While new technological innovations are introduced every year, major changes in CNC machining are not common. If you keep your eyes open, though, you’ll see shifts that can turn into trends in CNC machining.
When you’re aware of these trends, you can pick and choose which may affect your CNC machine shop the most, and address them as needed. Let’s explore the top 9 trends (as we see them) that could drive your success as we head into 2024.
Before jumping in, know that modern CNC machining is feeling the effects of a “perfect storm” of factors coming together. The first three trends on this list are tied together, with each affecting the other two. Ignoring one or all of them is a mistake for any shop.
1. Increased Use of Automation and Robotics
Automation/robotics continue to be used more and more in CNC machining. Why? Not only is technology naturally improving (making these investments smarter and more affordable), there’s a lack of skilled workers in the U.S., and automation can help fill that gap.
The tools that perform automated tasks are more intuitive than ever. Many tools work just like a smartphone, with a basic, straightforward design that feels like other tech in people’s lives. Today, automation tools and robotics don’t all require expertise and extensive training.
Using advancements in technology has always given companies a way to set themselves apart, and that rings true today in CNC machining. There are opportunities to machine complex pieces using robotics that couldn’t have been done efficiently before. In fact, it’s now a disadvantage to continue with manual labor when a cost-effective option exists.
When a need is met, and it shows a good return on investment, it’s an easy win. Automation/robotics is that win for many CNC machine shops.
2. Addressing Labor Issues
Speaking of automation, many workers entering the manufacturing world have an interest in it, and they embrace it quicker than older workers. That could be from growing up with smartphones and gaming systems; yet, whatever the cause, it’s a noticeable skillset that younger workers possess.
For instance, Gen Zers not only connect with tech quickly, they’re aware that replacing manual labor with robotics, for instance, can reduce the toll on workers’ bodies. So, they can see actual long-term career possibilities in CNC machining, not back-breaking factory work that’ll wear them out.
The companies that understand this and are ahead of the labor curve set themselves apart. Being well positioned in the labor market goes hand-in-hand with proper use of automation.
3. How to Meet Rising Costs
Skilled labor isn’t just tough to find, it’s expensive. Salaries, insurance, benefits, etc. … these expenses add up quickly. And, while the responsibility to maintain quality should ultimately fall on humans, the right automation can be logical process investments that really pay off.
A related human cost that sometimes gets overlooked is training: developing and executing the proper training programs to unify processes and wisely adapt new technologies.
Another way to combat the skilled labor shortage and rising costs is to put maximum effort into robust processes and upfront design. Top CNC machine shops know that creating a smooth machining process is especially critical for the consistent production of complex parts.
Now that you’ve seen the “perfect storm” of three factors feeding one another, let’s explore the other six trends to look for in 2024.
4. Watching the Economy Closely
One year ago, I predicted that the economy — as uncertain as it was — would not cause much of a slow down in CNC machining, and I was correct.
Yes, some markets are seeing a reduction in orders or slowdowns, but they are limited; it’s not across the board. And, no surprise, the labor force can shift dynamics and send ripples throughout the economy, especially when it comes to how it impacts other local manufacturing companies.
A “soft landing” is what we’re all hoping for, with a positive economic outlook feeling closer to reality than last year at this time. It feels like more of a reset than possibly dropping off a cliff, at least in the sectors typically served by CNC shops.
One difference that’s more drastic when compared to late 2022 is interest rates. The justification for investment is scrutinized much more now with the cost of money being so much higher.
5. Target Markets Positioned for Growth
Some industries are on a roll, and 2024 looks bright for them. Take electric vehicles (EV), for example. That industry — boosted by the federal government’s involvement in its overall infrastructure and subsidies — seems to have the least potential of an upcoming slowdown.
Automotive manufacturers and suppliers always have the attention of economists. Yet, those eyeballs are even more focused to see exactly how they’ll make the transition to EV. What opportunities to evolve will drive their changes? What other growth markets rely on CNC machining for their success?
6. More Push for Sustainability/Energy Efficiency
As the EV industry quickly gains momentum, what other energy efficient initiatives may affect the CNC machine industry?
More than in past years, shops are being required to hit various KPIs related to sustainability: greenhouse gas emissions, diversity in the workplace, and other corporate social responsibility issues, for example. U.S. manufacturers are becoming more aligned with standards common in European countries, which are historically more progressive.
While these “green” changes are positive for the environment, many also make sense for the business, even though meeting these standards does add an additional burden initially.
7. Resourcing Globally
The industry will continue to feel the effect of CNC machined parts being resourced from China and elsewhere (mainly Mexico and India). Yet, more and more opportunity exists in the U.S. as more markets stabilize and backlogs are reduced.
There’s no shortage of work to be had for U.S. manufacturing companies. It’s a matter of having the processes and skills in place to efficiently take that work on.
8. Evaluating Market Position
With supply low and demand high (in general), the CNC shops that focus on quality will stand out among commodity machining. Expectations are shifting, with the industry slowly swinging back toward “gold level” customer service which was common in pre-pandemic years.
Being able to meet world-class standards and implement a high level of quality control are skills every CNC machine shop needs in order to compete.
9. Artificial Intelligence is Here
Throughout the CNC machining industry, artificial intelligence is a bit more on the fringe than some others. However, its capabilities are so impressive overall that every facility needs to keep an eye on ongoing advancements.
As far as on the shop floor, perhaps 2024 will reveal more use of AI tools. Realistically, we see 2025 really being a breakout year for AI throughout CNC machining.
That’s not to imply that AI isn’t being used in a CNC shop. Some non-production tasks within a company — communication, marketing, processes, etc. — are using AI tools regularly now. I’m looking forward to seeing how AI capabilities develop and how they can benefit all aspects of a CNC shop.
Ready to get a big-picture view of CNC machining? Check out Stecker Machine’s CNC Machine Shop Guide, a free and comprehensive resource you can dive into right now. Click the link below for instant access.