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Automation improves three things customers value most: Quality, delivery and cost

When our vice president of automation and technology, Jim Stertz, saw the alert that one of Lowell’s machines had stopped production, he took a closer look. After a quick diagnosis, he restarted the machine and brought production back online.

This wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago had Lowell not invested in automating its machine tools. For this alert, Jim was in London, and the machine acting up was in our Minnesota facility.

Thanks to advanced controls and technology that’s accessible remotely, automation has made a big difference in our approach to production and our ability to problem solve in real time.

In our column for Orthopedic Design & Technology, “Behind the Scenes, Automation Drives Manufacturing Results,” we share how automation works behind the scenes to deliver improved quality, delivery and cost for customers.

Automating machine tools for quality and consistency

Lowell’s first experience with automation was more than a decade ago when we improved our coordinate measuring machine (CMM) inspection process. Over the years, we realized automation could further enhance inspection quality if we applied it to our machine tools, especially those used for high-volume orders.

Automation allows a more efficient process that’s designed for consistency in production. It can automatically determine if the process creates parts that meet requirements or if an adjustment is needed, rather than relying on manual tests or intervention. This allows our team to work on a variety of projects throughout the day, and specifically focus on the most pressing or complex machining solutions for our customers.

Today, six of our 60 CNC machines are automated. The systems use Renishaw machine probes, Nest cameras, an alarm system and a human-machine interface (HMI) to keep us informed throughout production.

The machine probes are programmed to measure cuts and dimensions during production, and send the results to machine control. The control system analyzes the measurements and determines how they fit into one of three categories.

  • Category 1: The measurement conforms to requirements, and production continues as is.
  • Category 2: The measurement begins to drift and will not conform unless action is taken. Machine control makes an adjustment to the tool offset as production continues.
  • Category 3: Something is wrong with the process, such as a tool breaking. Production stops so a machinist can fix the issue.

This process ensures consistency in parts that are manufactured. More consistent results during production gives a higher degree of confidence that parts conform to design and aren’t drifting close to limits.

In the future, as our system continues to evolve and expand, this consistency can lead to additional time savings during final inspection. Because our confidence is high that all parts conform, we may be able to limit final inspection to only critical or special features instead of all aspects of a component or device.

Accelerating delivery time and reducing production costs through automation

The ability to extend production limits is one major benefit that automating machine tools offers our customers.

Before automation, machines ran 50 to 100 hours per week, or about 7 to 14 hours per day.

With automation, machines can run 150 to 168 hours per week, or up to 24 hours per day. By adding hours of production time per machine per day, it’s possible to increase the amount of product manufactured. This additional capacity can also improve delivery of devices to customers because production time can be forecast.

It’s also possible to decrease the amount of manual labor per part in a few different ways:

  • Flex production on demand: Automation gives the ability to scale and flex production on demand, with minimal machinist intervention. Rather than increase shifts to increase production, automation can run around the clock, and nights and weekends. This can reduce labor hours while adding capacity.
  • Problem solve remotely: Remote monitoring and alerts from the machine control can notify the machinist of an issue even when they aren’t in the building. Sometimes the issues can be managed remotely, which limits downtime. If the issue needs someone to fix it in person, the machine will be paused until it’s serviced.
  • Optimize the number of machinists per machine: Each machinist can also do more with their time through automation. Rather than have one person assigned to each machine, one machinist can maintain and monitor up to three automated machines and dedicate their time to programming. In some cases, it’s decreased the labor time to machine components by up to 80 percent for our customers.

Automation has improved Lowell’s ability to create more consistent products on time and on budget for our customers. To learn more about how automation could help you produce high-quality products more efficiently, read our automation column in ODT or contact us at (763) 425-3355 or

Originally published Dec. 9, 2019. Updated Oct. 29, 2020.