There is a trend in machining, CNC shops, and manufacturing which entails automation or even robotics to either run shops relatively unmanned or to run overnight shifts without the need for employees at all. Known as “lights out manufacturing,” it is essentially the end point reached as CNC shops and manufacturing facilities are fulfilling the need to produce more parts faster, at a higher quality, and without a lot of cost.
The move to automation has not only dramatically changed how industries are producing but is also noticeably altered how industries are maintaining equipment.
In some ways, this technology/labor story is like the question about which came first, the chicken or the egg. Is the technology enabling companies to reduce labor costs; or is a shrinking workforce forcing companies to use technology to produce?
LABOR & TECHNOLOGY
One factor to consider is a declining labor force. The labor force participation rate measures the number of people who are actively looking for work and those currently employed. Based on Department of Labor statistics, since the mid-1960s, this number increased from about 59% to a high of 67% around the year 2000. Since then, for the most part, there has been a steady decline to a rate of 61.4% in July 2020. Quite simply, there are just fewer people looking for work. This, of course, makes it difficult for companies to find the employees they need.
The other side of the coin is increased technology. Some argue that because of new technology, less workers are needed. Manufacturing employment rates have dropped significantly over the last 20 years and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, engine and machine assembler positions will drop by another 10-20% over the next 10 years. Automation and other technology are enabling companies to produce at consistent levels, but with less workers.
Regardless of the reasons, automation is changing machining, CNC shops, and manufacturing.
For the most part, converting machinery to automate or have reduced labor is relatively simple. Depending on the type of machinery, the cost to change over varies. However, in nearly every case, that cost is offset by reduced payroll, lower benefits, and less sick days. Similarly, going from mostly hands-on positions to automation makes plants safer and injuries are reduced. Finally, the production advantages and solid Return on Investment (ROI) of automation also have strong upsides.
Manufacturers who switch to automation must consider other factors to ensure optimum machine operation. For example, a good machine operator, over time, learns the intricacies of the machine. They can actively monitor how the machine is running and will know when it needs maintenance, parts or fluids. With automation or even a reduction in labor compared to machine count, that personal touch is lost to some extent and, typically, parts inspections, tooling breakages, and machine malfunctions or troubleshooting is done more passively and maybe more infrequently.
Without workers to monitor equipment, companies may need to take additional steps to ensure equipment is running properly. Adding machine fail-safes, fire and malfunction protection, and video monitoring can help keep an eye on machinery. Likewise, doing more routine maintenance will help with preventative steps to stop costly breakdowns.
The other step is to make sure a universally high-performing and trouble-free fluid is used to lubricate machinery. The primary role of a lubricant is to make things run smoother. But a lubricant also works as a coolant and cleaner, protects against wear and corrosion, assists in power transmission and helps preserve component seals. Machines that are not as closely monitored should have a robust metalworking fluid that can handle all types of applications, go without routine maintenance, and run in extreme operating conditions without issues.
Because of the complexities of machines, an off-the-shelf oil is not going to provide the protection necessary to keep high technology machines running in peak condition. Rather, manufacturers who are automating should work with a trusted fluid developer to find the right mixture to make sure machinery is operating efficiently.
Not all oil is created equally, and it is important to find one that is best for the machinery you use. By working with the right partner, manufacturers can have a fluid analysis run and find fluids that are optimal for the machinery used. A fluid analysis can evaluate these and other criteria:
- Viscosity – Incorrect viscosity could cause insufficient cooling of critical machine parts. If the machinery is being run by an operator, the machine could be run at a slower speed to compensate (although that may not be ideal). But in the case of automation, it is more difficult to adjust the speeds on the fly, so having proper viscosity is even more important.
- Additive Content – Antioxidants, extreme pressure additives, additives to improve the viscosity index, anti-wear additives, anti-rust additives, detergents, dispersants, and anti-foaming additives are just some of the additives that may be used in industrial lubricants. Conducting a fluid analysis will show if the correct mixture of additives is used. Again, this is significant in operator guided machines; and more so if machinery is not closely monitored.
- Fluid Quality – If a machine is not being closely monitored by an operator, a premium lubricant can be the difference between efficiency and breakdown. Discussing fluid quality with your lubricant provider may help find the best option for you.
There is nothing to indicate the trend towards automation won’t continue. In fact, it is far more likely to increase, rather than decrease. But, regardless of whether you’re automated or continue to use machine operators, maintaining proper lubricants is critical to machine performance.
If you’ve moved to a more automated machinery process, contact Lube-Tech to make sure you’re taking the proper steps to maintain your equipment, including using the lubrication products best suited for your needs.