Industrial robots can fill many different roles in the manufacturing environment, including welding, painting, assembly, pick and place, packaging and labeling, palletizing, product inspection, and testing. As robotic systems become increasingly affordable and flexible, more factories are integrating robotics into their current processes. Nearly any repetitive task is a candidate for robotic replacement, but how do you know the best time to take the plunge into robotic systems? Answering the following four questions can help guide you and your team through the process.
- What is the long-term cost benefit? Many companies believe that the initial investment in automating their processes will be too expensive. However, the return on investment over the life of the robotic system is high. The best way to evaluate this concept is by conducting a cost benefit analysis—examining the pros and cons for all process options. Forecast the cost five, 15, or even 25 years from now. This will help identify whether the upfront cost will be recognized within the first few years or if the forecasted return on investment is farther down the road.
- Do you have the resources required? One of the costs of integrating a new robotic system and process into your manufacturing facility is time. Do you have the time and personnel needed to execute this new system? A solid integration plan is an essential component of a new robotic system. It is necessary to bring multiple subsystems or components together into one operation system. This requires a broad range of expertise in software, automation hardware, controls methodology, and much more. A reputable systems integrator is often worth the expense in order to expedite the new system’s implementation. Additionally, your key personnel will not be tied-up for the entirety of the project, allowing them to freely work on other things. Remember, the longer it takes to implement your new system, the longer it will take to realize the return on your investment.
- Do you have a champion to carry out the project? A project champion is the person within the organization that is committed to the project’s success, and most successful projects are the result of a champion behind them. There are two key traits in the project champion: knowledge of the existing process and a commitment to implement a new process. The champion takes responsibility for identifying a need, sourcing a solution, and implementing the new automation process. By being intimately familiar with the old and new process, a champion can identify potential issues before they happen. They can also follow through to assure that the system can be safely and efficiently used. For example, ensuring that each team member required is properly trained and has complete cooperation from engineering and other departments within the organization. System integrators can help the champion by bringing on experts within each area of technology required for implementation. The advantage to using these experts—rather than your own personnel—is that they will not be distracted by corporate concerns like increased or decreased product demands, bottlenecks, etc.
- Is your equipment speaking to each other? Implementing an entirely new system and process into your factory is a huge change. Does your legacy system have the capability to communicate with your new robotic system? Does your key personnel have the time and/or training to integrate these systems? A reputable system integration team is prepared for both vertical and horizontal integration, making certain that each area of the facility can talk to each other, leaving less likelihood of equipment isolation.
These questions will not only help you figure out where in the implementation process your organization is at, but will also help make sure the implementation of the new systems goes smoothly and without too many hitches.
>>Mark Sobkow is vice president of manufacturing solutions at RedViking, a member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). Visit RedViking’s profile on the CSIA Industrial Automation Exchange.