Multi-axis CNC equipment can provide significant advantages over 3-axis systems. However, to take full advantage of multi-axis you need to learn to think differently about how you set up and implement your manufacturing processes.
Many manufacturers worldwide feel threatened and defensive when the subject of multi-axis is raised. They conjure up thoughts of complicated and expensive equipment with multiple spindles and axes that are way beyond their talent and financial resources to acquire and master. This is rarely the case.
Rather than getting terrified over some fuzzy notion of how multi-axis could go wrong, a better approach to wrapping your mind around the concept is to get a better understanding of the advantages.
They are clear-cut and easy to understand:
- Eliminate Setups: Every time you flip a part to machine it from a different angle you are consuming the valuable time of a skilled machinist while the machine stands idle. This results in a substantial loss of both equipment and manpower productivity. This problem is compounded when there are many identical parts but can also be a factor for short runs. Stripping out set-up time, even for relatively simple parts, can result in productivity improvements of 25% to 50%…and even better for geometrically complex, precision parts.
- Improve Accuracy: Every additional flip (set-up change) introduces additional stacking errors, which can result in scrap or inconsistent manufacturing results.
- Use Manpower More Effectively: Skilled 3-axis programmers with some good guidance and training can program and operate several multi-axis systems because they don’t have to spend as much time doing meticulous setups. The additional time gained can also be used to train promising candidates to back them up.
- Open Doors for New Growth Opportunities: The ability to make difficult parts with high precision, competitive pricing and reasonable deliveries is likely to open some eyes among current and potential customers.
In short, an increasing number of users are finding out that multi-axis equipment is an important if not essential aspect of their business. While transitioning to multi-axis manufacturing is becoming increasingly important, it does not have to be overwhelmingly complex. The goal is to keep the transition process as simple as possible.
Make big picture analysis of your equipment needs
One of the most important decisions to make regarding the expansion of multi-axis capabilities is what equipment to select. You don’t always have to buy the most expensive equipment to achieve your objectives, but it is important to remember that you typically “get what you pay for.”
Here are some questions to help guide your equipment decision-making process.
- What kind of work are you doing currently? Look around. What jobs are being processed?
- Is this what you plan to do for the next five years or can you imagine cutting something else?
- Are these current parts the size you would like to be making or do you think about making larger parts?
- What machine configuration is best for the parts you are currently making while transitioning to other types of parts in the future: head/head, table/table, or head/table. Every machine is suited to some jobs better than others.
An important consideration in selecting equipment is the impact the choice will have on programmer/operators. In many shops, especially the smaller ones, the programmer and operator are the same person. Ideally, a new multi-axis machine will free up a programmer/ operator’s time to write more programs because he is spending far less doing setups. This advantage, however, can be negated if he or she is overwhelmed by a multi-axis programming learning curve that is too steep.
In this case, a good strategy is to build up the shop’s multi-axis capabilities in small progressive increments. A good place to start would be acquiring a single rotary device, which can be easily installed or removed from a 3-axis machine. This allows the shop to start out doing index work and then progressing to work requiring a continuous 4-axis motion. Next step would be a 5-axis with dual rotary capabilities. Programmers can lock one axis and perform continuous rotary actions on the other axis. With this experience under their belts, the programmer/operator can progress to more complex work on a dedicated 5-axis machine.
Even if there is an ideally suited equipment selection available, many shops are still reluctant to make the move because of fears that it might become mired in a range of unexpected details that will delay multi-axis implementation and getting an ROI. These important details can be anticipated and should be planned for.