Are You Spending too Much on Automation?

To find out if you should automate or stick with a manual process, answer these five questions.

Mark Sobkow, vice president of manufacturing systems, RedViking
Mark Sobkow, vice president of manufacturing systems, RedViking

As system integrators, we look at every manufacturing problem as an opportunity for brilliantly engineered automation. At the same time, we realize that every piece of automation needs to earn its place on the line; this means that there are plenty of times when manual processes should be retained.

WIth these two options in mind, following are the five questions we ask ourselves when it comes to deciding whether or not to automate a process:

Are target production rates higher than a manual process can accommodate? We like to start with an engineering study of the existing process. Can manual processes be enhanced with new conveyance, tools or fixtures to achieve the desired throughput rate? Sometimes improving a manual process with better technical support is the answer; at other times only a fully automated system can achieve the required production rates.

Will operator safety and ergonomics be compromised without automation? Some manual processes can be improved by incorporating simple tools like lifts. However, if there is any risk of injury associated with a manual process, then a new automated process should be designed to ensure safe operation.

Does the manufacturing execution system (MES) require an automated interface? Tracking and traceability, vision inspection and error proofing systems all require an automated interface. But often, a manual process is critical to this process as well—such as operator verification of a completed test. When making the automation determination here, remind yourself again that each piece of automation must earn its spot on the line.

Does the finished product require a consistent, repeatable process beyond the capabilities of an individual or group? Automation is almost always the right choice for many types of inspection and testing. Where an individual’s eyes might glaze over checking for presence of part all day long, a vision inspection system can do this easily. Where dynamic test systems require a complex, precise test profile, running the test manually doesn’t make sense.

Is the staff sufficient to operate, manage and maintain the automation equipment? This consideration is critical for global organizations where the local workforce may not be prepared to run a fully automated assembly line. No matter how well designed and built, an automated system is ultimately only as effective as the workforce using it. When production rates are low, tasks are simple and easily repeated, or the workforce is not well suited to support an automated system, we work with our clients to redesign their manual processes to improve overall efficiency and effectiveness.

Ideally, we like to work with our clients to understand their cost structure so that we can use a return on investment approach. Then we can design and build assembly lines that include automated, semi-automated and manual operations, based on the estimated return on investment of each process or station.

Even though we are a bunch of engineers who love to design and build automated systems, sometimes automation isn’t the answer.

Mark Sobkow is the vice president of manufacturing systems for RedViking, a member of the Control System Integrators Association.

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