- August 11, 2014
By Bill Lydon, Editor
A few months ago, I gave a presentation to owners of small to midsize manufacturers about industrial automation technology and how it can improve operations and efficiency. One of the attendees asked why companies don‚Äôt apply more automation? The question triggered an interesting and instructive discussion. Here are some key takeaways from that discussion.
By Bill Lydon, Editor
A few months ago, I gave a presentation to owners of small to midsize manufacturers about industrial automation technology and how it can improve operations and efficiency. Many technological developments have been leveraged in commercial applications, which is lowering the cost of industrial automation products. My presentation highlighted automation technologies that would be appropriate for small to medium manufacturers. During the question and answer session, one of the attendees noted that the presentation illustrated a lot of good automation examples and asked why companies don’t apply more automation. We had an interesting and constructive discussion about this question. Here are some key takeaways from that discussion:
Been There, Done That!
Some small and medium manufacturers experienced “misfires” with first attempts. They were sold automation solutions that were not appropriate for their operations and/or they were misapplied. In these businesses where capital is precious, failures can be costly and take a long time to recover from.
Many manufacturers have the impression that industrial automation is expensive and difficult to implement. This has changed dramatically over the last ten years. Machine controllers are now low-cost, and the software is significantly easier to program. New solutions include flexible robots (for less than $50,000), cost-effective visual inspection systems, and retrofit kits to convert manual machine tools to automatic systems. These technologies were expensive in the past, but now they can be justified as productivity and quality improvement investments by small to medium manufacturers.
Large manufacturers have staff dedicated to automation and process improvements, but small to medium manufacturers do not. Small to medium manufacturers typically have personnel with multiple responsibilities, one of which is automation. One solution may be for management to have regular meetings to discuss where there are inefficiencies in manufacturing and identify potential areas for improvement. The importance of process improvement must be communicated from the top down. This approach fosters an organizational environment in which a process improvement mentality can thrive. Meetings should include various people in the organization that can bring a different perspective to the challenges. These meetings must stay focused and not become complaint sessions. They should take a problem-solving approach to fix what’s broken. Process improvement means making things better, not just fighting fires or managing crises. Manufacturers must look at how they can work better.
Because small to medium manufacturers do not have dedicated automation people, they may lack knowledge about available automation solutions. Knowledge can be gained by simply searching the Internet for possibilities. A good investment is taking a team of people to industry trade shows where they will learn about new technology and techniques. Some people might consider this outing a waste of time. It should be viewed as an investment and learning opportunity to see solutions and talk with industry experts. Another alternative is to invite automation suppliers in to your facility to educate your staff. While this alternative can be useful, keep in mind that the suppliers’ mission is to sell their products. So you may get a narrow view of possible solutions. A better alternative is to find a trusted, knowledgeable automation consultant or systems integrator who can guide you through the learning process.
Manufacturers should not justify automation investment only in terms of labor savings. There are other important benefits that should to be considered. Automation done properly improves production consistency, quality, and throughput. Increasing production throughput provides the ability to deliver on time even in high order demand situations. Ultimately, automation enables manufacturers to be more competitive in the marketplace. In many situations, automation can be used to accomplish repetitive or unsafe tasks that could cause harm to people.
A manufacturer’s competitive strategy should be to continuously find solutions to improve production. Manufacturers that implement appropriate manufacturing automation technology can improve profits and take business away from their competitors. It is easy to become complacent and continue to do things the same way. Competition is subtle. Winning manufacturers are always looking for ways to improve. They explore what is possible based on new technological developments. They avoid being taken by surprise by their competitors. Have you refined your manufacturing technology as much as your competitors? Is your company the most profitable in your industry?
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