Five Steps to Unlocking Automation’s Cost-Saving Potential

The steady drumbeat toward automation in all forms for all sizes of metalworking enterprises continues, and it’s no longer a question of “Will you automate?” but “How will you automate?”

It’s probably fair to say that manufacturing’s automation rock stars are the highly articulated robots boosting throughput to the point that machining companies lose their competitive edge without them. That being said, there are other—perhaps slightly less glamorous—automation solutions that align with lean manufacturing disciplines to establish sustainable operational improvements.

Unsure where to focus your automation efforts? Here are five steps for identifying aspects of metalworking that automation will improve and some potential solutions that will help you achieve results.

1. Identify areas of energy waste.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that in 2020, the industrial sector accounted for 36% of total U.S. end-use energy consumption and 33% of total U.S. energy consumption. Equipment that may seem inconsequential in the grand scheme of operations can waste enough energy to substantiate a new approach. For example, even small motors running idle draw electricity. A 2-horsepower motor draws about 1,500 watts/hour. That one motor running for one day will use 36,000 watts (3.6 kilowatts) of energy.

By adding control systems to monitor processes, information from external and internal datasets can be compiled automatically. The data is analyzed to identify where energy use can be optimized. Management teams can monitor energy spikes, peak hours, weekend use, wasted hours, and more. Diagram energy use and flow through computer modeling techniques to establish the energy baseline by which improvements can be measured. These efforts also help signal the need to investigate lapses in machine performance based on parameters that are set defining “normal” results.

2. Identify production bottlenecks and inefficiencies.

Planned stops in production, unplanned stops, and slow cycles contribute to overall inefficiency. As these inefficiencies are oftentimes incremental, they don’t draw attention to themselves. Perhaps they are part of legacy processes that have been performed the same way for years and are sometimes overlooked as areas worthy of improvement.

Material handling processes are prime candidates for automation. Converting material handling procedures from manual to automated processes not only helps relieve workforce constraints, it also reduces downtime and optimizes production cycles. For example, using conveyors engineered to improve the transfer of material from one process to another has been shown to raise productivity by up to 60%.

3. Identify health and safety hazards.

Injuries and illnesses resulting from faulty procedures or inadequate equipment undermines employee morale while contributing to higher expenses including worker compensation claims and litigation costs. Conveyors, automatic dumpers, and metal scrap processing equipment automate manual processes to significantly reduce heavy lifting and exposure to fluid-covered, razor-sharp metal scrap. Centralized filtration systems automate fluid filtration and can inject ozone to kill bacteria and prevent viruses, mold, and yeast that pose health hazards, including dermatitis.

4. Analyze product expenses.

Direct costs associated with the production of parts can also signal an opportunity for automation. For example, expenses associated with lubrication and tooling, which combine to average between 6-8% the total sale of a part, can be reduced through automated solutions. Centralized fluid filtration and recycling systems automatically remove tramp oils and suspended solids, control bacteria, and adjust concentration for fluid recovery and re-use. Not only can these automated systems reduce fluid purchases up to 75%, they can decrease fluid disposal costs by up to 90%. They are also shown to extend tool life up to 25%.

5. Identify processes that are currently compartmentalized but could be streamlined through consolidation.

Machining operations with discrete steps for processing small to medium volumes of metal scrap can optimize their back-end processes with systems that integrate multiple steps in one or two solutions. Shredding or crushing scrap material at one station, transferring the material to another station to separate the fluid from the metal scrap in a centrifuge, and then taking the collected fluid to a third station for filtration requires an operator to facilitate the transition from one step to the next. This is inefficient.

Complete chip processing and briquetter systems consolidate multiple steps into one automated piece of machinery. Chip processing systems shred turnings into flowable chips, separate tramp metals from the chips, spin fluid off the chips, and collect spent fluid that can be pumped to an automated fluid filtration system for recycling and re-use. Briquetter systems feature similar capabilities with the advantage of dry, compact pucks produced at the end of the process. The pucks are easy to store and garner higher prices from metal recyclers.

There are ample automation opportunities in metalworking, but it’s important to look beyond the front-end production processes. Connect with a total solutions provider of controls and back-end processing systems to determine how automation will cut costs at your operation.

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