CNC machine shops have it rough. Customers order smaller lot sizes and demand faster turnaround than ever before. More parts are made from nasty materials like Inconel and titanium, with tolerances and geometries so challenging they make even seasoned machinists quake in their steel-toed boots. To stay profitable, many embrace lean and Six-Sigma methodologies, but keeping foreign competitors or even the shop next door at bay takes a lot more than cutting some fat from business processes. Shops must become agile if they want to compete in this brave new world of low-volume, high-complexity machining.
Agile means having the equipment, tooling, software and know-how to respond quickly to changing customer needs while still making a buck. By their very nature, horizontal machining centers are one of an agile shop’s best friends. With built-in pallet changers standard on most machines, efficient chip flow and the ability to hit all sides of a part in a single setup, horizontals increase part throughput while reducing cost compared to their vertical cousins. Add a linear pallet system or pallet pool and a large-capacity tool magazine and shops can simply leave tools and fixtures in the machine indefinitely.
This makes setup for many parts a set-it-and-forget-it affair. And, with options such as broken tool detection and automated parts handling, the transition to lights-out manufacturing becomes a reality for many shops, allowing for unattended production at night and process prove-out during the day.
Of course, it takes more than equipment to become an agile shop. It takes a focused, well-managed plan and having robust processes in place to get there. Let’s pretend, however, that you’re already have the agility of an Olympic triathlete, having addressed the sales and quoting, purchasing, quality control and engineering processes—all key parts of being agile.
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