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Tool grinding is not an industry that immediately springs to mind when automation is discussed. But according to Neil Whittingham, sales director at Walter Machines UK, an increasing number of tool manufacturers and regrinders are reaping the rewards of using high tech manufacturing facilities.
“Automation is effectively filling the gap left by a lack of skilled operators,” he says, “and in the bargain users are gaining tremendous benefits in terms of reduced leadtimes as well as lower costs by running unmanned and at night, if required.”
During its last financial year, Walter Machines UK enjoyed a record order value intake as more and more customers start to harness the advantages of, for example, automated load/unload systems including robot handling, as well as workpiece storage systems and multi-grinding wheel changing units.
“These are being used to good effect to enhance the unmanned running capabilities of the Walter Helitronic tool grinders,” Mr Whittingham continues. “In turn, the grinders are also being linked to Walter Helicheck tool inspection machines, which can provide real-time feedback to the grinders of corrective manufacturing data.
“The grinding machines themselves feature a suite of powerful yet easy to use software – the Tool Studio system – that effectively de-skills the tool manufacturing process, even to the extent that the technology uses ‘what you see is what you grind’ for 3D simulation to ensure production integrity before grinding.”
An order from one customer last year typifies the policy being adopted by the UK’s forward-thinking tool manufacturers: Sheffield-based Technicut of Sheffield ordered four top of the range Helitronic Vision tool grinders – all with robot load/unload, wheel changers and automated worktables – and two Helicheck Pro tool measuring machines.
These will be integrated with its existing pair of Helitronic Visions and three Helitronic Power tool grinders, as well as two Helichecks, to create what is believed to be among the world’s most highly sophisticated and automated tool manufacturing facilities in terms of productivity and efficiency.
“Technicut’s engineering director Warwick Spearing says: “It is critical that we have technology that provides the flexibility to quickly and efficiently change between product types and to react to customer demands on short leadtimes while also being highly efficient and competitive on any batch size.”
Mr Whittingham concludes: “It is clear that a growing number of tool manufacturers and regrinders are using technology to effectively de-skill their operations. And the reason is twofold: it is getting harder for companies to recruit suitably skilled operators – there just isn’t enough younger engineers coming through to replace natural wastage; and, the benefits of automated manufacturing in terms of round the clock cost-effectiveness are inarguable.
“Unmanned running, based on multi-tool storage systems, load/unload technology and clever software routines, means grinding machines can be set-up and run unmanned 24/7, if appropriate.”