Some industries are covered up with robot automation. The auto industry was an early and prolific adopter. Others lagged behind but are beginning to catch up. If your company has never added robot automation, it can be an overwhelming process to decide if this is the right thing for you to pursue. Below is a guide to help you figure it all out.
1. Are my components repeatable?
This might seem elementary, but it is usually the biggest hurdle we face in robot automation for new customers. You might think your parts are all the same, but most often they are not. What happens in many factories is that humans make allowances for part variation. A human can shimmy or shove or bend a less than perfect part. In most cases, robots are not quite that flexible or intuitive. Robots only do what they are told.
We do have tools in the toolbox, such as search functions and seam tracking, but those take time, which is a luxury. The auto industry now designs all their parts to be precise and without any large tolerance stackups. The higher engineering and design costs are offset by the savings generated by robot efficiency and cycle time improvements. In other words, their parts are designed to be automation friendly. Quality control measures will need to be implemented as a result of or prior to robot automation. The benefit to that is we see upstream processes improve, which is a positive unintended consequence of robotic automation.
2. Are my processes repeatable?
Do you make the same part the same way across part families? Gone are the days of huge batch production runs. One piece flow is the standard. Robot programming has come a long way in accommodating this new reality. The trick is to create a flow that can be broken down into manageable components that are somewhat repeatable.
We look for patterns that can be programmed across part families. Sometimes we can create a fixture that will hold more than one part family, because they all share a common location. This saves the customer a lot of money in fixture costs and changeout time. The other end of that spectrum, however, is that we can create a tool that tries to do too much. It becomes cumbersome and difficult to program. Finding the balance is a big part of our job as integrators.
3. Can I justify the expense?
Robotic automation is an incredible tool, but sometimes, it’s just not worth it. That might seem a little strange to be coming from a robot integrator, but we understand the realities of our business. One of the ironies we face is that very little of what we do in our own facility is automated. We have to hand-weld all of our fixtures, because they are all so unique. It wouldn’t make sense to program a robot for that task, as it would take longer to program than to weld it.
By the same token, it is important to look at all the costs associated with manufacturing your particular item.
- What is the safety value of a robot doing this task versus a human?
- How much re-work can you eliminate with a robot?
- Will automation allow you to add capacity, since robots can work virtually non-stop?
- Will automation free up labor to perform other, less automation friendly, tasks?
4. Is everybody on board?
It is often difficult to bridge the gap between engineering and accounting. Their respective goals may seem to be diametrically opposed, but what we have found is that every actor in the decision process is trying to do the best thing for the company. Labor can be very resistant to robotic automation, viewing it as a threat to job security. How will employees react to this new reality? The most successful automation projects involve everyone in the decision process.
All these factors count for something and merit a close look. Robotic automation can give your company a huge competitive edge, but it can also be a burden that is too great to bear. Take your time and make an informed decision. Let us know if we can help.