Focus on Digitalization
You ask, we answer
What are the consequences of digitization for production planning, for machine operators, for trainers? Today's production benefits from the technological revolution that came into the market in the form of the first NC machines in the 1970s. The triumphal procession of CNCs initially triggered intense emotions and discussions. It was similar to the topics of digitization and industry 4.0 today. What questions do you have about the digital future in your work environment?
New topic: Digital workflow and shortage of skilled workers
How are digital workflow, robotics and shortage of skilled workers related? We have answered and commented this user question for you anew.
Your questions, our answers:
CNC machines are being increasingly integrated into digital workflows, robots are being used more and more. At the same time, business is complaining about the increasing scarcity of skilled labor in this domain. How do you square this circle?
It may sound strange – but these are two sides of the same coin. Currently, there is no pronounced shortage of skilled workers in most regions of the world, possibly with the exception of markets such as Germany, central Europe or China that have been booming for many years, where there are companies desperately looking for CNC specialists.
HOWEVER: There is a structural shortage of specialists, similar to the situation back in the 1970s when CNC technology was introduced. Companies gearing up for the digitalized production of the future are increasingly looking for employees who, in addition to their experience with CNCs, are also very familiar with state-of-the-art communication technologies, digital workflows, robotics and paperless production in general. And it is precisely employees with this profile that companies are currently finding it difficult to hire. There is a lack of personnel with the skills and competence levels to support rapid digitalization, especially in those countries with training systems that are not very well developed and where there is a lot of "training on-the-job". This is truly a vicious circle: employees who know their way around state-of-the-art machinery and digital machines are scarce. And it is exactly this situation that is slowing down digitalization and the deployment of modern machines – which in turn makes it difficult to obtain the skill sets and competence levels required for digitalized production environments.
Not only that, the renowned dual training programs in Germany and Europe are reaching their limits as universities and vocational training colleges are not able to keep up with the rate at which digitalization is proliferating. Job profiles are still communicated in too much of a traditional way; frequently, new machines and modern processes are not available in schools and training workshops.
However, even a state-of-the-art training environment will not be able to address the demand for a specialist workforce – as many newly trained employees do not have sufficient practical experience with materials, machines, processes and teams. Both disciplines are required: competence in handling new, digital technologies and practical CNC experience. To fill these gaps, companies all around the world must further educate their existing CNC specialists to a significantly higher degree and with a focus on digitalization. This is dependent on maintaining an intensive dialog and the ongoing training of instructors and trainers.
As an experienced CNC technician in your company, ask about continued education opportunities in the area of new, digital technologies. Acquire or increase your level of expertise on handling CAD/CAM programs, workflows, robotics, networks, cloud applications and mobile devices. This will help you to support digitalization in your company, and thus enhance your skills even more.
Will digitalization lead to a greater workload?
Expert opinions differ on this. Companies will continue to push for increases in efficiency and reduction of throughput times. But is that the same as feeling like you have a bigger workload? It is very rarely the work itself that causes stress. Stress is much more frequently caused by feelings of losing control, fear of making mistakes, and lack of transparency. The reason for this is the perceived need to react ever faster to new orders, products and requirements. Seen from this perspective, new digital technologies should actually relieve some of the burden.
For example, virtual production on a digital twin enables identification of errors or collisions before any damage can occur — and therefore before the associated fluster, frustration and stress can ensue. Another example is predictive maintenance — that is, intelligent management of maintenance intervals. Instead of having to be checked by an operator, computer systems use sensor data to determine when maintenance will be needed and how it should be performed to achieve maximum time efficiency.
Process optimization is not just a question of management. Your practical knowledge as a machining expert is also needed. Where can new technologies be used to eliminate errors? Where can information from systems be used to support your practical work? If new systems and technologies are doing the groundwork for you, processes will be made more accurate, more transparent and, therefore, less stressful, even at higher throughput.
“How will digitalization change working time models in CNC production?”
The fourth industrial revolution is leading to the wide scale networking of machines. Humans are essential for this interaction between machines, guiding them intuitively through the work process or improving operations with their own professional experience. Recent studies show that digital transformation in German companies is progressing at different speeds and with varying intensity. Many skilled workers fear this will only result in an added burden and increased flexibilization. However, it is more likely that new working environments will provide a wide range of employee friendly solutions.
One conceivable solution, for example, is further developing the working time accounts introduced a few years ago. This involves employees largely organizing themselves depending upon the order situation and delivery deadlines; rigid shift schedules do not exist. This not only makes it easier to balance work and family life, but also offers more freedom in the workplace: with an integrated, virtualized, and highly automated production facility, peak workloads can be better planned and accommodated in advance. When it comes to job sharing, with several colleagues sharing one workstation, digitalization could allow better planning of alternating half-day and half-week units. The working time models in CNC production are likely to become more flexible and agile as a result of digitalization — benefitting both companies and employees.
Working time solutions are as unique as the companies in which they are implemented. Find out what your company already has on offer for employees regarding “Work 4.0”, and speak to your supervisors about possible future developments in working time models. If you wish to help shape the opportunities for flexibility, it is also a good idea to seek training on the new machines and work processes, which will make you particularly valuable to your company.
“How will shopfloor programming change? Is it still needed in view of CAD/CAM technology?”
CAD/CAM technology has been increasingly used alongside classic shopfloor programming for years. The advantages are obvious: the G-code is already created during production planning, downtimes are reduced and the machines made more productive. In addition, errors that may occur when transferring a drawing are eliminated because the CAM software takes the data directly from the CAD software. Many industries and manufacturers will aim to make greater use of this potential in the future.
Nevertheless, shopfloor programming and the expertise required of machine operators remains important. This is partly because the systems are only able to respond to special events to a certain extent. Special machine and material behavior or unexpected dynamic effects are only some examples of such eventualities. Optimal start-up settings and quick fixes during operation require operators with in-depth knowledge and experience regarding production and machines.
Another reason in favor of classic shopfloor programming is that the process chain using CAD/CAM technology to the machine is capital-intensive. In many applications, especially for small quantities and parts with low/medium complexity, this will not be cost-effective. Shopfloor programming still remains the more efficient solution.
Extensive experience and comprehensive expertise are an invaluable asset when working on CNC machines. Use your existing skills and continue to develop them. Broaden your knowledge, for example by learning about production planning. New job profiles, such as that of a production engineer, or training as a certified process manager in production technology, will break down the rigid boundaries between planners and operators and offer experienced CNC professionals new fields of activity.
“What impact will additive manufacturing processes such as 3D printing have on machining processes and work on machine tools?”
Additive manufacturing will be used more and more in a variety of areas in the future – including in place of and in competition with machining processes or injection molding. A few years ago, the financially and technically feasible applications were still limited in regards to materials, with limited workpiece sizes as one-off products or in small batches. However, today a wide range of plastics, metals, and ceramics can be used for additive manufacturing.
Customized mass production, functional design, high energy and resource efficiency as well as shorter innovation cycles – the advantages of additive manufacturing are being leveraged more and more in the industrial environment. Whether it is powder bed fusion, directed energy deposition, material extrusion or jetting – all these techniques build up workpieces layer by layer based on digital 3D design data. These techniques allow extremely complex structures to be created, which are both light and stable – in fact, finally, parts can be cost-effectively created with batch sizes of just 1. The first 3D printing solutions came from pioneering companies that were allied more with traditional printing processes than machine tools. However, these were mostly solutions for small workpiece sizes such as for medical technology or in the field of spare parts / small components. Now there are prototypes of machine tools that have special print heads as the tool which enable them to "print" a wide range of materials. The key benefits are the precision and stability of machine tools; the size of machining rooms or the length of the traverse; their flexibility (three-axis/five-axis) and speed; and the fact that CNC programming is part of an everyday process chain. Modification of cycles for use in additive processes seems logical.
Many workpieces manufactured using additive processes also require finish-machining, such as in the form of surface treatment or hole drilling. Therefore, for many service providers and suppliers it makes sense to offer customers complete solutions that encompass both additive processes and machining.
Use your knowledge from the areas of CNC programming, materials, and economic machining; obtain additional qualifications in the field of additive manufacturing processes; and find out about the behavior of new materials that are suitable for additive manufacturing. It is highly likely that the 3D printing head will become an additional machine tool in your milling and turning centers, or that you will be operating CNC-controlled machines for additive manufacturing alongside the milling and turning centers used in production – and combining the various technologies in the manufacturing processes.
"Production has to become ever faster, while at the same time software and machines are becoming ever more complex. How will digitalization change the acquisition of knowledge and skills for employees in production?"
The dynamic development of digitalization in production calls for lifelong learning. If you want to successfully survive in your career as a CNC expert, you will need to continually expand your knowledge. Course outlines will need to be critically assessed to determine whether they still meet the requirements of networked production. During the course of a three-year vocational training program, technology can develop so quickly that the program’s objectives can become out of date. Industries and associations are already offering additional qualifications alongside training. Traditional job profiles will gradually disintegrate. For example, modern CNC machining centers are already demanding skills in both turning and milling – and soon in 3D printing, too.
The need for further training will increase dramatically with digitalization. Processes will change and operators will need to adapt to new tools and software. This will not be able to be achieved in reasonable time – or at reasonable expense – solely through traditional attendance-based training in which trainers and trainees teach and learn in a room at fixed times. In the future, more and more employees will acquire knowledge through webinars, forums, tutorials, colleague networks, knowledge databases and online searches.
In order to solve problems with CNC machining much faster, on-the-job Internet research will be used more frequently. Our forums, as well as the relevant manufacturers of machines, tools, and control systems, also offer materials in the form of PDFs, articles, diagrams and videos.
Familiarize yourself with the extensive research and assistance options available on the Internet – including how to distinguish trustworthy and reliable offers of help from advertising; or identify unreliable, incorrect sources of information. In particular, industry forums – Internet portals where colleagues come together on a range of professional topics – offer many opportunities to acquire knowledge besides traditional formats. In addition, you can put your experience with online research to good use at home.
“Robots are being deployed more and more in the vicinity of machine tools – for loading and unloading, for visual inspection or for special remachining operations. Will that change my work on the machine?”
Automation is boosting efficiency and making it possible for modern, flexible robots to be increasingly deployed in a production environment. Robots will also take on many different tasks in the vicinity of machine tools in future – from simple handling to complex tasks within the process chain.
Digitization is likewise changing many aspects of robotics. Whereas robots used to be designed for specific jobs in mass production and had to be extensively programmed by specialists, more and more flexible, universal and increasingly mobile robots are being used these days in many different areas. They can replace their tools/grippers and perform a wide range of actions at different workplaces. The underlying idea is that batch sizes are shrinking in many areas and work operations have to be constantly modified. Rather than having to be extensively programmed, these robots can learn major parts of their programs via traditional "teaching". In other words, an operator simply moves the robot the way it is expected to move later on and "teaches" it the required process-related motions and actions. These crude movement patterns then only need to be fine-tuned and optimized in the course of further programming. This means robots can be deployed more flexibly and, thanks to modern sensor technology, also work right next to their human colleague (collaborative robotics) outside of "cages".
Another trend: To enable efficient and flexible deployment at machine tools, robots and machine tools have to be synchronized. Instead of using special robotics programs, robots can also be programmed in many cases via the machine's own CNC control system. One example is the SINUMERIK Run MyRobot functions which can be used to control robots, for example from KUKA or COMAU, via SINUMERIK CNC.
Our tip: As a CNC expert, you have learnt to program complex series of process steps in machine tools via multi-dimensional axis movements. Programming modern robots requires similar skills. Robots can also be programmed in the immediate deployment area of the machine tools via CNC controls. Might this be a new area of work for CNC experts?