Stecker Machine Blog

AI in CNC Machining: How Are Robotics & Automation Shaping the Future of CNC Machine Shops

03/11/2024 | Matt Oswald

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AI in CNC machining — that is, using artificial intelligence within the CNC machining process — feels natural, doesn’t it?

CNC machines by definition are computer numerically controlled, allowing for rapid production of incredibly precise parts, with their impact being felt throughout so many industries.

CNC machining and AI complement each other perfectly. AI’s ability to analyze vast amounts of data and learn from it makes AI an ideal partner for CNC machining. When used correctly, AI enhances production capacity, boosts machine productivity, and optimizes manufacturing processes.

Historically, CNC machine shops welcome new technologies and improvements in the production processes. That’s holding true today, especially because AI can drive efficiencies and result in cost savings, both high-priority goals of just about every modern CNC shop.

Overall, AI’s deeper integration into CNC machining signifies a historic moment in manufacturing. Let’s explore the near future and how incorporating AI in CNC machining — including robotics and other forms of automation in manufacturing — can help improve shops’ performance today and down the road.

Machines learn. Performance improves.

As powerful as machines are, human CNC machine operators are key to the process, especially quality control. What AI provides is a focus on analytics and real-time data, learning along the way and providing insights so CNC machine operators can optimize the machine’s performance.

As performance data is automatically aggregated, analyzed, and turned into actionable information, engineers, maintenance teams, and operators gain insights on a machine’s function as well as get suggestions from a machine or a robot, all to boost performance.

Cranking up efficiency & productivity

AI in CNC machining helps deliver on two fundamental goals: efficiency and productivity. As data is generated during production, AI analyzes it so the engineers and skilled operators can adjust the machine, or remove impediments that slow it down, to operate at peak efficiency. These operator-lead changes affect the machine’s performance, reduce downtime, and help operators anticipate maintenance needs (see next section).

Money-saving maintenance

AI provides data to operators on the performance of a robot or a CNC machine. That data can also help predict when machines need regular maintenance. Machines that receive just-in-time servicing remain available, saving money on unexpected downtime. All of the fine-tuning, calibrating, and adjusting are predicted.

Predicting maintenance by getting in front of a potential issue is key to increasing machine uptime and Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE). Smart use of AI in manufacturing means smart decision-making by you.

Automation, robotics & AI

Economic trends and a shrinking labor market have prompted many companies to use automation in manufacturing to streamline operations and become more more agile and competitive. In many cases, this means an increased use of robotics and AI technologies. Robots do the heavy lifting, reduce instances of human error, and increase productivity. These automated operations can be optimized with the help of AI.

Smart CNC machine shops are adopting AI into their processes, taking advantage of each machine’s compatibility and maximizing AI’s functionality. AI helps to streamline analysis by automatically processing operations data to provide information needed to make key decisions and take action. 

​​Challenges and opportunities

The revolution that is AI-enhanced manufacturing comes with hurdles. Initial investments in AI technology may be substantial, particularly for smaller shops, yet the cost of powerful AI tools is often reasonable for the benefits it offers. The long-term benefits, including reduced operational costs and increased competitiveness, usually make AI a worthwhile investment.

Several manufacturers have been enjoying the benefits of AI in CNC machining. These success stories highlight the potential for increased efficiency, reduced error rates, and optimized production workflows.

As we look to the future, AI’s role in manufacturing will no-doubt grow. Industry 4.0, characterized by interconnected and intelligent manufacturing systems, is already relying heavily on AI to drive innovation and efficiency.

Is AI right for all CNC machine shops?

The integration of AI into CNC machining is more than a trend; it’s a paradigm shift. Those who embrace this revolution will lead the way in innovation, efficiency, and quality, setting new standards for the industry worldwide.

So, is AI right for all shops? Not really. While there is potential for industrial robotics/automation/AI to reduce critical errors, increase repeatability, and drop expenses, it takes some work to determine if long-term use of the latest technology is best for each CNC machining operation. Plus, as stated, it can require significant investment dollars.

Small CNC machine shops may fulfill a niche and not feel the need to grow their skill sets. Or their limited processes lack the ability to capitalize on automation’s advantages. Lastly, if equipment and software systems aren’t automation-ready, the complexity of fully automated systems will simply become a burden.

Medium to large organizations, however, should be positioned to use AI. When you combine today’s labor shortage (and skills gap) with the revolution in technology, it’s clear that AI is elevating the importance of experts who program, operate, and truly understand automation in manufacturing.

The increased efficiencies gained allow industry engineers to perform more value-added tasks, expand quality control efforts, and create smarter operations.

At Stecker, we welcome new technology. Using tools like ERP — and moving toward a future using AI in CNC machining and robotics — ensures the highest possible performance. Speaking of world-class performance, how do you know when it’s time to work with a high-end CNC machine shop? Our guide covers nine scenarios that help you understand when partnering with a CNC expert is the best move (and when it isn’t). Click below to get your copy!

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Matt Oswald

About the Author

Matt leads SMC's Human Resources and Marketing Team. He has worked for Stecker Machine for over 7 years on projects spanning CNC manufacturing, robotics, inbound marketing, and leadership. He enjoys applying his engineering background to any business challenge.

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