Canadian Manufacturing

How to choose the right automation tools for your machine shop

For machine shops wanting to streamline tedious work or improve efficiency, automation can be an invaluable tool.

March 4, 2022   by Emily Newton, Editor-in-Chief, Revolutionized

PHOTO: Getty Images

Automation can be a powerful tool for any manufacturer – especially as labor shortages and rising consumer expectations force businesses to do more with existing resources. However, the high cost of installing and operating automation makes choosing the right solution essential.

Market research, audits, and careful integration can help you identify the best possible automation solution for your machine shop and ensure it provides the benefits your company needs.

1. Begin With an Audit

An audit, machine shop evaluation, or process review can all provide the information you need to determine the type of automation your machine shop needs.

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While machine shops have a few universal needs, each shop will likely have a unique combination of issues and employee abilities. An automated solution will need to be designed and integrated with both these issues and staff capabilities in mind.

Typically, businesses adopt a new automation solution to solve a specific problem that a business is having, or to improve a key metric. Many businesses also use automation to eliminate or streamline particularly repetitive tasks, which an audit can help you identify.

A long-term framework for auditing and reviewing the solution’s performance will help you determine whether it was an effective investment.

Many manufacturers use technology like IoT devices to monitor the performance and effectiveness of their automated solutions. These tools can help you track a variety of variables related to machine function, making it easier to determine if an automated solution is streamlining your machine shop’s workflows.

2. Know When to Integrate a Solution Yourself (And When Not To)

Right now, automation technology that prioritizes flexibility and ease of use is a major trend in the manufacturing industry.

Solutions like cobots allow businesses to invest in automation solutions that work with their team, rather than replacing human workers. Plug-and-play grippers or portable loadable systems allow automation solutions to be extremely flexible, slotting in and out of workflows as market conditions and machine shop needs change.

If effective, these solutions can often provide all the benefits of automation – like improved efficiency, productivity, and workplace safety – without sacrificing the shop’s flexibility or agility.

Because these systems are built with ease of use and flexibility in mind, many end-users attempt a DIY integration by setting up and integrating the automation with existing machine shop systems on their own.

In theory, the plug-and-play or collaborative nature of these robots should make a DIY integration easy. Even simple automation systems, however, can be complex or difficult to integrate, especially if they need to be compatible with existing machine shop systems.

If improperly integrated, a flexible or adaptable automation system can reduce a shop’s productivity and the quality of the goods it produces.

3. Consider Starting Small

Simpler, smaller automation systems are easier to integrate. Team members also typically have an easier time adjusting to smaller workflow changes.

If your machine shop does not have extensive experience with automation, it’s typically a good idea to start with a small-but-complete automation solution, rather than a more extensive automation project.

Starting small will help your team gain valuable experience with integrating, operating, and reviewing the effectiveness of automation solutions.

If there are problems with your automated solutions, they will likely cause less of a disruption to your machine shop processes than a larger, more complex solution that may impact more of the production process.

4. Automate Administrative Tasks

Often, automation advice centers on robots or similar systems that streamline production workflows – automating tasks like packaging, welding, quality control, or machine tending.

Digital systems, however, can also help a business automate administrative tasks like quoting, scheduling, and ordering. Like production tasks, these jobs can be both repetitive and time-consuming, often making them a great candidate for automation.

Accelerating tasks like quoting can also make a machine shop more responsive to customers, which can often improve customer satisfaction and encourage repeat business.

These digital solutions are typically easier to integrate into existing workflows than physical systems and robots. Many modern business automation systems are cloud-based, and come with dedicated support teams, documentation, and APIs that allow for direct integration with digital tools the machine shop already uses.

Once you’ve trained your team on how to use the tools, you can review their effectiveness in the same way you monitor physical automation systems. Over time, it’s possible to see how much of an improvement the automated tools can provide, allowing you to identify new digital automation strategies that can provide additional benefits.

Ensuring Automation Provides Real Benefits for Your Machine Shop

For machine shops wanting to streamline tedious work or improve efficiency, automation can be an invaluable tool. Determining where automation will be most valuable can be challenging, however.

Audits, professional integration, small-scale projects, and business automation tools are all ways that machine shops can carefully introduce automation and ensure the chosen solutions will integrate well into existing workflows and provide concrete benefits.

Emily Newton is an industrial journalist. She has over five years experience covering the industry as the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized.