The many faces of multi-tasking

With a major skills shortage in Australia, the very technology creating a need for higher skilled workers is also helping to address it. Katherine Crichton reports.

With a major skills shortage in Australia, the very technology creating a need for higher skilled workers is also helping to address it. Katherine Crichton reports.

MULTI-TASKING is becoming the way of the world. More is better in a society which has created mobile phones with in-built radios and MP3 players, and has the ability to take pictures, record videos and can do almost anything except walk the dog.

Multi-tasking machines are becoming the mobile phones of the manufacturing world; companies can now mill, drill, turn, cut, broach and mark using the same machine.

According to Mark Dobrich, sales and marketing manager with John Hart, the key to multi-tasking is the ability to take a component which would normally be made in three or four setups using a variety of machinery, and make it in one set-up using one machine, resulting in a component made in a single cycle. The ‘done in one’ concept.

However, it is the way manufacturers view the application of multitasking machines which will determine the success of the technology, says Dobrich.

“Recently a customer bought a multi-tasking machine from us and after taking out labour costs, lease payments, material expenses etc, he receives a return of about $8,000 a month. A very good figure for his type of business.

“Most people think of multi-tasking machines as applicable for components that are based on turned features with some milling and would not normally be considered suitable for the component that this particular customer was making,” he said.

“The key is to look at the production process as a multi-tasking one rather than conventional turning or milling.

“As engineers we tend to look at things very conventionally – if a component is square we mill it, if it is round, we turn it – but we need to start considering multi-tasking as part of the equation. We should start viewing parts as not only turned or milled components, but also as multi-tasked ones,” Dobrich told Manufacturers Monthly.

Knowledge is power

Changing manufacturers’ perceptions of how multi-tasking machinery can be used is something companies like John Hart try to convey to their own engineers and customers.

“These machines can make you a lot of money but only if you think about the way they work and how you can apply your products to them,” said Dobrich.

While there are obvious benefits to combining production processes in one machine including time and cost savings, if the machine is extraordinarily complicated to use or program or is not applied to the right situation, it defeats the purpose of the technology.

Brian Innes, electrical engineering manager with Broens Industries says that the cost associated with multi-tasking machinery is relatively high compared to other technologies and stresses the importance of manufacturers understanding how they can use the machines in their own businesses.

“For example, multi-tasking machines are not really suitable for simple repetitive machining operations because of the cost and the fact they would be under-utilised,” he told Manufacturers Monthly.

Dobrich agrees. “A multi-tasking machine can start at say $300,000 whereas a simple two-axis CNC lathe might start at $100,000.

“You wouldn’t buy a multi-tasking machine if most of your work involved 2-axis turning as you wouldn’t get money back on your investment.

“If however, you have the right components and you would otherwise have to buy a 2-axis lathe at $100,000 and two vertical machining centres at $150,000 each at a total cost of 400,000 invested with at least three operators involved, with a multi-tasking machine you could do this for $300,000 and with only one operator,” he said.

Innes says there is also a need to broaden and increase the skill levels of machine operators. “As with any type of equipment the more complex and greater the array of capabilities it has, the higher level of skill required to use all its functionality,” he said.

Broens conducts in house training and initiates training programs with apprentices in tool making and machine trades. John Hart is similarly involved in training and Dobrich says more collaboration with training providers and industry is always welcome.

A bright future

With advances in the technology itself, especially with the integration of automation, mult-itasking machinery is becoming easier for operators to use.

With robotics and vision technology involving 2D and 3D vision modelling capability systems, multi-tasking machines can begin to lessen the need for highly skilled workers and reduce the number of people required to do the job.

“The machines are actually quite simple to use. The higher the utilisation of the machine, the more money you are going to make. The whole focus of our products and training is to maximise the use the equipment,” Dobrich said.

Both men are confident in Australia’s ability to take up new technologies as seen in developments in multi-tasking machining.

“As the processing capacity of CPU’s and operating systems continues to improve, so too will machine controls. As the end users of machinery — the manufactures — continually push for higher productivity, greater accuracy and reduction in costs, the innovative engineers in the machine manufacturing industry will continue to search for new ideas,” Innes said.

For more information email:

John Hart markd@johnhart.com.au

Broens Industries sales@broens.com.au