Conventional turning to multifunctional machining to robotics – massive changes in manufacturing

The world of manufacturing continues to change at a rapid rate from old school conventional turning operations with added milling less than 10 years ago to multifunctional machining with robotics, increasing machine utilisation, freeing up skilled workers from routine work and up-skilling for even higher levels of efficiency.

At the forefront of these enormous changes taking place is Okuma, a company that has been a focal point with its leading edge technology.

Okuma’s Managing Director Australia and New Zealand, Phil Hayes, recalls a study at the Ford Motor Company in Geelong some years back that identified that a part sat on a pallet for almost six hours before its next machining operation. With some quiet smugness he also recalls the successful transition from a line of 8 machines each machining two features of an oil pump body at one set up, to 2 machines machining every feature at 64 units at one set up, commenting at the time, the maths were not difficult.

Phil recalls that the Ford Motor Company implemented a huge number of efficient new processes and methods but this did not save them from the short-sighted industrial climate of the time which had nothing to do with the object of making parts efficiently and profitably for the companies who had invested heavily in new technology.

Today there are so many options to achieve greater efficiency however these require some form of investment requiring modest and sometimes higher levels of capital. Coupled with this is the single most important challenge being a change in the philosophy of who should do what and the most effective utilisation of skilled labour.

Before the Holden Adelaide plant introduced robots to the chassis underbody welding line Phil had watched big men wield 100kg+ spot welding guns as they welded their designated section all day, every day. The introduction of robots in this area was a great win for efficiency, accuracy, consistency and physical health and safety. With this change the valuable experience of the welders was not lost as they continued to contribute in identifying welding improvements, inspection, maintenance and other creative functions within the plant.

“Whilst not all companies can invest in plant and equipment to the level of major international corporations, the same benefits apply when applying robots to repetitive tasks such as loading and unloading,” said Phil Hayes. “It dramatically reduces mental strain on employees, eliminates safety risks and the cost of labour which is increasing every year,” he said. “On top of this there is also the book write down value every year on capital items.

Phil notes the smallest machines at the once known PBR Automotive operation were Okuma LB6’s, LCC’s and LCS’ with tiny on board Okuma Gantry Loader (OGL) robots to load and unload disc brake calliper pistons for mirror finish turning. These were destined for auto makers both here and overseas. He has the one millionth part on his desk from an LB6 machine and advised that LCC and LCS machines with OGL robotics would go on to produce well in excess of 3 million pistons per annum.

Okuma Gantry Loaders come in capacities from 3kg up payloads and Ken Horner’s KH Engineering Company has installed LB3000 Lathes with OGL 10kg units attached in his advanced engineering shop.

“Basically the integrated OGL units allow us to reach higher levels of productivity without the usual expansion of overheads that were always necessary when you wanted to get more out of the day,” said Ken Horner, Director KH Engineering Company. “They are a good piece of well supported technology that is simply built yet so sturdy that they are extremely reliable – just good engineering!” he said. Today we have medium sized production runs and once the operators are familiar with the set-up, changeovers are completed quickly and efficiently.  Like all advances in manufacturing, it is necessary to help yourself and take ownership of the future,” said Ken.

“No longer is this technology ‘unreliable black art’ it is seriously efficient from two of the most important viewpoints – productivity and financial,” he said. “It has changed the dynamics of the work flow with the machine cutting out 3 operations and it is virtually handling the work of 5 people. The machine is consistently accurate to within 1,000th of an inch which we have complete confidence as this is proven with regular concentricity batch tests.

The stand-alone floor robots are even more flexible physically but in reality are more likely to be dedicated to a wider range of throughput, handling parts of more than ½ a tonne in weight. These require safety cells and compliance with strict safety standards and the cell itself may also be somewhat complex as the part may have to be washed, deburred, measured, inspected, packaged and quarantined. All this can be completed in one combined cycle and set up by a creative skilled operator who is likely to be tending 3 or 4 of these cells at once.

One of Melbourne’s well known and best engineering jobbing shops, GW Kewder Engineering defeated the theory that long runs were required to justify robot installations.

“The installation of robots enabled us to close down the night shift yet still run the machines overnight. Text messages are forwarded automatically by the machine to key personnel at any time of the night should a malfunction or out of tolerance occur,” said Kewder’s Managing Director, Derek Warrington. “Robots have allowed us to reduce times on batch runs of 200-250 complex components from two weeks to 4-5 days. We now have 3 trained robot operators and this is allowing us to upskill other operators. On some complex jobs it is taking us a day to set the operation up however on a repeat of that job the set up time is reduced to approximately 2 hours. The new technology is simple and flexible, freeing up personnel from repetitive jobs and increasing productivity and safety,” he said.

The third area of robotic technology or the middle ground has been developed by the entrepreneurial Belgian Company RoboJob BV which has developed a CE marked compact safe-cell that allows easy access, has an interactive simple programming system and generic part stockers. This versatile unit allows the use or non-use of the robot as well as being relocatable to other machines.

Holinger Engineering Co, manufacturers of arguably some of the world’s finest motorsport gearboxes supplied to racing teams such as Aston Martin, Lamborghini, Porsche, BMW and Audi, has introduced a RoboJob Turn Assist Robot to their latest Okuma Macturn 250 2SW multi-task machine. From stock billets to a finished product is achieved quickly and efficiently and for a company that receives urgent orders for sometimes 5 – 20 parts in a batch and specialises in small production runs, this set up provides the ultimate in flexibility.

Holinger Managing Director Alan Smith commented that the RoboJob takes minimal time to set up, has increased machine hours per day and can operate overnight without staff, lighting etc. and the machine can send a text message to an operator if it needs assistance.

“Whilst we have experience with gantry loaders this new robot is relatively new to our shop so we are still learning. It is however proving to be flexible, economical, is quick to program, it can be easily moved to another machine and is ideally suited to lower production runs,” Alan Smith said. “This type of technology assists us with the effective placement of personnel often looking after more than one machine. It is allowing us to up-skill operators keen to take on this new technology and it has great occupational health and safety aspects related to the loading of billets and repetitive jobs,” he said.

“With such advances in manufacturing technology many of Australia’s leading engineering companies are competing effectively on the world market,” said Okuma Managing Director for Australia and New Zealand, Phil Hayes. “Today we are experiencing 2 out of every 5 machines that Okuma delivers are multitasking (or multifunction) machines and 1 in every 4 multitaskers has a robot of some description attached to it,” he said.

Phil went on to comment that those who have seen the new Okuma Dream Site No.1 in Nagoya will know that Okuma gets the message that as a manufacturer its latest machines are built by the very latest Okuma machines and a host of automated and robotic technologies.

Inevitably there will be some companies left behind in a changing market environment but those who have welcomed the inevitability of change and embraced this, will continue to grow and prosper.