By Seth Ludeman, Automation Engineering Manager, Bright Machines
October 23, 2019
The promise of automation – higher throughput, less downtime, fewer errors – is what every manufacturer wants; but its cost, as measured in both dollars and time, can make it unappealing. But with software-defined automation, you’ll achieve above benefits and lower the total cost of ownership (TCO) of your automation equipment.
I speak to manufacturers every day and there are a few common questions they have at the outset of an automation decision:
- What is the lifecycle of the product?
Common wisdom says you’ll want a product or products with long lifecycles (5+ years) to maximize your investment. However, especially in consumer electronics, that lifecycle is often only one year – maybe two at best. Right off the bat, this places a primacy on re-usable automation. More on this later.
- What are the projected volumes?
Product volumes play a large role in shaping the decision to automate or not. Without sufficient volume, labor costs – manpower, number of shifts – will be relatively low to satisfy demand – likely too low to justify an investment in automation. Typically manufacturers will want to see volumes that support running automation 24/7, which translates into higher labor-cost savings.
This all makes perfect sense, but only in a pre-smart phone world. Fast product updates and refreshes are now the norm in the competitive consumer market, so our thinking about the role of automation in meeting high-volume demand over shorter product lifecycles needs to evolve with it. The new reality is consumers want a new smart phone or up-rev’d headphones every year to keep up with the latest features and technologies. This creates rapid product lifecycles, which, under the old rules, should make it less appealing to automate. I’m here to tell you something different.
New technology is helping dispute the old arguments against automating products with short lifecycles, namely cost, time to deploy, and concern over stranded assets.
Not the automation you know
Today, through standardized and reusable automation, manufacturers can flip the script on the high costs, lengthy implementations, and fear of stranded assets that plagued their prior automation thinking.
Let’s look first at cost.
Typically, if you have an Automation Integrator build a robotic cell or automated line, they will quote and design everything from the ground-up. What that means to you from a capital investment point of view is a considerable amount of non-recurring engineering (NRE) costs. And NRE costs add up fast, often comprising up to 30%-50% of an automation project’s total cost, making it easy to feel that you are starting from behind in your quest for ROI.
Again, “custom made” can sound appealing. Who doesn’t want something designed just for them? But building automation from scratch is the way of the past. It’s often unnecessary and wasteful. At Bright Machines we’ve created a new generation of standardized automation systems for assembly and inspection, software-defined microfactories, that eliminate a majority of the NRE that goes into a new project, saving our customers money and opening them up to additional benefits.
For example, by creating re-usable automation, we can extend its useful lifespan. Automation is normally designed in a way to satisfy the exact requirements of a single product, with zero flexibility in mind. The hardware is custom-made every single time it is deployed. While that can create a very efficient process and manufacturing line, it also results in automation that cannot be easily re-purposed.
At Bright Machines, we have designed our microfactories to handle 80% of the tasks on your assembly line. That means when your product sees a refresh, the microfactory can be easily reconfigured to grow and change with your product.
It’s about time
Automation that can quickly change-over affords you something else special that typical custom automation can’t. Time.
A large portion of the development time in an automated line is dedicated to the mechanical engineering and software programming of all the tooling and actions that gantries and robots may be accomplishing. This, as you can imagine, is extremely time- and effort-consuming – and expensive!
That’s why at Bright Machines we are continually adding to our library of “Building Blocks,” common tools we have developed to satisfy a large breadth of manufacturing needs. Common tasks like screw driving, pick and place, and adhesive dispense are all pre-programmed and pre-designed to shorten deployment times, lowering total cost of ownership.
A material world
Material feeding, because of its very task-specific nature, is often another area that makes the goal of re-usability untenable. So how can you get around the limitations of a material feeding strategy that is built specifically for a single material type?
Often, you’ll receive raw materials for your bill of materials (BOM) presented in many different ways. Springs may arrive in a bag mixed together. CPU’s may come in a blister pack tray. RAM modules can be presented very differently from one OEM to the next.
With typical automation, parts MUST be presented in a very specific way, or your machines won’t be able to find one part to the next. The ideal answer to this is to work with your supply chain to change your part presentation, but we live in the real world and know this is often an impossible or expensive task. Additionally, if you do have to unpack and re-arrange parts in a custom feeder to present to a robot, you’ve potentially created a new Human task that erodes your automation investment.
So how do you navigate this challenge? With advanced vision. Machine Learning vision technology enables our microfactories to be flexible with part presentation and locate one part to the next without custom fixturing. Armed with this intelligent vision capability, not only do you exponentially increase flexibility, but you also gain a toolset to support re-usability.
The software side of automation
We’ve covered many of the “mechanical” ways Bright Machines has reduced the total cost and time to reuse and deploy automation, but without intelligence, the software side of the equation, it remains daunting to re-use robots and automation.
For instance, programming a robot is complex: a single arm movement could easily require 50 points to program. Multiply that by the total number of possible movements, and you’ll find yourself with engineers standing in front of a robot programming it for quite some time. Add in the desire to re-use an already configured robot cell, and the complexity just multiplied again.
We tackle all this programming and re-programming complexity via our Brightware, that allows you to quickly create new recipes and a simplified programming language that allows even entry-level technicians to create and manage small changes you may need to implement – or start a new recipe from scratch.
Another important piece of the re-usable automation software puzzle is having a flexible Human Machine Interface (HMI). Often what you’ll see is a user interface that is very specific to the task the robot or gantry was programmed to do – with zero flexibility. To make automation reusable, the HMI also needs to be built from the ground-up with flexibility and re-usability in mind.
Not only is the Bright Machines HMI UI user-friendly, but it is rich in features to support the goal of re-usable automation. This is key in being able to re-use automation- because normally you’d call your integrator, create an Engineering Change Order (ECO), and then pay for the changes to take place. Every. Single. Time.
A new frontier in automation
By re-envisioning automation from the vantage point of re-usability, we’re helping manufacturers recalculate the price of advanced productivity and make it attainable, desirable, and practical to implement.