By Brittany Willes, contributing writer
The American Mold Builder

“Today, it’s a food retrieval system. Tomorrow it goes back in time and tries to kill Sara Connor,” says Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a theoretical physicist on the popular sitcom “The Big Bang Theory” while speaking about a robotic arm.

While the character’s pop-culture reference is meant jokingly, it aptly illustrates many people’s fears about automated technology: Robots acting autonomously will cause human laborers to become obsolete. Robotics have long been seen as good for the company’s bottom line, but detrimental for individual employees. Is that really the case, however? Is it possible for robotic manufacturing and human employees to peacefully coexist to the benefit of everyone? For some companies, the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

Robotics play a key role at Dynamic Tool and Design

As companies compete in a world driven to create products faster and cheaper, many manufacturers have opted to run “lights-out.” Lights-out manufacturing refers to factories and shops that do not require humans to be physically present to run smoothly and properly. Essentially, manufacturing shops can run “with the lights out” because, unlike humans, automated machines will continue to run regardless.

Dynamic Tool and Design has been operating lights-out machines for over a decade. In fact, the Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin-based plastic injection mold manufacturer was one of the first to use robotics in conjunction with both carbon cutting and EDM. “We’ve been running lights-out for about 15 years,” stated John Kemeny, Dynamic’s hard-milling supervisor. “Over the last eight or nine years, we’ve only gotten better. I’ve been in shops where there are several people standing in front of machines all day. In this industry, you have to stay competitive, which means finding ways to cut costs. With lights-out machining, we don’t have to keep paying multiple people to stand in front of the machines. Now, those resources are better utilized elsewhere in the shop.”

Stabilizing labor costs is just one benefit of lights-out machining. Other benefits include increased quality and throughput, as scraps and other waste production can dramatically decrease. Additionally, running lights-out and reducing human operations intervention can have safety benefits. The fact is, automatic machines are able to perform complex tasks in less time and in conditions that may otherwise be too physically demanding or hazardous for human workers. In these instances, lights-out machining can be a viable alternative for all parties.

Of course, there are other benefits to lights-out machining. As Kemeny noted, the world, and especially the tool and die manufacturing industry, runs on money. Running lights-out allows the company to cut costs without sacrificing product quality.

“Sinker EDM, hard-cutting and carbon cutting are the three areas where we are basically fully automated,” said Kemeny. These areas were higher priority as they are where most of Dynamic’s tool and die work is performed, although the company plans to eventually have all processes set up for robotic work. “As we keep growing and continuing our profitability, we’ll keep buying equipment for lights-out machining,” he affirmed. “That’s how we will be competitive in an ever-changing industry, and that’s how we’ll keep getting better and better as manufacturers.”

Carousels and robots can house up to 150 electrodes at one time, and cells can typically run for 60 hours unattended.

Savings for the toolmaker and the consumer

A large part of becoming a better manufacturer is making better choices, and running lights-out can help. According to Kemeny, robotic manufacturing allows the company to make wiser decisions when programming machines and performing machine setup. “It starts in programming,” Kemeny asserted. “We don’t just load 20 artifacts and say ‘Here we go, we’re going to run and hope for the best.’ We start with one artifact and make sure that it goes through perfectly, start to finish. We monitor tool life and wear and make changes when necessary. If there is any downtime, we capitalize on that. From there, we take it on the long haul. There is never a situation where we just throw an artifact in the machine and hope that everything will work out.”

The biggest cause of machine downtime stems from frequent inspections. Because Dynamic is considered a tight-tolerance manufacturer for the tool and die industry, workers perform many machine inspections to ensure everything is running as it should. However, downtime also is minimized by running multiple jobs at once.

Furthermore, the lights-out machines are able to perform the inspection process directly on the machine tool, which eliminates the need to stop the machine for a quality check. “The machine is programmed to tell me if everything is running correctly or to stop if something is not right,” said Kemeny. “As long as everything is running smoothly, we’re able to start the next job before the previous job is even finished.”

By limiting its downtime, Dynamic is further able to cut costs and increase productivity. For instance, workers are able to be at one end of the shop putting artifacts on pallets and having them picked up by the machine.

“Then, all we have to do is bring the pallets to the machine where the artifacts will be machined and do what we call an MDI check to make sure that we are on the correct coordinate system,” stated Kemeny. Now, instead of spending 25 minutes setting up at the machine, workers need only 30 seconds at the machine controller for the same process. “When you have a number of artifacts to make, being able to run the machines 24 hours a day without someone there to run it makes it much easier to hit those deadlines, without worrying that we’ve sacrificed the quality of our products,” said Kemeny.

“At the end of the day, this type of machining benefits everyone,” he asserted. “The more profitable the company is the better off we all are.” For Kemeny, and Dynamic, everything boils down to staying profitable while finding ways to cut costs and remain competitive within the industry. “Customers and consumers want products to be cheaper. I think that is what makes us competitive in the tool and die industry and in the world,” he said. “We’re optimizing everything we can so we can cut costs in other places. If I’ve got three workers standing around just watching the machines, I’ve added more cost that the consumer ends up paying. However, if I can have just one worker on one side of the shop getting components ready for the next operation while those spindles are already turning, it is a win-win situation.”

A nonstop process

Lights-out machining is a nonstop process, even during machine downtime. For Dynamic’s employees, it’s imperative to maintain the day-to-day processes of keeping the shop clean, assessing the tooling, getting equipment set up for the next job and generally looking forward to the next task.

According to Kemeny, over the years the Dynamic shop has become automated to the point that only two or three people are needed at each station, also called a “cell.” This is a big improvement over the old days when it was one person per machine. Now, Kemeny has three machines that can run almost constantly with only two people – the spindle stays running, reducing time and labor needed for the production process.

For example, when workers make electrodes needed for EDM, Dynamic now has carousels and robots that can house up to 150 electrodes at one time. While the spindle is turning, one worker operating the machine also mounts the carbons needed for the electrodes, making it a nonstop process. Dynamic will run loads of three or four different electrodes at a time and, typically, a machine will run for 60 hours unattended.

“The times are changing,” Kemeny stated. “The world is only getting smarter and more efficient by the day. With this type of machining available to everyone, now it’s just a matter of keeping your company moving forward in the right direction with equipment upgrades. At the end of the day, automation costs money; however, the good can far outweigh the negative if you go about it the right way.”

Of course, lights-out machining is not practical for every situation. There will likely be times where machines are set up for components or artifacts that, for a multitude of reasons, can only be run one at a time. In these instances, running lights-out would not be a cost-effective solution.

Still, Kemeny and many mold builders like him are convinced that the benefits of lights-out machining will ensure that more companies begin making the switch to robotics. “I can only imagine that more and more manufacturers will start converting to automatic machines,” he said. “If they’re not, they are not going to be as competitive in the industry, that’s for sure. In the end, it benefits everyone and that is what you want for your employees and your business.”