shops will dismiss CNC automation for all but their highest volume parts because of the perception created by the typical custom CNC automation system: long part changeover time and high costs to add a new part to the automation system. Typical part changeover time for a VersaBuilt Mill Automation System is less than 10 minutes. Adding a new part to the VersaBuilt Mill Automation System can typically be done for less than $200 in materials and a few hours of machinist’s time.

What’s Right for My Shop?

Suppose you have one or more CNC machines dedicated to high-volume manufacturing of a single part or part family. If you also have a guarantee that demand for those parts will remain high for many multiples of the payback period (you want to do better than break-even on your investment, right?), then a custom CNC automation system may be a good choice. A custom CNC automation system should have significant, measurable advantages over a standard CNC automation system to overcome the reduced flexibility of the system. 

If you’re like most machine shops in the US, your CNC machines have many different parts they make; sometimes more than one part in the same day. In that case, a standard CNC automation system like VersaBuilt’s Mill Automation System is almost certainly a better choice. Although custom CNC automation may be able to provide some small production efficiency gains on a single part, those gains will be erased when it comes time to automate the second part, let alone the 100th part.

Is The Decision That Simple?

Not always. A couple more things to consider… A standard automation system will have limitations. It might not be able to tend all of your parts. A custom automation system can be “customized” to handle almost any type of part. Just be careful not to let a few outlier parts lead you to a wrong decision for the rest of your parts. If the majority of your CNC production fits well in a standard CNC automation system, that’s where you should start.

A “hybrid” approach is another option. VersaBuilt’s Mill Automation System can be switched between “standard” mode and “custom” mode in just a few minutes. In “standard” mode, enjoy the benefits of “no programming” automation with the VersaBuilt System Controller (VSC) and part changeovers that take a few minutes with VersaBuilt’s MultiGrip workholding. Flip a switch, and the system is ready to be programmed with the robot teach pendant, and grippers and CNC workholding can be changed to meet the needs of special parts.

Contact VersaBuilt to learn more about how we can help address your labor problems, increase profits and make your business more resilient to the challenges of the future.

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