Is it Worthwhile to Automate a Process?
Four Steps Streamline Implementation of an Automation System
By Ron Bergamin. a Senior Sales Application Engineer for KUKA Robotics
Automation technology enables manufacturers to reduce process times, boost productivity, and assure consistent operational performance. Streamlined implementation of an automation system requires careful analysis and consideration of numerous factors in a facility’s present operations.
Is it worthwhile to automate a process?
The first and most basic step is deciding if it is worthwhile to automate a certain process. The investment return from automating a low-volume, low-value application is most likely negligible. On the other hand, automating a high-volume, high-value application will provide multiple benefits in terms of cost and throughput.
Initially, a facility should analyze what actually occurs in the process being considered for automation, and what automation is expected to achieve in terms of increased speed, cost savings and employee utilization. That analysis includes focusing on the weight, size and materials of the products being moved in the process, current throughput pace and cycle times, and the number of operators and amount of production floor space the process presently involves. A thorough understanding of the existing process will help the facility form solid ideas about how automation will enhance the process.
Finding a partner
A second step in implementing automation is finding a partner to aid in developing a system and integrating it into the facility’s operations. It’s important that the partner, be it an automation integrator or automation systems OEM, be fully familiar with what the facility does.
For example, a potential partner mainly experienced in welding automation may not be the best choice when automating a packaging line. A partner who knows the details and challenges of a facility’s specific applications will be able to review process requirements and present concepts and technology based on relevant experience.
Some facilities try to implement an automation system without a partner. That approach almost always leads to delays and inconsistent performance due to a lack of knowledge of the capabilities of automation technology. From a cost point of view, working with a partner when implementing an automation system may appear to be more expensive than purchasing individual elements of a system à la carte. However, the time, money and inefficiency costs of do-it-yourself integration usually exceed any anticipated savings.
Designing a potential system
After establishing a basic justification and approach for automation, a facility and its automation partner can create graphic simulations that will illustrate how a potential system will fit on the production floor and will enable reasonable estimates of cycle times and throughput rates. In addition, 3D simulations can be a useful tool later in the development process when describing the details and advantages of automation to management with the purpose of achieving approval for a system.
Working with an automation system partner can help avoid commonly made mistakes that arise when adding automation. Such errors can cause delays and unforeseen problems that will hinder smooth implementation of automation and waste investment dollars.
Specifically, facilities implementing automation without a partner may choose equipment that doesn’t fit their needs. In general, robotic applications, for example, popular “cobot” collaborative robots perform very well in a wide variety of scenarios. However, in many situations cobots cannot provide the speed, weight capacity, or reach available from other industrial robotic systems for process automation. In another case, a facility may choose a robot with weight capacity appropriate for its product but not consider the product’s inertia, center of gravity or how their product’s mass can negatively affect a robot’s ability to swing it quickly over a distance.
Even when working with an experienced integrator/system partner or OEM, from the start a facility must state in detail what it wants to achieve and what should be specified in a price quote for the automation system. Acceptance criteria also should be carefully defined. An automation cell should be tested and validated (as thoroughly as possible) by the automation partner before it is shipped to the production floor.
Assess your team’s technical skill level
The technical skill level of a facility’s staff is another important consideration when adopting automation. Depending on the staff’s degree of sophistication, different levels of training may be required to effectively operate the system and maintain it. The automation supplier also should have a recovery plan in place for staff to use to keep the system operating reliably in the event of unanticipated occurrences.
Automation can have major positive effects on a production facility’s efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Careful analysis of the processes involved and work with a knowledgeable automation industry partner will streamline the implementation and operation of an automation system and maximize the benefits it provides.
About the Authors
Ron Bergamin is a Senior Sales Application Engineer for KUKA Robotics. He is responsible for working with the company’s aerospace and entertainment customers on high end performance applications. Mr. Bergamin has over twenty-five years of experience in the robotics industry, where he specializes in helping customers deploy robots in challenging applications, requiring high level of performance and or accuracy.