CNC Automation

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Protolabs’ Insight video series

Our Insight video series will help you master digital manufacturing.

Every Friday we’ll post a new video – each one giving you a deeper Insight into how to design better parts. We’ll cover specific topics such as choosing the right 3D printing material, optimising your design for CNC machining, surface finishes for moulded parts, and much more besides.

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Insight: CNC Automation


Hi and welcome to today’s insight video. Today I’m going to chat about automating CNC manufacturing, but probably not in the way that you think.

Of course, CNC or computerised numerical control is already an automated process. Most people also think of automation as robotics, but let’s take a step back from that level of complexity.

Today I’m going to tackle how automation can help you prove your design, and optimise for cost effective CNC production, quickly. It’s the front-end that is often neglected, yet it is vital before you begin CNC manufacturing in any volume.  And let’s not forget what we often initially use CNC machining for, rapid prototyping and validating the final manufacturing process.

When you are in the product development process you want to move to manufacturing as quickly as possible, yet you also want to make sure that the product or part that you have designed will perform and can be reliably reproduced.

Checking the CAD for CNC manufacturability normally involves CAM, a human and lots of skill; and that takes time, and time costs money. It’s not generally thought about as part of the prototyping process but in a lot of ways I think it should be – it’s the first sense check of what you are planning.

Now if your supplier can digitally simulate the manufacturing CAM code before they quote the project then this design for manufacturability analysis can be automated. If it is automated, then you are not using an engineer’s time and this step can be free of charge and faster.

Our quotations sit between instant and hours or days for a detailed manual assessment. We pair the best bits of automation, and human skill. Every quote is digitally manufactured and personally checked, yet most are still provided in less than an hour.

Furthermore we apply the same care and attention to every upload: whether it’s 40 large aluminium parts, or a one off small part in copper, polycarbonate or another “exotic material”.

It’s this, plus our large in-house manufacturing capacity that means every job gets top priority, contrast this with a non-automated supplier, who will naturally focus on the bigger quotes and clients.

The other thing about a human is that we are biased by what we know and how we work, this can influence how the part is made, and add variation. Software in comparison is not only quicker and cheaper, but also more standardised – removing most (but not all) of the human bias or variation.

As, with Protolabs, this automated DFM analysis is free of charge, so if you are after low or medium volumes, then this will help you keep your budget down.

Automating this front-end process also means that you can tweak your design and try different iterations with different costs before you decide on which design you will commit to.

And taking this digital approach further, why not have a direct link with the supplier and their process to control when your parts will be produced and delivered. If you need a fast delivery how will this affect the price, or alternatively if you can wait how much will this lower the price? Now imagine if you could share this information with colleagues – how much faster would the process be?

Whether you are using CNC machining for rapid prototyping or producing final parts this level of automation and control helps you accelerate the whole process. 

Let’s get back to prototyping. After you’ve Alpha-tested the part for form and function, you can then decide when you are ready to move onto Beta-testing – or checking that your design is repeatable prior to manufacturing. Again, with this automation and remote control you can agree a timetable with your colleagues and then press go.

When you select your supplier, it pays to think through what you need your CNC part for. Most people think of automation as robotics and machines set up for high volumes – which is great if you are producing thousands of parts.

If on the other hand you only want a few parts, then you need to consider the non-engineering recurring cost – the time that it takes for a supplier to get set up. A big part of that is in the analysis, preparing quotes and communicating with customers.

If your supplier can create a digital thread from your CAD, then you don’t need to supply a 2D drawing because they can automatically generate the machine code, inspection requirements and workplace holding and even start making your 3D design within minutes of the order.  The other advantage is that the setup charge is lower or even free of charge.

The more that is automated at the front end the faster the CNC manufacturing will be. If you only need a few parts, then you will save a lot of time and money. And if you want to use CNC machining for rapid prototyping then it will also help you develop a better product faster.

Either way it pays to find a supplier who will automate the time-consuming front end of the process.

And with those thoughts I’ll say goodbye and see you again next Friday.



With special thanks to Natalie Constable.

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