Six Considerations for Finding Your Best Automation Opportunities

August 27, 2019 | 6 min read

Mark Dutton, Industrial Engineer, Bright Machines

Not all automation is created equal. As automation permeates nearly every part of businesses today, there are still lots of exciting opportunities in manufacturing that weren’t feasible even a few short years ago. Picking the right starting point, the right project is critical to success and buy-in for the next project.

Identify Pain Points Around Quality

For factory leadership and engineers their #1 internal customer, first and foremost, is operations. This is especially true for any automation effort which needs to improve upon the challenges and complexities operations faces every day. Quality is one of operations’ biggest challenges and can include chasing down units, creating and maintaining extra floor space for WIP, and managing overproduction to fill orders regardless of obstacles.

Automation that can ensure quality, especially in assembly and inspection, can create those success stories with operations and unlock countless future opportunities. Reducing the “hidden” factory – the time and money spent on producing products that will never leave the factory floor due to quality issues – can reduce costs and improve on-time deliveries dramatically.

For example, in a previous experience, I was working with highly-configurable computers. To get orders out on time, we built two units in the hopes that one would pass inspection and be able to and ship. In this scenario of overproduction and “hidden” factory, vast amounts of time, money, staff, and floorspace were devoted to fixing exceptions and reworking 30-50% of the units rather than fixing the root cause, which was inspection failure.  With a test time of more than 24 hours, every rework loop took a long time, which was truly an operations nightmare! What did eventually help solve this ongoing problem was assembly and test monitoring automation – and, once it was proven effective, operations began asking for more and more automation.

Reframe Total Cost of Ownership

As covered in depth in our recent “Mature Automation Assembly: No Babysitting Required,” blog post, mature automation is not a sunken investment into one project or product. While the total cost of ownership has historically been viewed using that old lens, as an industry we need to start looking at automation in terms of reusable capability over time (not as project-specific). The disposable automation trend, seen most often in China, and its opposite, the trend towards flexible (and often collaborative) automation in other markets, could learn from each other. For all its faults, the disposable automation trend does have strategic upsides that we can look to: it aims for clear and tangible benefits such as one project to put the cost onto, driving down cost to the lowest possible number, and the smallest footprint.

An even lower total cost of ownership can be achieved with a more flexible automation solution.  Especially through mature, automated automation that requires little engineering to re-tool for future projects. Investing in automation capability that you can reuse can start a virtuous cycle of designing products and processes around existing equipment, which will again reduce costs while increasing speed. If there are accounting and finance barriers in your business that need to be addressed, spreading cost of automation investments over multiple projects can help.

Shorter product lifecycle and time to market are possible when you are carrying over processes and re-using your flexible automation. Many product generations have very similar build processes, with, only small changes. Keeping your equipment running longer also has environmental savings, further reducing total cost of ownership. Don’t be fooled by the low sticker price of a rigid solution that will only work for one project. Your lowest total cost of ownership comes from the equipment that’s being reconfigured and redeployed rather than ripped out and replaced.

Consolidate Steps

Lean principles combined with automation capabilities can help achieve new possibilities of speed and simplicity by breaking down the barrier between products and process. Smarter automation and process feedback have unlocked the ability to validate and monitor processes while they happen. And because many products on the factory floor might go through the same process steps, even at different times, manufacturers can boost efficiencies by flowing products through the same equipment.

Consolidating operations into a handful of robotic cells and pieces of equipment is a huge area of opportunity to further automate and combine previously manual steps in the production process. In one customer application, we automated the logging of torque process data, and were able to eliminate manual checking of fastener torques and marking them with a pen – a great example of how consolidating steps through smarter automation can save time and increase quality.

The Dexterity and High Mix Challenge

Two of the most classically difficult things to automate are starting to see a boom in automation: high-mix operations and process steps that require high dexterity. Any time you’re working with wires, fabrics, or non-rigid components with high variability, these processes are typically still being done manually. When dealing with a high mix, the cost of accommodating so many configurations (some product types might only run once a quarter) has been traditionally prohibitive. But thanks to companies starting to design products to accommodate automation and tech advances like machine learning and computer vision, these barriers to automation are starting to be broken down.

One popular example that’s shaking up automation in automotive is Tesla’s new patents enabling car wiring to be automated. The company has filed patents for semi-rigid wire harnesses and is greatly reducing the amount of wire in their vehicles. Pair design for automation with all the advances in machine learning and computer vision, and you can open up new possibilities for your business.

Keep ROI Simple

Business leaders want to make the right investments for their business. Focus saving on very tangible things like quality, labor, or compliance requirements can help avoid a common pitfall of trying to quantify soft savings. While automation might save on utilities, floorspace, look great on tours for winning new business, and lower recruiting costs, there may be soft costs incurred by providing engineering material samples or needing more technician support. For every area of soft savings, there’s often a soft cost someone can think of. Ultimately, you’ll never be able to fully quantify those before your automation is deployed, so avoid falling down the rabbit hole of attempting to. Mature automation takes care to mitigate these potential costs.

Keeping the core value proposition as simple as possible enables decision-makers to be financially diligent while keeping focused on how to maximize benefits and mitigate risks. If the automation meets basic financial targets, keep the conversation moving forward without diving into speculative soft savings as you’ll be able to quantify those once your solution is deployed, and then you’ll be in a better position to justify future additional automation.

Realizing Your Vision

Market responsiveness is more important than responsiveness to customers alone – it’s also about being responsive to supply chain, new vendors, and changing geopolitical situations. It is imperative that product lifecycles get shorter and supply chains become more localized. Picking the best automation opportunities and designing solutions to be flexible to keep up with your business are key to achieving these goals. However, avoid the temptation to say “yes” to every automation project.

Pick the two or three best automation opportunities for your specific needs and start with those projects – you’ll learn so much through the process and have the additional benefit of having earned the trust and buy-in of operations for having been more selective in your automation approach. You and operations will come away from those first mature automation deployments with rich insight into flexibility, quantifying soft savings, consolidating steps, hidden quality problems, and other pain points, and the next project will be better for it.

It’s one thing for the financials to make sense, and another for vision to make sense, but to really be successful, you need operations to be invested in your automation solution. After all, your #1 internal customers are going to have to run it every day!

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