Top 10 misconceptions about automation

Myths, misunderstandings prevent fabricators from automating

The Tube & Pipe Journal June 2008
June 15, 2008
By: Randall Liette

Fabricators frequently react to the idea of automation with powerful objections, many of which are based on information that is obsolete, incomplete, or simply incorrect. The reality is that automated systems can increase quality, profitability, and production rates; reduce costs and setup times; improve safety; simplify machine operation; and provide manufacturing flexibility.

Tube bending figure 1

The new norm is a larger-than-ever variety of high-quality parts in smaller-than-ever lot sizes-requiring frequent changeovers-with zero defects. Automation accommodates the new norm. Frequent changeovers, not volume, may be the motivation to consider automating your system. Consistency and quality, setup to setup, are best addressed with well-executed automation.

Have you ever thought about automating the manufacturing processes in your plant? Whether you are an owner, production manager, manufacturing engineer, or machine operator, most likely you have thought about automation. Unfortunately, many fabricators usually react to the idea of automation with powerful objections, many of which are based on information that is obsolete, incomplete, or simply incorrect.

Such objections deserve some deeper thought and analysis, especially considering the state of competition in manufacturing these days.

Looking at the top 10 misconceptions that have stopped many automation opportunities dead in their tracks reveals the reasoning behind them. It also provides some guidance in successfully implementing automation in your facility.

1. It's Too Expensive

Often the initial reaction to automation—even for just a few operations—concerns affordability. You might think that you can't afford to move forward and do this, but in many cases, the reality is that you can't afford not to do it.

Calculating your return on investment (ROI) is the first step. The initial price might seem hefty, but automating a manufacturing process will increase output while reducing costs, mainly in direct labor and overhead. Including these savings in your calculations likely will improve the ROI.

Direct labor is often the biggest cost. It can account for up to 75 percent of the total life cycle cost of a piece of nonautomated capital equipment. Automation is a way to keep labor costs down, with the added benefit of freeing your most valuable asset—the employees—to apply themselves in more efficient and productive ways.

Some of the costs are objective and quantifiable. For example, replacing or retrofitting an older machine with automation can reduce energy costs. Automated equipment tends to run continuously and consistently, smoothing out the peaks in energy demand. A representative from your local power company can work with you to determine the potential gains.

Remember to consider all the soft costs that might be reduced or eliminated by automating a process. You might find that automation:

  • Eliminates some of the preceding or subsequent processing steps.
  • Consolidates or eliminates tools, tool storage, and tooling changeovers.
  • Reduces work-in-process (WIP) because the machine runs continuously.
  • Reduces or eliminates rework and inspection because part consistency improves.

2. We Don't Have Enough Volume

A common misconception is that only high part volumes justify automation. Not so. The reality is that successful and flexible automation improves productivity, which results in higher throughput. And to close the circle, improved productivity can open up new capacity that can be filled with new work, thereby increasing volume.

Higher productivity is also achieved through decreased cycle times and reduced scrap or waste. These improvements reduce WIP and increase inventory turns. Consistent production rates in turn permit efficient production scheduling and facilitate scheduled preventive maintenance, keeping equipment operating in top condition and reducing unexpected downtime.

Automated tube bending system

Setups are accomplished quickly on automated tube bending systems by using dovetailed tooling features and other quick-change techniques.

Finally, automation also can result in a simplified operation (from an operator perspective) and a reduction in setup time.

3. We Change over Too Frequently

Frequent changeovers shouldn't be a reason not to apply automation. In fact, this is a good reason to apply automation. Frequent changeovers fuel the need for rapid setups and simplified machine operations, two key benefits that may be realized with a well-designed and flexible automated system.

Three of the most efficient ways to set up tooling are:

  • Manual. Equipment operators manually place quick-change gauge blocks in predetermined positions using a color-coded system (or part numbering scheme) that corresponds to the job number.
  • Offline. Some system designs allow changeovers to be prepared offline while the equipment is running. After the current production run is completed, operators shut down the equipment and quickly exchange the tooling.
  • Automated. A programmed setup makes the necessary changes, including gauge block movement, material handling changes, tooling swaps, and so on. Equipment operators are not involved.

    Automated changeovers aren't limited to traditional tooling sets such as dies and molds. They also apply to conventional welding and laser processing cells that have several tool positions, allowing changeover at one station while another is running.

    Once you have automated your processes, you might find that you can now afford to extend your part runs and reduce the changeover frequency. Extended production runs, balanced against a small amount of inventory, may not be a bad thing.

4. Our Work Will Change in the Future

Of course your work will change in the future. The life cycle of component or assembly programs in today's manufacturing world is much shorter than it was just five years ago. Programs that once ran eight to 10 years typically run three years or less these days. In concert with this life-cycle reduction is an increase in the overall number of programs.

Current manufacturing trends drive the need for flexibility. A well-designed automated process enables product changes without requiring a complete retooling of your equipment and rapid response to changes in demand or processes.

5. We Can't Afford to Put Our Best People on the Machines

"Our people are highly skilled fabricators. We can't turn them into button-pushers." That's a common response. More often than not, using an automated system will allow your best employees to apply their skills and talents in areas that are more beneficial to the company. Let automation technology address the routine, repetitive, physically challenging tasks in your plant, and use the highly skilled workers in much more efficient and productive ways.

The simple task of moving parts from point A to point B is a perfect example for automation. A physically challenging task such as this can be done easily with a robot or pick-and-place automation. The assembly of components is another perfect fit for automation. Automate easy tasks—those that don't involve reasoning, decision-making, troubleshooting, or problem-solving—and assign difficult tasks to the fabricators.

6. We Don't Know How to Run Automated Equipment

Automation technology can be a double-edged sword. Automation results in improved consistency in terms of fit and form, so that final assembly is quicker and easier, and could be handled by low-skilled employees. On the other hand, automated machines are sophisticated and running them requires more highly skilled employees.

Automated tube bending software

Intuitive graphics enable quick and accurate setup, operation, and troubleshooting.

The solution is training, training, and more training. With good technical training and documentation provided by the system supplier or subsystem vendors, your employees will feel empowered to welcome new automation and feel that they are part of the team, ready and capable to make the system work to its full potential.

7. It's Too Difficult to Maintain Automated Equipment

On the contrary. Implementing a well-thought-out automated system, one that has a modern control package design, should simplify your maintenance efforts.

Whether you are buying an entirely new automated production system or upgrading or retrofitting existing machinery, a modern control package's features, such as full-color screens, 3-D graphics, and PC-based controls, have enabled a giant leap in terms of online training and instructions for setup, maintenance, troubleshooting, and repairs. Intuitive, graphic-laden prompts and images allow operators and maintenance personnel to be more productive than ever before. All of this is available at the operator's console, eliminating the dreaded search for hard-copy documentation in some remote office. It also removes any excuse for bypassing the diagnostic steps and using guesswork when troubleshooting.

The control system also can monitor machine output, faults, and downtime, creating a history of events that can help to predict future component failures or highlight operator setup errors that could be eliminated with additional training or process enhancement. Tracking machine downtime also can help to schedule preventive maintenance.

8. We Are Very Concerned about Safety

Automated equipment can enhance safety in the shop. A reliable equipment integrator follows current safety guidelines and provides documentation and training to help keep employees safe. For equipment upgrades, control system integrity and reliability can be improved with automation. Security levels, including password protection or keyed access, can be built into the system.

When coupled with good training techniques, effective integration of machine safeguarding and controls reduces the risk to the operators, enhances their awareness of danger zones, and provides a safe and productive operating environment.

9. We Don't Have Time for This

Based on the level of competition U.S. manufacturers face from low-cost competitors in developing nations, can your company afford to put this off any longer?

Relentless competition is forcing companies to apply new operational initiatives and revise cost models on a broad scale. You can't control the state of competition or your competitors' manufacturing practices, so your only recourse is to focus your attention on the areas that you can control—your practices and your processes, both of which can be enhanced with automation.

10. Where Do We Begin?

We have all heard the old adage about having to start somewhere.

Another maxim states, "You can't move forward by standing still." So, when considering the move toward an automated production floor, think incrementally—tackle small, manageable projects at first. There are several good reasons for this, but the bottom line is that you want your first venture into automation to be successful, and a small project is easier to manage, control, and document than a large project. Also, communicating the results of implementing a small project is likely to be easier than doing so for a huge project.

CNC tube bending system

If you have not yet entered the realm of automation, start with something simple, such as a single-station, CNC tube bending and handling system.

Start by gathering production data on your current processes. Select one manageable process and automate it, then measure and document the new process's uptime, downtime, scrap rates, changeover times, and quality. Concerning downtime, document the time of day that the system is down, the reasons (including all upstream and downstream processes), and the solutions. Keep a detailed log, including both text and photographs.

When you have sufficient data, analyze it. Look for trends, both good and bad. You might discover that upstream or downstream processes limit the throughput of the automated system. Develop a plan to use what you learn, whether it means more training, making changes to the equipment, or reconfiguring other processes in your plant.

Use the first project as a foundation for automating other processes in your plant.

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The Tube & Pipe Journal

The Tube & Pipe Journal

The Tube & Pipe Journal became the first magazine dedicated to serving the metal tube and pipe industry in 1990. Today, it remains the only North American publication devoted to this industry and it has become the most trusted source of information for tube and pipe professionals.

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