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From Skepticism to Comfort at Hill Manufacturing and Fabrication

Success is increasingly dependent on your ability to serve the customer. Adding the right robot moves you in the right direction.

Published on

Mar 12, 2024

Hill Manufacturing & Fabrication

Austin Davis of RoboJob-USA had the opportunity to talk with Mike Payne of Hill Manufacturing & Fabrication about his CNC automation journey.

AD: Why did you decide to automate now? What was the trigger that started the journey into automation?

MP: Since I took over Hill, we set out with a goal of doubling the size of the company in 5 years. In order to achieve this mark, we knew we’d have to become more efficient as a company. Business slowed down during 2020-2021 due to COVID-19, so we focused on ourselves and built our tool room, worked on setup reductions, organized our fixtures, and some other things that just made everything more efficient. As we were coming out of COVID-19, we had a massive influx of work in a short period of time. To remain efficient, we knew that automation was the key and was our best approach for sustainable and efficient growth.

AD: I know it’s a journey when you’re looking at automation. Tell me what you did to start the CNC automation journey. Where did you begin?

MP: I’ve owned Hill for six years, and there was already some automation in the shop when I came into the picture, such as our robot welder. You could say I came into the shop with some automation. When it came to CNC automation, we first purchased a twin spindle lathe with a bar feeder and parts catcher. We knew the next step was a CNC tending robot, so we created a two-day test on our shop floor to prove the concept. We had two lathes machining the same part side-by-side, although one machine was tended by a human hand while the other was tended by automation. After two days, the automation outperformed the humans by about 70%, and it’s important to note that the operator’s throughput was exactly as we expected it to be. In fact, he was doing a great job! But, if he got 40 parts per day, the automation got 70 parts. The difference was that the automation didn’t take a lunch break or go to the bathroom and didn’t need time to start or end its workday. It also worked a couple of hours after he left. We were profitable with the operator’s run rate, but we were about 70% more profitable when the automation was tending the machine. This was the moment that we all knew we had to automate this part of our process.

AD: Now that you've installed it, tell me more about what you have experienced now that it's been implemented. The support, the applications, jobs that go right to that, etc. What features that we have offered in the product or the services that support it stand out to you?

MP: What stands out to me is the simplicity of the entire package. The software is great! The fact that I can program it is incredible because I don’t have a machining or automation background. Product quality, versatility, and even the price point—it’s very affordable. Regarding the support, you just don’t see what RoboJob-USA is offering anymore—the “no fuss” support, as I call it. You take care of stuff.

Regarding implementation, we fought a few things early on, such as chip management. We’ve learned that something that runs perfectly when a human is there tending the machine may not run so smoothly when a human isn’t present. This will be different for every job we put on the machine, so we’ll always be learning on that front.

What I love is that, early on, we set some criteria to help us organize what types of jobs we would put on the RoboJob-USA system. Whether it had to do with tolerance levels, quantities or parts, etc., we had a picture in our heads of what was best for the automation system. We quickly learned that the “box” we had created needed to be a lot bigger than we made it. It didn’t need 100 parts; instead, it could be 20. It didn’t need to be a specific size because it could be big or small. It didn’t need a tolerance of +/-0.003” because we found it could handle +/-0.0005”. We didn’t run it at night for the first three months because we feared creating scrap. With some experience, these fears have all gone away. Even the parts that require 100% inspection or completion by a human hand are put through the system to be 100% roughed overnight. In the morning, the operator can start a quick ~2-min finish cycle for improved efficiency. We did not realize how much work was coming through our shop the entire time that we could put on the RoboJob-USA system. Now we look for it because we know we can run about anything on it.

AD: Can you tell me more about how your staff embraced automation?

MP: When I first bought the company, no one wanted our robotic welder to be running as they thought it was stealing their hours. Now they are realizing that all our automation is making their jobs easier. Even my best guys don’t enjoy loading and unloading parts. In fact, that’s what they hate the most! They would rather be setting up other jobs, trying to find ways they can run faster, or do something creative with their time.

Due to our previous experiences, our team was very skeptical at first. With some time, our team became familiar with the solution and understood how different it was from what we used. With that familiarity came comfort. The biggest critic, one of our most talented team members, is now our biggest champion, and he wants us to buy more. That person now finds other jobs around the shop to put on the robot as he sees the benefits.

AD: If you were to give one piece of advice to somebody that's on the fence of automating their machine shop, what advice would you give them?

MP: Do it. The vast majority of shops could utilize automation to increase efficiency and profitability. Math is a beautiful thing. I encourage them to determine their ROI and see if it makes sense. If the solution will make more parts for you, increase your efficiencies, reduce labor, etc., then it’s worth evaluating and considering. The younger workforce that’s coming into the field now loves seeing automation. They want you to give them the tools to learn and make money. If you don’t have that, then they will go somewhere else that does.

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