What Future Does Artificial Intelligence Hold for CNC Machining

You can’t escape stories about artificial intelligence these days.  The Internet is blowing up with tech’s drive to roll it out and tales -from humorous to frightening- about early results.  But rest assured; artificial intelligence is coming.

AI is not new in itself.  Early systems have been in use for years.  These are not the general-purpose language models being rolled out today, but specialized AI algorithms designed for specific tasks.  Fields like industrial design have been taking advantage of AI to optimize product designs.

AI systems can effectively be told to produce a device that does this set of tasks and can be held in one hand, for example.  The algorithm then runs through iterations of designs quickly until it comes to what it believes to be a good design that meets the stated goals.  Engineers then assess the work and feed changes back into the design as needed.  Weeks can be shaved off a design process.

AI Applications in Manufacturing Today

CNC machines get smarter and more capable all the time, so it would be naive to think they wouldn’t be affected by AI.  CNC mills and lathes are effectively part of the Internet of Things at this point.  Current machines are networkable, allowing them to report CMM measurements into our inspection and reporting software, but there’s more to it than that.  AI Software maps out the machining sequences, tool selection, spindle speeds, and feed rates.  CNC mills have tool load monitoring, which they can use to detect a broken bit.

AI modeling now allows analysis of tool load and vibration to watch for damaged bits.  AI can decide if it needs to check the accuracy of its work and automatically insert a step into its program to use its CMM probe to verify the feature it just cut.  It will catch a damaged bit and swap out for a new bit before continuing with the milling program. That same ability allows it to take another pass over a feature to see if it can be cleaned up, or to reject the part without wasting further time on it.

Macfab uses AI in our CRM software.  We provide inventory management for some of our clients.  We monitor their use of inventory parts and production runs are slated accordingly to ensure inventory levels are always where they need to be.  This technology saves managerial time by automating orders.  It also saves inventory costs.  The AI can spot trends and automatically manipulate inventory levels up or down according to usage.

One of the most revolutionary features of CNC machines was freeing up the operators to a degree.  Milling no longer required the operator’s full attention as it had since the start of the Industrial Revolution.  Operators in some cases could run two or three machines at once.  It was a monumental change.  AI is the next iteration of that same process.

Self-calibration, measuring spindle run-out, checking the bed for flatness, spotting unacceptable backlash in head movements, and catching issues like dry bearings are either here or coming.  Using in-built sensors and AI logic will allow us to be proactive on machine maintenance, which can be a huge cost-saving measure.   The AI will be able to determine the least disruptive time, schedule a machine for downtime, and reassign its production to others while it’s down for maintenance.  If CNC machines can police themselves, operators will be freed up even further to address the genuinely complicated tasks.

Some people fear advancements like this. Some fear automation like this kills jobs.  History has taught us repeatedly that jobs don’t go away; they merely change.  Advancements like AI are the next step in freeing people up from the most mundane and repetitive portions of their jobs.  They get to be more creative and have more variety in their work with fewer “chores”.  Macfab is excited by the changes AI is bringing to the world of CNC machining.


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