As an aerospace manufacturer, we are at all times involved in continuous improvement. We are regularly evaluating and updating our equipment, software, and processes. In our evaluation we also compare the efficiencies of using CNC (Computer Numerical Control) operators versus using applied robotics (automation). The nature of aerospace component manufacturing, much of which is low-to-medium volume production, therefore we must evaluate the most efficient, cost-effective method of manufacturing, for both the near and long term.Using CNC operators versus robotics is not an either/or proposition.
At Intrex Aerospace we utilize both qualified CNC operators and varying levels of robotics (automation), depending on our application and production purposes. Both CNC operators and robotics play significant roles in our manufacturing processes, yet they can differ significantly in their functions, capabilities, and impacts on our production. Understanding their respective strengths and limitations is crucial in optimizing our manufacturing operations.
We see our CNC operators as skilled professionals. The level of their proficiencies necessary for our machining operation are no longer simple, repetitive, and task oriented. The operators are required to be much more involved in managing the entire machining process. To facilitate and maintain these ongoing skill sets requires purposeful involvement and commitment to continuous improvement. It is for this reason Intrex developed a Certified Operator Program (COP).
There are many benefits to having a COP program, but one of the primary purposes is it enables individual operators to take increased responsibility for the quality of their own work. The COP verifies compliance to requirements and identifies and remedies factors of poor quality at their earliest possible source: at the point of occurrence. This minimizes costly delays that are associated with identifying problems at a later stage of production and prevent adding cost to parts that may have to be reworked or scrapped.
Our state-of-the-art CNC machines execute precise, repetitive tasks, such as cutting, drilling, and milling, based on digital instructions. Couple this precision with our highly trained CNC operators and you have a winning combination. The operators can set parameters, monitor operations, sometimes program the machines, always ensuring the quality of finished products. Their overall expertise is invaluable in maintaining precision parts and smooth production flows.
Robotics in manufacturing encompasses a wide range of automated systems designed to perform tasks traditionally handled by human operators. Industrial robots are equipped with advanced sensors, actuators, and programming that allow them to execute complex operations with speed, accuracy, and consistency. They excel in tasks requiring high precision, endurance, and repetitive motions, contributing to increased productivity and reduced error rates.
Robotics can include something as simple as a bar-feeder, or as complex as a multi-axis machine or multi-axis robotic device, with quick changeout end effectors, that are used for load/unload, sensing (measuring), deburring, etc. They can be utilized for running during normal factory hours (lights on), or unattended for 2nd, 3rd, and weekend operation (lights out).
Comparing CNC operators and robotics involves evaluating various factors:
- Precision and Consistency: CNC operators possess knowledge and adaptability. Properly trained and experienced operators can identify manufacturing problems before they become problems. Robots excel in consistently executing tasks with exceptional precision, minimizing errors due to fatigue or human limitations.
- Adaptability and Programming: CNC operators are adept at flexibility. They can be involved in providing machinability input, sometimes programming machines, doing machine setups, making offsets and adjustments. Robots can be reprogrammed to perform different tasks (some complex), but always require programming. Once setup they can be very consistent and efficient.
- Efficiency and Speed: Robots often outpace human operators in executing repetitive tasks, which can lead to higher production rates and decreased cycle times. Evaluating robotic setup time can be an issue, especially in shorter run situations. CNC operators require time for initial programming and setup, but many of these tasks cannot be done with automation and require a skilled operator/setup person.
- Complexity of Tasks: CNC operators bring human insight, experience, problem-solving and decision-making, making them suitable for recognizing and solving complex machining situations. Robots excel in performing repetitive tasks with high accuracy, but usually do not have the intuitive capabilities of a trained operator.
- Cost and Maintenance: Initial investments in robotics can be substantial, but they often lead to long-term cost savings due to increased productivity and reduced labor costs. CNC machines less robotics require skilled operators. They obviously require wages and benefits and consideration for when they are not available (vacations/ sick days, etc).
- Flexibility and Learning Curve: CNC operators require training to better understand machine operations, programming languages, and machining processes. There is always a learning curve unless the components produced are relatively similar. Robots demand expertise in programming and maintenance and are not very flexible, but once a process is setup and stabilized, it can be very productive, with a minimum of operator intervention.
At Intrex we have found that involving our skilled operators, educating them through our COP program, utilizing their skills, while incorporating appropriate levels of robotics (automation), not only improves production but creates a rewarding atmosphere where our employees can grow and thrive. Our operators bring human insight, adaptability, and problem-solving skills to the production process, while robotics excel in precision, speed, and consistency. Integrating both human expertise and robotic automation can lead to synergistic improvements in manufacturing efficiency and quality. Restating the obvious, using CNC operators versus robotics is not an either/or proposition. Properly implemented, using both can be a win-win.
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