July 2009

Save Your Factory with Automation - Automate Now

Whether it’s your first robot or your 100th, there are easy guidelines that will increase your chances of a successful start up. As more companies struggle to maintain a competitive edge, robotic automation provides a key advantage for your manufacturing productivity. In the grand scheme of things, deciding to implement automation will most likely be the easy part. Deciding on the who, what, where, when and why is the difficult part. The decision process can be complex, but if you separate it into smaller decision points, it becomes more manageable.

First question - why: Why automate? Is your goal to improve throughput, reduce costs or improve quality? If you answered yes to all three, you’re on the fast track. With the advances in today’s robotics there are several products available to help you reach all three objectives. For example, robotic vision helps reduce cycle time, cost, and improves quality. The camera can reduce cycle time by finding loosely located parts quickly. It can reduce cost by simplifying tooling and reducing the number of external sensors. And, it can improve quality with built-in statistical process tools to help manage your in-process quality control through pre- and post-inspections.      

Second question – what and where: What type of application do you plan to automate? Is it a complex operation that you’d like to simplify, or a high-volume process that requires increased efficiency? What is the environment like in the area that you plan to automate? Is it considered sterile or harsh? Does the process require a frigid environment or is there excessive heat?  The physical condition/location of the project will help determine the right type of robot for the application. Other items to consider are payload requirements. With robotic payloads ranging from 0.5Kg to 1350Kg, chances are there is a robot built specifically for most environments and applications.  

Third question – who: Who will you select as a supplier? When considering a robotics supplier, it’s best to look to an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) that has a broad line of product offerings – both robots and software. Think about the potential for robotic applications at your facility – it could be assembly, dispensing, machine tending, material removal, painting, picking, packing, palletizing or welding. It’s best to partner with a robotics manufacturer that will provide the luxury of one stop shopping. Standardizing with one automation manufacturer offers the benefit of minimizing the variety of spare and service parts required to keep in stock. Another key benefit is having a common programming language across your floor, which makes it easier to cross-train employees and reduce training costs. To be successful, you need an automation partner that will be a team player with your staff.

Another key issue is who will be there to support you when you need it. Unless you are planning to integrate your own equipment, you need to select a company that will handle the integration.  There are several items to consider when selecting an integrator. The location of the integrator in relation to your facility will impact response time to your issues. If you have multiple locations in various regions, the ideal integrator will offer service and support personnel near your facilities. Using one company maintains consistency within your organization. In many instances, smaller integrators will prove beneficial to your project, particularly in niche or specialty applications.

Finally, consider who on your shop floor is going to be responsible for your new automation. A common mistake is not getting the end-user involved in the project from the beginning. If your operators have input into the design and function of the automation they will most likely have pride and a sense of responsibility for its success once it hits your floor. Make sure to hold regular informational meetings on the progress of your cell with your operators, mechanics, tooling suppliers, electricians and others at your facility who will eventually work with the automation. These personnel are very informative when it comes to designing a system that functions efficiently and is easy to maintain and service. Also, those that actually work with the equipment often have more manufacturing experience than the engineer or project manager heading up the project, and their observations will assist in ensuring the successful implementation of the automation.  

The last question is when. An old adage says the best time to invest was 20 years ago, the second best time is now! There are many government programs and other manufacturing incentives available today. There are also tax incentives for purchasing capital equipment.  And, don’t leave out your local municipal service providers. Some power companies may offer incentives for purchasing equipment with better power efficiency. If you are considering automating a high-volume product you may see a return on investment in a matter of months. If you are automating complex assemblies, you may be able to see your return on investment in just a few parts. In addition, automation permits you to keep your skilled workforce working on more difficult processes while the robots handle the dull, dirty and dangerous applications.

Currently, global competition is extremely aggressive, and more companies are adopting robotic automation to reduce capital costs, improve quality, and increase manufacturing flexibility.  For the industries in North America struggling to remain viable, the benefits of robotic automation can help improve their competitive position, and prevent them from moving offshore or closing all together. Whether large or small, a company's goal should be to try their first robot. When they use the robot, they will realize increased productivity, better quality, and lower costs – all keys to staying competitive and profitable.