I’m a CNC machinist and hobbyist, and I’ve been working in machine shops for nearly two decades. In this time I’ve learned an incredible amount about what it means to run a seamless operation. As an evangelist of everything machinist and automation-related, I thought I would take the time to share about the most valuable machine shop tools every machinist should have at his fingertips to be successful.
A Few Favorite Tools
Easy to use CAM software
Simple enough. This allows me to create tool paths must faster and much more accurately. Finding the right CAM software is a no-brainer for every shop looking to save time and increase productivity (which is most shops out there). But finding the right software isn’t always the easiest. I highly recommend Autodesk’s HSM Inventor and Fusion 360 products, as they are intuitive and feature-packed.
Calipers and micrometers
I specifically love the Mitutoyo brand from Japan. It’s precision tooling that you should not skimp on. Mitutoyo makes calipers, micrometers, height gauges, and everything in-between. If you keep measurement tools clean and oiled, they will serve you well for many years to come.
This handy tool helps me find the center of holes quickly and painlessly. This way, I can center the tooling off the inside bore, outside surface, and center point of my metal stock. With a co-axial indicator, I can also center workpieces and fixtures on my mill and align turrets by finding the true midpoint of a boring pocket.
These are invaluable for positioning, setting tool lengths, and detecting broken tools. Renishaw probe solutions can reduce set-up times by 90 percent and improve your process control. They are a highly established best practice for maximizing the efficiency, quality, and accuracy of machine shop tools. If your machine doesn’t have any probes, I highly recommend Haimer 3D Sensors. They are indispensable and can align machine spindles, set zeros, center boreholes and shafts, measure depths, check straightness, and align workpieces and vices.
Vibratory deburring machine
I love my Rösler vibratory deburring machine. The entire machine vibrates to remove edges of fraying from machinery part components. The plastic triangles move clockwise and counterclockwise in a soapy solution and effectively remove sharp edges from parts. The deburred parts are then dried in an eco-friendly ground corn mixture. The finished parts are dropped into a box, and voila, they are ready to go to production or to receive a surface treatment such as anodizing. Forget about cutting your fingers on sharp part edges. This machine saves hours on the hands and wrists and has paid for itself in time savings over and over again.
At all of the shops I have worked in for over the last two decades, a CNC machine has been by far one of the most beneficial machines. It’s easy to take for granted how much technology has streamlined a modern-day machinist’s workload. Nothing exemplifies this more than CNC machining and turning centers. I am partial to the machines that Haas Automation makes. Their vertical machining centers are top-notch. Having two machines (if that’s feasible for your machine shop) is advantageous and allows you to make double, triple, even quadruple the number of parts in the same time frame. If you use a pallet changer or quick-change, pallets you can increase productivity substantially and batch parts together for even greater levels of efficiency.
But one of the most overlooked tools that will completely change the way your operation runs is sitting inside your shop right now. That’s right! Keep reading to find out what I mean.
You Already Own Your Secret Weapon
As I previously stated, an inherent benefit of owning CNC equipment is that once you have the machine running, you can easily multitask around the shop and work on other value-add projects. While your CNC mill may be a primary focus, or a primary process, in your shop, it’s all too easy to forget about secondary processes. What I mean by a secondary process is anything offline of your main CNC mill machining activity, such as your cutoff or drilling operations. These machines, your cold saws, bandsaws, and drills, for example, are your secret weapons!
How does this make any sense? Well, let me explain further.
I am often tasked with cutting parts on our bandsaw or cold saw. I do these things while my CNC mill is humming along. Another secondary process I run daily, and that’s vital to my operation, is operating an old-school jig borer for drilling and chamfering steel parts. You may be wondering why I don’t drill and chamfer parts on my CNC mill, and that’s a great question. It’s because I don’t have to. I run an automated jig borer.
Automated Jig Borer
That’s right. The piece of equipment itself is a dinosaur considering today’s fast-paced technological innovations. It’s a Moore Special Tool jig borer from 1973. And rather than tossing it, I decided to automate this particular secondary process by adding on an automated stop.
Now, rather than pulling out a tape measure and marking parts to cut or drill, I can simply type in the measurements I need on the screen of my automated material stop and press enter. I can also save pre-programmed part lists, which is particularly useful when doing repeated parts. Automating my jig borer allows me to quickly and accurately make perfect hole centers while both of my top-of-the-line Haas vertical CNC’s are running. I have found this to be the most efficient use of my time.
I have similarly automated my bandsaw and cold saw with TigerStop automated positioners and pushers. Automating all of the secondary processes in my operation is my secret weapon, and it could be yours too. Automating my secondary processes has boosted my productivity 2–3 fold. Not only does this justify the expense of automation, but it has also put dollars back onto my company’s bottom line. Automating the tools you already have in your machine shop is a simple solution to a complex list of problems (which we will discuss below).
Automate the Machine Shop Tools You Have
Why automate secondary processes? It’s often overlooked, but the benefits are widespread:
- It helps production stay on schedule. I can create 2–3 times as many parts in the same amount of time. It reduces cutting and drilling time tremendously, which in turn gives me more CNC time. I can make it over to my CNC to reload much faster.
- It eliminates inaccuracies. I am no longer using a tape measure and second-guessing my work. I know the parts I’m cutting and drilling will be dead-on every single time.
- It reduces scrap waste. Machinists can cut and drill parts accurately the first time around. Perfectly good material won’t end up in the garbage (my boss loves this). Reducing the amount of scrap I’m tossing each month instantaneously put dollars back into my company’s bottom line. Because, let’s face it, steel and aluminum aren’t cheap.
- It makes my job as a machinist easier. I can get into a nice rhythm when my CNC mills are running and my automated stops on my secondary processes (cold saw, bandsaw, jig borer) are programmed. I can effectively multitask rather than rushing to complete secondary processes while my mills are running, which often results in parts that need to be reworked. This saves me time and labor. No more overtime hours spent cutting or drilling parts and fixing past mistakes. I simply create a part list and press enter.
- It’s an effective use of space. Space isn’t an issue when you amp up the tools and machines you already own. Replacing chops saws and drills with fully automated machine centers is costly, takes up room, and adds an extra level of work to maintain and service the equipment.
- Automating secondary processes falls in line with my shop’s Lean Manufacturing philosophy. An increase in efficiency and a reduction of material and time waste helps us strive for continuous improvement.
Take Your Shop to the Next Level
Automating your secondary processes allows your machine shop to function at the highest level possible with the maximum output. It even makes sense for small shops that want to double their output with a limited number of machinists. Automating the tools you already own is cost-effective and doesn’t require a lot of time or effort to implement. Simply install a stop gauge or pusher system on your cutoff and drilling station, and you’re ready to go.
It also makes sense for larger shops with a plethora of cold saws, bandsaws, and drills if they want to benefit from an accuracy and productivity boost on a larger scale. Another option for machine shop’s who want to get the greatest yield from their aluminum stock is implementing an optimizing saw system like a TigerSaw 2000. I would have killed for this type of system earlier in my career.
Thanks for reading about my favorite tools for a modern machine shop. Years of research and experience have gone into compiling this list, and I hope it’s beneficial to those machinists out there who want to take their shop to the next level by automating their secondary processes.