WMEP Manufacturing Solutions’ works with small and mid-size manufacturers to assess whether automation is a fit for them.

If so, WMEP consultants work with manufacturers to effectively get them from automation ideation to implementation.

Traditionally, industrial automation has been limited to high-volume, low-mix applications. However, recent improvements in technology allow automation to be implemented in high-mix environments with a quick return on investment.

A to Z Machine’s Autonomous Mobile
Robot (AMR) in action, delivering tooling
and gaging throughout the machine shop.

This expansion of potential automation applications brings a new challenge – where to start – for high-mix, low-volume applications. Additionally, once equipment hits the floor, how do manufacturers support it for long-term success?

A To Z Machine Co. of Appleton turned to WMEP, a non-profit consulting organization dedicated to helping Wisconsin manufacturers improve their productivity and profitability, to train its team on evaluating automation projects using WMEP’s AutomationTechTM program.

The program is designed to bring participants up to speed on the latest technologies, train them to use assessment tools, and provide a facility-wide automation analysis. Special consideration is given to human capital, both the productivity of existing personnel and the skill sets required to support automation.

Through the program, A To Z Machine established an Automation Project Priority list and pursued the projects that were low risk, solved their labor pains, and had an attractive return on investment.

A To Z Machine has a wide range of capabilities. The company excels at producing high-mix, low-volume products for an array of customers. A To Z can manufacture almost any machined item, ranging from small to large parts. The company forms long-term partnerships with customers and strives to become their premier supplier.

One of the challenges A To Z faces as it grows is a continual need for extremely skilled machinists. The company can expand its square footage and can purchase additional CNC machines, but that also requires the business to expand its team of machinists.

A To Z started utilizing automation about 10 years ago with the purchase of its first multi-pallet horizontal machining center.

“We realized the positive impact this automation had on our business, such as reduced setups, improved quality, better efficiencies, and a greater ability to respond its customers’ production needs,” said Marc Manteufel, manufacturing engineering manager at A To Z.

As a result, A To Z continued to expand its use of this type of automation. This success also prompted the company to partner with organizations like WMEP Manufacturing Solutions to learn about other automation opportunities. After attending WMEP’s AutomationTechTM workshop, A To Z acquired tools and ideas needed to explore other types of automation.

The company investigated using an Autonomous Mobile Robot to deliver tooling and gaging throughout its main shop. A To Z also explored using a conversational six-axis robot to load parts on a CNC lathe.

After evaluating each robot for return on investment and risk, A To Z purchased and implemented both pieces of automation equipment.

The Autonomous Mobile Robot, or AMR, made enough deliveries in its first six months of service to pay for itself, Manteufel said. The ROI was reached in half of the projected time, he noted.

All of the automation implemented at A To Z Machine is intended to make its team’s jobs easier and more productive, not to eliminate jobs.

“We can increase our throughput and make our team’s jobs more enjoyable by investing in technology,” Manteufel said.