What to Consider Before Automating Your CNC Machines


Automation is more than a buzzword; it's an approach to manufacturing with the potential to radically and irrevocably change the trajectory of a business.

But increasing levels of automation often require increasingly radical changes to manufacturing processes. If done incorrectly, or at the wrong time, those changes have the potential to derail a company's momentum.

Thinking about your automation strategy and implementation in advance is key to success. The following questions can help shape your overall approach to automation, giving you a framework to successfully automate your computer numerical control (CNC) machines.

Question one: what is the guiding approach to automation?

If we narrow the discussion to metalworking and machining applications, then at first glance, automation can appear to be an entirely good idea with few downsides. Granted, upgrading machine tools to increasingly sophisticated CNC equipment to help with automation can be expensive. But as new techniques become available and technology moves into widespread use, companies can start to see increasing automation as a natural response to the changing market.

In that example, automation becomes a response to outside factors rather than a goal in and of itself. The approach is inherently reactive rather than proactive.

While reaction isn't necessarily a bad thing, it does subtly change the overall approach. Imagining full automation as the end goal requires a far more detailed and comprehensive approach. Most importantly, it requires envisioning a fully automated process ahead of time.

There's far more work involved in outlining a long-term plan for full automation. There's more expense involved as well. Consider incorporating a proactive approach to automation. Because a proactive approach reduces the chance for critical errors, expenses that run overboard, or errors in the manufacturing process.

Question two: what is the role of human workers?

Being proactive in the automation process and planning out the exact steps needed to fully automate your CNC machines requires also that you carefully plan out your employees’ roles. The most obvious role with CNC machines is to adequately prepare and train your employees in geometric code (g-code) and CNC programming, ensuring that you have enough fully trained programmers to handle your entire production line.

That's not the only role for human involvement in a fully automated manufacturing center; you'll also need quality assurance officers and designers. Laying out those roles clearly and well in advance can prepare your company to grow naturally into a fully automated enterprise™.

Question three: are your processes ready to be automated?

Automation accentuates any underlying trends. If your processes are well grounded, then automation will improve them. If they aren't, then you could be plagued with inconsistent results and poor performance long after automation.

Recommended read: Should You Automate Your Processes "As-Is" or Standardize First?

CNC processes include product design, testing, g-code programming, quality assurance (QA), and sales, among others. You can ensure that your operations are automation ready by upgrading and preparing equipment, training employees, and even making physical improvements to the facilities to be sure they meet the proper conditions for automated machining.

Question four: do you control your environment?

Automated machining is more than simply letting a CNC machine execute a program overnight. A small CNC machine shop might use overnight operations to extend working hours, but those practices aren't harnessing the full benefits of automation.

Full automation requires CNC machines to perform not just one lengthy operation, but an entire series of operations on one or more parts. Machine shops seeking to attain that level of automation require control of both the production process and the environment.

That means controlling thermal buildup. Operations that last for 40 or 50 hours generate significant heat, enough to throw off the accuracy of machining and change the dimensions of the block of material being machined. With manual tools, machine operators can adjust for those changes during the operation. But in an entirely closed-loop system, it becomes crucial to minimize any changes and thus eliminate the need to compensate.

At this point, the considerations for how to automate your CNC machines transition from general to highly specific. Here are just a few examples of those specific considerations:

  • Can you measure and account for the condition of the cutting tool before machining at each step in the program?

  • Can you measure and account for the condition of the cutting tool after machining each step?

  • Do you have the ability to change out cutting tools for a duplicate if certain tolerances aren't met?

  • What degree of flexibility is built into the CNC machine? Does the machine have a selection of programs and parts to choose from so that if it is unable to machine one part, perhaps because of a tool break, it can switch to another program without interruption?

  • Can all of these decisions be made in real time, thereby reducing unused machine time?

  • Does the mill, lathe, or other machine tool have the ability to control and adjust for thermal expansion?

The above list isn't exhaustive; it's just a small representation of what needs to happen for a CNC production process to be fully automated.

Question five: do you have the necessary tools to achieve complete automation?

Several machine tool builders offer CNC milling machines, lathes, and other machine tools that are capable of full automation. But the machines themselves are only part of what a manufacturer needs.

Fully automated CNC processes require a combination of software capable of producing highly complex CNC programming. A fully automated CNC program, capable of meeting the parameters mentioned above without manual intervention requires programming that would take far too long to complete manually. The programming stage itself requires software (in addition to the software used in the actual CNC machines).

By looking at the requirements for fully automated CNC machining, you start to see the complexity of fully automated systems. The solution isn't to turn away from advanced machining automation, but rather for operators to carefully consider the best time and manner to increase their current level of automation.

Editor’s note: this is a guest post. Views expressed are the guest author’s own views and not necessarily representative of UiPath.

peter jacobs uipath blog
Peter Jacobs

Senior Director of Marketing, CNC Masters

Get articles from automation experts in your inbox

Get articles from automation experts in your inbox

Sign up today and we'll email you the newest articles every week.

Thank you for subscribing!

Thank you for subscribing! Each week, we'll send the best automation blog posts straight to your inbox.