Intelligent automation • Viewpoints

Four Factors to Ensure Success on First Automation Projects

By Stevan Dobrasevic, Director, Product Marketing, Bright Machines

The last twelve months have convinced many manufacturers to either double down on their current automation investments or take the plunge into automating their production lines and processes for the first time. For those just beginning their automation journey, “this blog’s for you.”

Why automate? The reasons are as varied as there are product SKUs, but the simple answer is because machines are continually getting better, faster, smarter and cheaper at executing repeatable tasks on an assembly line than their human counterparts. Humans do matter, but, in a globally constrained manufacturing labor market, they are the scarce resource. They also get sick, get hurt, get bored, and get new jobs.

Manufacturers eyeing their first factory automation project are taking all of this into account and asking if there is a better way. There is.

By selecting the right product and process for automation, manufacturers can gain the resiliency, cost-savings, quality, and throughput goals they need to justify their initial investment and begin a longer-term transformation that brings people and machines together into a tight collaboration that optimizes production and profitability.

For most manufacturers, automation has turned the corner from being a question of if to when. At Bright Machines, we’re the experts in how.  If you think the time is right for your first automation project, we have some suggestions for you.

Clarify Your Goal

What are you trying to achieve with your first automation project? Whether it is reducing the per unit cost of production, improving quality or safety, reshoring your manufacturing function, reliably staffing and scaling your manufacturing needs, or all of the above, understanding your goal, and understanding how you will measure progress towards it is a key first step.

Select the Right Product and Process to Automate

Not all products and processes are a good fit for a first-time automation project. This is important because you want your first automation project to be successful, to impress, and to give you some momentum so you can continue to modernize production and drive further gains. But what kind of product, process, and project sets up best for first-time automation success?

Here are four helpful parameters.

  1. Product Lifecycle: Every product has a lifecycle. The traditional product lifecycle curve begins with a development and introduction phase, then moves on through growth, maturity, and product extension or decline phase. It’s not uncommon to think automation might be best suited for a product in development because you could build automation in from the ground up. And a popular product with growing demand could certainly benefit from automation. But for a first-time automation project, experience has shown the sweet spot to be the “mature product,” one with known stable demand. This will make your automation project easier to implement, operate, manage, and measure.
  2. Volume and SKU: You likely have many different products in your factory, ranging from “high runners,” a few SKUs running out the door at high volume, to your customized “tail” products, those many custom SKUs that individually comprise a small volume of your shipped product. In between, you have “core” products, marked by medium volume and medium variety. Selecting one of your core products provides just the right variety and volume for a good stable first automation project. A good rule of thumb for volume is 20,000 – 3,000,000 units per year for up to 20-30 SKUs, or enough volume to run two shifts at least five-days-per-week.
  3. Product-Level or Process-Level Automation: Once you have the right product in mind, it’s time to look at how you will actually automate its production. Product-level automation envisions the end-to-end automation of the product. It is typically comprised of several steps. The assembly of a building alarm, for example, starts with automating the picking of the top and bottom covers, and various assembly steps, such as inserting the circuit board, as the product moves from robotic cell to robotic cell or station. Process-level automation on the other hand picks just one step to automate, for example, screwdriving. At Bright Machines, we’ve seen product-level automation provide the highest return for first-time automation projects, but we also understand that for smaller manufacturers, the “toe in the water” approach of process-level automation may reduce risk. Both approaches work. Understanding their differences will help you with your goal setting, project selection, and success.
  4. Skill Complexity: Robotic cells are capable of great production feats, but you’ll be happier not making your first automation project too difficult, or it will take longer, cost more, and return less than hoped. Bringing “skill complexity” into your initial calculation of what assembly process to automate will help you make the right decision. We recommend a simple “green light,” “yellow light,” “red light” paradigm. Green-light projects are those that are straightforward to automate. Inserting a screw from the top side of an assembly and tightening it with a Phillips head or torqued bit is something easy to automate. Look for like processes in assessing your first automation project. Yellow-light projects introduce more complexity, and red-light even more. Having to insert a screw from the bottom of the assembly earns a yellow-light rating. Having to apply a thread-locker to the screw before insertion earns it a red. Yes, these harder tasks can be automated, but stay away from them if you can for your maiden automation project.

On Your Way to Success

A little planning goes a long way in ensuring your first automation project’s success. The steps outlined here will help you identify the right products and processes ripe for automation at your facilities and, ultimately, the right initial project to put a “win” on the board and catalyze automation at your company.

And once you have that initial automation project in mind, we have a number of suggestions to help you ensure your project’s success while steering you away from common pitfalls that can undermine your progress. We cover them all, including the project-selection criteria detailed above, in my webinar, “How To Take On Automation for the First Time.” It’s a 30-minute investment in what could prove to be your game-changing automation journey. I hope you’ll join me.

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