Everyone wants to decrease downtime and make their CNC machine tools as efficient as possible. Luckily, technologies for machining, tooling and metrology have made it much easier and more productive than ever before. 

Most manufacturing and part-making experts agree that job shops typically achieve overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) values of 50 percent or less. For perspective, that’s like buying an expensive steak and throwing half of it away. 

By implementing a few timesaving, cost-cutting and productivity-boosting technologies, it’s possible to improve this number significantly. Here are a few top ways to get started (plus some other technologies that can make a difference in your equipment effectiveness).

Read more: Cobots and Manufacturing: 3 Ways Collaborative Automation Can Help Your Shop

No. 1: Offline Tool Presetting

Check out the return on investment calculator on the website of any leading tool presetter and you’ll find that payback only takes months, even for a shop that sets up a couple jobs per week. Most presetters use a camera to measure tools, but some use hard probes. Many are operated manually, while others are completely automated.

The one that is right for your shop depends on the number of machines, tool changes, production hours and hourly rate. But one thing is clear—using a CNC lathe or machining center to touch off tools is an incredible waste of time. 

“Contrary to early rumors, 3D printing isn’t going to replace machining or fabricating anytime soon, if ever. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it.”

Warning: Before you rush out and buy one, presetting tools for a CNC lathe requires some sort of quick-change tooling system, so you should probably start there. Secondly, take a hard look at your future needs before investing. Many shops buy a low-end presetter to get started and end up trading it in a year later for one with more bells and whistles. 

No. 2: Machine Probing

Experienced machinists will tell you that measuring parts with the machine that made them is asking for trouble. And while that might be true for extremely close tolerance work, today’s machine tools and probing systems can easily measure features to within a thou’ or two, opening the door to unattended machining. 

Probes also make setups both fast and foolproof: No more edge finders or tramming. They are also commonly used to automatically monitor and compensate for tool wear and broken tools. This is especially useful for avoiding the cascade of tool destruction that occurs after a drill breaks early in the machining process and no one is around to catch it. 

Read more: 5 Future Trends Driving Growth in Medical Device Manufacturing

No. 3: Quick-Change Tooling

The opportunities for OEE improvement here are endless. For machining centers and EDM equipment, zero-point workholding systems make job changeover into a one-minute-or-less affair. The same can be said for quick-change chucks and top jaws on a CNC lathe. 

On the cutting tool side, quick-change stick tools and rotary toolholders not only reduce machine downtime but also eliminate the hassle of bending over to inspect tools or digging in the chip pan for dropped screws and inserts. Pop the worn tool out, stick a new one in and press cycle start. 

No. 4: Toolpath Simulation Software

Wouldn’t it be cool to upload a program to the machine, push the green button and walk away? How about doing that on a brand-new job? Scary, right? 

Toolpath simulation software makes this fantasy into a reality, particularly for those shops that have implemented one of the offline presetting systems. Because most presetters are able to “talk” to an external software systems, programs can be proven out well in advance, using predefined tool lengths and diameters and workholding that puts parts exactly where the programmer intended—no more collisions, no more crashes, far less downtime. And for longer-running jobs, such as more than a few dozen pieces, these software systems give programmers the ability to fine-tune toolpaths and drastically shorten cycle times. 

No. 5: Factory Automation Through Robotics

Factory automation is no longer limited to high-volume production environments. Whether collaborative or industrial, robots are making their way into shops both large and small—tending machine tools, applying glue and paint, deburring parts and filling boxes. 

If you’re not welcoming these worker bees onto your production floor, rest assured the shop down the street is. Robotics can substantially reduce overhead costs and make life miserable for anyone who quotes against them.

Other Metal Part-Making Advancements Worthy of Evaluation

There are literally dozens of other ways to improve machine tool productivity, and that’s without embracing the big kahuna: Industry 4.0 and all that its “big data” can do to improve manufacturing operations. Here are more ways:

Read more: Additive Manufacturing: 5 Things You Need to Know About 3D Printing

No. 16: Additive Manufacturing, 3D Printing

Contrary to early rumors, 3D printing isn’t going to replace machining or fabricating anytime soon, if ever. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore it. Also known as additive manufacturing, this “make anything” method of building parts complements traditional manufacturing technologies. 

It’s a great way to whip up a prototype for a customer, print a low-cost assembly jig or produce low-volume parts. Consider it one more tool in your manufacturing toolbox, not as a competing process. 

Of course, the term “additive manufacturing” itself is quite vague, covering a handful of distinct types of 3D printer and a few dozen or so brand-specific technologies. The systems range in price from a few thousand dollars for a low-end, extrusion-style desktop machine to $1 million or more for a laser-based, metal-capable 3D printing system. 

If you’re thinking these technologies would be a cool addition to your existing machine tool lineup, you’re right. Just remember: 

  • For the best results, parts should be designed with 3D printing in mind.
  • Secondary post-processes will be required, including machining, vibratory finishing and heat-treating.
  • You should plan on a fairly lengthy learning curve—some in the industry suggest six months or more will be needed for some level of 3D printing proficiency.

The Time and Investment Trade-Off Will Pay Off

I know what you’re thinking: We’re too busy just getting parts out the door each day—who has time for all this stuff? 

It’s important to recognize that saving time and money means investing time and money. The more time and money you invest, the more you’ll get out. Start small, learn what brings the best results, then scale up as time permits. 


Are you considering high-performance machining? Learn more by reading: Is It Time to Embrace High-Performance Machining?


How do you monitor for tool wear and broken tools in your shop? Share your thoughts and insights in the comments below.

Talk to Us!

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


Signing into Better MRO is easy. Use your username / password, or register to create an account. We’ll bring you back here as soon as you’re done.

Redirecting you in 5 seconds