By Alex Bernstein, Controls Architect
August 14, 2019
If you’ve been managing a factory floor, you have likely learned the hard way that assembly automation can come at a price: unscheduled downtime. Whether it’s due to malfunctions, making small process changes that turn into big redesigns, or the time-consuming process of reconfiguring a machine to suit another function, you’re spending time and money when your automation isn’t running smoothly – and that’s exactly what automation is supposed to save.
That’s the bad news. The good news? Mature automation doesn’t look like this – it doesn’t suffer from these same pain points, and it doesn’t result in nearly so much unexpected downtime and real financial costs to your business.
Mature assembly automation comes down to how much you’re able to trust that the automation doesn’t require expensive oversight. In other words, it doesn’t need babysitting. Unfortunately, automation solutions that aren’t mature can actually increase the overall cost and reduce the agility of your operation. For example, in a past role I helped manage the development of an automated assembly machine that cost more than $1M. The machine was intended to reduce required headcount that tended the line from ten people down to four and would also have the benefit of increasing the yield compared to the manual operation. We did achieve the desired result – only 2 engineers were needed to program the machine – but the initial programming took two full weeks for those two engineers. The product also needed to be changed and updated more often than anticipated, so it was ultimately necessary that those two engineers worked full-time to program the machine, and when updating, the machine had to be offline during the programming and validation processes. Not exactly a cost savings!
Programming was such an arduous process that the factory didn’t realize the full benefit of the automation. In a second version of the machine, though, we learned from these mistakes and were able to implement more mature automation that was more adaptive to those product changes and required much less oversight from programmers.
So how can you ensure your automation is robust enough to work flawlessly and quickly adapt to changing needs and processes, without having humans tend to machines around the clock? There are some key elements to consider helping to ensure automation maturity:
Modularity: Ultimately, anyone can design an automation solution. But if changes to that solution require downtime of the whole system to make changes to one part of the line, it’s often not cost-saving enough to justify the spend over manual labor. It’s a common trap I see leadership teams fall into: they think a small change in the product will mean only small change to the automation on the factory floor. But if their assembly line automation isn’t modular, when that design change is scoped correctly, engineers will need far more time than expected to revalidate and adjust the solution. Modular solutions, on the other hand, allow designers to reprogram one element of your process without impacting the rest, which also means less impact to your bottom line.
Ergonomics & Serviceability: This is one area I see underestimated all the time when designing assembly lines. It’s crucial that anyone, regardless of height, size or strength, can access and test the machine without extraordinary action in order to maximize uptime. Your assembly automation must accommodate for any person that wants to service or tend to a machine. It’s ideal to take into consideration how things are designed and placed in the context of your automation so that minimal downtime is required for servicing, and you don’t require dexterous operations staff to tend to the machine – that downtime or the necessary hands-on-deck can often nullify the benefits of the automation solution. The same goes for something as simple as material replenishment: if your machine is designed in such a way that an operator has to turn off the machine and manually replenish screws, for example, deep within that machine, you’re not seeing the full benefits of ergonomic automation resulting in more scheduled downtime.
Automated Recovery: If something goes wrong, mature automation means that you can easily react without unscheduled downtime, and this comes down to two things: the system’s ability to resume on failure automatically, and secondly, the ability to control a reset from off-site. If you had a product that took 10 screws and your screw presenter ran out of screws at screw 9, you don’t want to fail the whole process. Handling errors properly would allow the operator to fill the screw presenter, and the process would then automatically resume finishing its task. Sometimes the automation can even fail in a situation where restarting the system would harm the equipment.
When you spend a large amount of money, time and effort to get a machine or automation solution, but it isn’t mature, downtime is likely the main culprit for why you’re not seeing a good return on that investment. If your machine is designed to automate recovery after a failure, as it is in mature automation, it’s because you’ve already anticipated potential issues, thus anticipating downtime, and your system is already equipped to recover from those issues – without human intervention. No matter when the operator hits the E-Stop, the automation should be able to recover itself. This, of course, also eliminates the need for constant human supervision. Isn’t that the whole point of automation anyway?
Easy, Quick Change-Over: It’s almost always the case that teams want to reprogram their automated equipment from one product to another after an automation line has been deployed, or they can save costs dramatically by using the same machine to manufacture two similar-but-not-identical products. Because this happens all the time, it’s crucial to do as much as possible to automate that change-over instead of having an operator make changes manually. Even if you’re not currently planning to do change-overs, if your automation is rigidly tied to whatever you’re doing now, that’s likely a mistake. For example, if you are using a robot, include a tool changer even if you only use one tool now – you might need to change the machine’s functionality to accommodate a changed product later, and if you’ve planned for automated change-overs, you’ll minimize downtime. Mature automation that’s designed to handle quick changes will be able to handle switching automatically between two similar products, or at least be easily reprogrammed with minimal downtime. If your automation has been designed to thoughtfully allow for quick change-overs, you’ll save money and time on your line, no matter how diverse or custom your product range is.
When I successfully launch a piece of automation, the best-case scenario is that I don’t get a call from the factory manager the next day, or the next week, or even in the next month. Too often in past roles, I’ve seen customers invest in expensive automated lines, and everything seems great at site-acceptance, but then the engineering team is on-site for over a month instead of the previously-scoped week, tending to machines and manually managing recovery. Doubling down to ensure you’re investing in mature automation will help make sure your solution is designed right the first time and can be both changed and scaled down the road. All of which will naturally help to maximize your line’s uptime and as a result, your output, quality, and profits.