machine shop in BoiseAccording to National Tooling and Machining Association (NTMA), lights-out machining or unmanned machining is increasingly gaining prominence in many machine shops and industries throughout the United States. It is a great way to improve both efficiency and productivity. Once the automated system has been fully implemented, the machine operator’s job would be reduced to just inputting commands/instructions into the computer. The machine follows the instructions to the letter. The end result is exemplary workmanship. However, just like any other technology, lights-out machining comes with its own unique set of challenges. Because of this, it is important to note that there is nothing like unmanned production. However, there is industrial production or machining that is largely automated and requires minimum human attention. Irrespective of the perspective that you look at it lights-out machining presents factories, machines shops and industrial plants with several tangible benefits. However, it is important to carry out a detailed analysis before jumping into the lights-out machining bandwagon.

New technology is almost always used in the monitoring of machining conditions. This task was previously undertaken by human operators. More often than not, lights-out machining means swapping labor costs with costly capital expenditures. Capital expenditures may be beneficial in the long term, but they do not offer quick paybacks. Being a new technology, lights-out machining comes with its own risks. Before implementing such a system, you should carefully review the associated risks. A thorough review should include tool monitoring systems, power monitors, fire suppression systems, part gauging techniques, bar feed machines, replacement tooling systems and multipallet pools.

Tool monitoring systems are a vital part of lights-out machining. For example, an automated bar-fed lathe may be set to run from 6pm to 11pm. Once the tap, drill and turning tools are properly set, the drill is set to on-mode. Should the drill bit break at around 8 PM without a tool monitoring system in place, the tap will be next to break and the machine will continue to process scrap parts till the programmed 11 PM stoppage time. Three hours worth of metal scrap is by no means a small loss. Tool monitoring systems avoid such eventualities by engaging emergency shutdown procedures. These systems also eliminate costly damage due to simple malfunctions and human errors.

Multipallet tools enable the machining of one part in a single cycle. There are stand-alone systems that process complicated work pieces in a complete unmanned or lights-out situation. A single machine is capable of churning out up to 32 unique parts in a single cycle. So, the next time you visit a machine shop in Boise and witness lights-out machining, remember the owner may be operating second and third shifts with few or no machine operators. On average, these machines return roughly 30 percent reduction in labor costs.