Manufacturing continues to change at a rapid rate, from old-fashioned conventional turning operations with added milling less than 10 years ago, to today’s world of multifunctional machining. Complementing this now is robotics, driving further change by increasing machine utilisation, freeing skilled workers from routine work, and upskilling for even higher levels of efficiency.

One company at the forefront of these enormous changes has been Okuma, which has been a focal point with its leading-edge technology. Okuma’s Managing Director for Australia and New Zealand, Phil Hayes, recalls a study at the Ford Motor Company in Geelong some years back that identified that a part sat on a pallet for almost six hours before its next machining operation.

With some quiet smugness he also recalls the successful transition from a line of eight machines, each machining two features of an oil pump body at one set-up, to two machines machining every feature at 64 units at one set-up, commenting at the time that the maths was not difficult. Hayes recalls that Ford implemented a huge number of efficient new processes and methods, but this did not save them from the short-sighted industrial climate of the time, which had nothing to do with the object of making parts efficiently and profitably for the companies who had invested heavily in new technology.

Today there are so many options to achieve greater efficiency but these require some investment, entailing modest and often high levels of capital. Coupled with this is the single most important challenge: a change in the philosophy of who should do what and the most effective utilisation of skilled labour.

Before the Holden Adelaide plant introduced robots to its chassis underbody welding line, Hayes had watched big men wield 100kg+ spot welding guns as they welded their designated section all day, every day. The introduction of robots in this area was a great win for efficiency, accuracy, consistency, and physical health and safety. With this change the valuable experience of the welders was not lost as they continued to contribute in identifying welding improvements, inspection, maintenance and other creative functions within the plant.

“Whilst not all companies can invest in plant and equipment to the level of major international corporations, the same benefits apply when applying robots to repetitive tasks such as loading and unloading,” says Hayes. “It dramatically reduces mental strain on employees, eliminates safety risks and the cost of labour, which is increasing every year. On top of this there is also the book write-down value every year on capital items.”

Hayes notes that the smallest machines at the once-known PBR Automotive operation were Okuma LB6s, LCCs and LCSs, with tiny on-board Okuma Gantry Loader (OGL) robots to load and unload disc-brake calliper pistons for mirror finish turning. These were destined for auto makers both here and overseas. Hayes keeps the one-millionth part on his desk from an LB6 machine and advised that LCC and LCS machines with OGL robotics would go on to produce well in excess of 3m pistons per annum.

OGLs come in capacities from 3kg up payloads. One company that has taken them on-board is KH Engineering, which has installed LB3000 lathes with OGL 10kg units attached in its advanced engineering shop.

Raising productivity

“Basically the integrated OGL units allow us to reach higher levels of productivity without the usual expansion of overheads that were always necessary when you wanted to get more out of the day,” says Ken Horner, Director of KH Engineering. “They are a good piece of well-supported technology that is simply built, yet so sturdy that they are extremely reliable – just good engineering! Today we have medium-sized production runs and once the operators are familiar with the set-up, changeovers are completed quickly and efficiently. Like all advances in manufacturing, it is necessary to help yourself and take ownership of the future.

“No longer is this technology ‘unreliable black art’. It is seriously efficient from two of the most important viewpoints – productivity and financial,” Horner adds. “It has changed the dynamics of the work flow with the machine cutting out three operations, and it is virtually handling the work of five people. The machine is consistently accurate to within 1,000th of an inch, which we have complete confidence in, as this is proven with regular concentricity batch tests.”

The stand-alone floor robots are even more flexible physically but in reality are more likely to be dedicated to a wider range of throughput, handling parts of more than half a tonne in weight. These require safety cells and compliance with strict safety standards, and the cell itself may also be somewhat complex as the part may have to be washed, deburred, measured, inspected, packaged and quarantined. All this can be completed in one combined cycle and set up by a creative skilled operator who is likely to be tending three or four of these cells at once.

One of Melbourne’s best, most well-known engineering jobbing shops, GW Kewder Engineering defeated the theory that long runs were required to justify robot installations.

“The installation of robots enabled us to close down the night shift yet still run the machines overnight,” said Kewder’s Managing Director Derek Warrington. “Text messages are forwarded automatically by the machine to key personnel at any time of the night should a malfunction or out-of-tolerance occur.

“Robots have allowed us to reduce times on batch runs of 200-250 complex components from two weeks to four to five days. We now have three trained robot operators and this is allowing us to upskill other operators. On some complex jobs it is taking us a day to set the operation up; however on a repeat of that job, the set-up time is reduced to approximately two hours. The new technology is simple and flexible, freeing up personnel from repetitive jobs and increasing productivity and safety.”

The third area of robotic technology or the middle ground has been developed by the entrepreneurial Belgian company RoboJob, which has developed a CE-marked compact safe-cell that allows easy access and has an interactive simple programming system with generic part stockers. This versatile unit allows the use or non-use of the robot as well as being relocatable to other machines.

Holinger Engineering manufactures arguably some of the world’s finest motorsport gearboxes, supplied to racing teams such as Aston Martin, Lamborghini, Porsche, BMW and Audi. Holinger has introduced a RoboJob Turn Assist robot to its latest Okuma Macturn 250 2SW multi-task machine. The complete process from stock billets to a finished product is achieved quickly and efficiently, and for a company that receives urgent orders for sometimes 5-20 parts in a batch and specialises in small production runs, this set-up provides the ultimate in flexibility.

Holinger Managing Director Alan Smith comments that the RoboJob takes minimal time to set up, has increased machine hours per day, and can operate overnight without staff, lighting and so on. Moreover the machine can send a text message to an operator if it needs assistance.

“Whilst we have experience with gantry loaders, this new robot is relatively new to our shop so we are still learning. It is however proving to be flexible, economical, is quick to program, it can be easily moved to another machine and is ideally suited to lower production runs,” says Smith. “This type of technology assists us with the effective placement of personnel, often looking after more than one machine. It is allowing us to upskill operators keen to take on this new technology, and it has great occupational health and safety aspects related to the loading of billets and repetitive jobs.”

“With such advances in manufacturing technology, many of Australia’s leading engineering companies are competing effectively on the world market,” says Hayes. “Today two out of every five machines that Okuma delivers are multitasking or multifunction machines, and one in every four multitaskers has a robot of some description attached to it.”

Phil went on to comment that those who have seen Okuma’s new Dream Site No.1 plant in Nagoya, Japan, will get the message that as a manufacturer, Okuma’s latest machines are built by the very latest Okuma machines and a host of automated and robotic technologies. Inevitably there will be some companies left behind in a changing market environment but those who have welcomed the inevitability of change and embraced this, will continue to grow and prosper.