Automation is one of the greatest USPs offered by CNC machines. This advancement in technology and capabilities alone has singularly revolutionized the manufacturing sector and made it more efficient and productive. However, there are always two sides to a coin. The very facility that allows it to thrive can also prove to be a limitation.
On that note, let us look at the advantages and disadvantages of using CNC automation in modern machining.
Advantages of CNC Automation in Modern Machining
The advantages of automation offered through CNC machining processes can be summarized as below:
A single CNC machine can perform a wide range of manufacturing steps - all of which can be stored and controlled through a single computer. The autonomous operation paired with the industrial automation aspect arranges these steps in a series of logical progression, which ensures timely process execution. Resultantly, it hits the sweet spot of multivariate actions, timely execution, 24-hour operation, and higher processing speed. As such, CNC machines can ramp up production and make it even more effective even in the face of resource scarcity.
Greater Accuracy and Repeatability
CNC machines are controlled by computers that are programmed to perform a task repeatedly without any variations. The CNC machining process follows an identical set of steps repeatedly and delivers accuracy that is within 1/1000th. As a result, CNC machines offer greater accuracy and repeatability of work without trading off on the design consistency aspect. Most importantly, unlike human labor, which will trade-off quality with time, CNC machines will continue to consistently perform even after repeat operations.
Elimination of Human Error
Even the best and most skilled individuals can introduce some amount of error in the CNC machining process. In contrast, machines are a lot more reliable and less prone to injecting errors into the system. If anything, it is interesting to note that the more a human performs a repetitive task, the more error-prone the task becomes, and the more a machine performs a repetitive task, the more efficient it becomes. As such, CNC machines and automation will reproduce products consistently and reliably with minimal errors.
Reduced Labor Costs
It is a well-established fact that automation cuts down labor costs. Further, it reduces the workforce, makes them more efficient, and improves their overall productivity. A single operator can manage, supervise, and operate multiple machines at the same time. As such, businesses can do the same job without involving too many employees and remunerating them accordingly. Besides reducing the financial implication of wages, sick leaves, overtime, and other such benefits, CNC-driven automation also reduces risks and prevents accidents, mitigating other liabilities.
Improved Security and Safety
Thanks to automation, CNC machines can operate independently and with minimal inputs. Once the program is set up, the only human interaction required by the machine is routine maintenance. Even if modifications are to be made to the program, it can be fed into the system remotely and affected through sensors. By taking your labor off the floor, you eliminate the health and safety risks associated with exposing your workforce to heavy machinery. Accordingly, there will be fewer accidents and a safer ecosystem in your workshop.
A CNC machine introduces operational simplicity as they are easier to run and operate. The only effort required is in the initial setup and installation, followed by training. Once your employees get the hang of the ins and outs of the CNC machine, they can reap the benefits of it in no time.
Disadvantages of CNC Automation in Modern Machining
Keeping the above advantages in mind, let us now take a look at the drawbacks of automation in CNC machining processes:
Limitation on Versatility
While CNC machines are a powerhouse of machining, they cannot replicate the infiniteness of human action and learning. Having a dedicated machine to perform specific tasks limits its flexibility and versatility. Sometimes, the lack of skilled operators or unavailability of tools can impose such a limitation, especially when design complexities are involved. In either situation, it limits the potential of the manufacturing unit and can have cost implications in the long run.
Increased Carbon Footprint
There is no sugar-coating the fact that CNC machines require more operational inputs than your average human employee. Even if you switch to the cleanest energy source, the machine would still consume a significant amount of power while also emitting gasses and chemicals that can adversely impact the environment. As such, they fail to score in terms of eco-friendliness and sustainability.
Massive Capital Expenditure
While automation in the CNC machining process can rake in an impressive ROI, the machines call for a large initial investment that can be a little north of a few 100,000 dollars! Further, businesses will also have to deal with additional costs, such as the expenses for installation, training of staff, subscription or flat-rate fee for the software, purchasing warranties, the cost for annual maintenance, and more. As a result, the total initial investment can snowball disproportionately while the returns are spread over a greater duration.
Fear of Unemployment
Automation and machines have been stoking the fear of unemployment for decades. From computers to Artificial Intelligence, every technological advancement comes with a wave that rings the death knell for a certain industry or sector. And while such fear-mongering is excessive, it does come with a grain of truth, considering that machines will replace a chunk of the workforce. However, the unskilled labor would be the expendables, and the “unemployment” would merely tip the scales in favor of skilled labor. Regardless, it would still bring a tectonic shift in the labor market and highlight issues like skill or talent gaps.
Even the best and most fully equipped machines can experience performance issues to the extent of breakdowns. Plus, the additional costs discussed above, such as preventive maintenance and training would also accrue. Despite all this, there is no certainty that the capital invested will translate into sure shot revenue. This cost unpredictability is one of the greatest obstacles that come in the way of businesses taking the plunge and putting their money into CNC machines despite the clear advantage of automation.
CNC automation is more than a hot trend taking over industries. It is the need of the hour. And while it does have its own share of advantages and disadvantages, it can be seen from above that the benefits far outweigh its limitations. On this note, use the pros and cons listed above as pointers and review your machining requirements. Soon enough, you can form a balanced opinion on whether or not you should go for a CNC machine or otherwise.
About the Author:
Peter Jacobs is the Senior Director of Marketing at CNC Masters. He is actively involved in manufacturing processes and regularly contributes his insights for various blogs in CNC machining, 3D printing, rapid tooling, injection molding, metal casting, and manufacturing in general.