CHICAGO — Robotics can provide companies with cost savings, better production efficiencies, and other benefits. However, some companies also have unrealistic expectations of automation advantages, said Craig Salvalaggio, vice president of engineering at Applied Manufacturing Technologies, at last week’s Automate 2017 show here.
“Automation allows companies to use human workers for more value-added tasks,” he said. “But there are more stories about automation projects that were turned off than there are about successful automation projects.”
Most of the failures were due to poor planning, Salvalaggio added. “Should you decide to automate, you need to identify what the requirements are and understand the process and level of automation,” he said.
Smarter, faster, better
Several technical improvements have converged to drive automation adoption, according to Salvalaggio. Robotic systems have more intelligence, so they need less human intervention while in operation. Grippers are more dexterous.
Companies such as General Electric Co. are adding predictive analysis to improve the deployment of automation and other technology.
Better automation in the U.S. also means more reshoring of production, Salvalaggio added. The U.S. tends to have lower energy costs than other countries, he said.
In addition, Salvalaggio said, onshoring production, particularly for products sold in this country, reduces transportation costs and eliminates any tariffs.
An oft-cited automation advantage is that it can be used to eliminate humans from unsafe and repetitive tasks.
Be an informed customer
“But not every process is good for automation,” Salvalaggio noted. “After running a deep analysis, you may find that automation may not be answer for your underlying problem.”
He also cautioned companies against investing in robotics projects simply because they were enamored by many of the successful demonstrations at Automate or other trade shows.
“You need to consider the tooling, the equipment, and all of the other costs involved,” Salvalaggio warned.
Companies should consider automation to increase throughput, decrease labor costs, improve quality and safety, and reduce the facility footprint, he said.
The top business requirements when considering an automation project are the company schedule, lead time, capital budget limits, and the payback period.
Automation advantages include RaaS
Companies without sufficient capital may not be able to afford the machinery. They may not see the return on investment (ROI) in enough time to warrant financing the purchase, according to Salvalaggio. However, the concept of robotics as a service (RaaS) is starting to enter the market.
RaaS is different than leasing, because a company pays for its actual usage rather than for a pre-defined monthly or annual lease. The concept is similar to the more widely known — and already time-tested — software as a service.
There are other considerations as well, Salvalaggio said. Will automation truly offer the company better scalability and flexibility? What facility changes are needed to add automation?
Will the facility’s current floor and foundation support the weight of new machinery? If not, is extra support possible and at what cost?
Does the facility have enough power to operate the automation? If not, how easily and at what cost can additional power be added?
Supply chain issues
Organizations must also weigh supply chain considerations. Companies need to be able to source additional material for higher production capacity and source it in time to meet faster production schedules. Otherwise, much of the automation capacity will go unused.
“Transparency with suppliers is critical,” Salvalaggio pointed out. “You need to make them partners in the process.”
Companies considering automation advantages also need to plan for how they will handle rapid price increases or delays in supplies.
“You also need to carefully consider the cost/labor trade-off analysis,” he said. “There are a lot of tools that will help you figure out the ROI of the new processes. Focus on optimizing where you need to be.”
While machines can replace direct labor, it opens up the need for more engineers and technicians, but several companies have complained that people with those skills are in short supply. Salvalaggio emphasized that while engineers are needed, they focus on processes.
Business people also need to be involved in the decision to apply robotics because they focus on the capital investment, ROI, and other potential automation advantages, he added.
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Human and machine monitoring
Salvalaggio added that humans are an important element of the monitoring process to ensure that production quality is the same or better as with traditional processes.
Automated monitoring can be used, but the accuracy of the monitoring is much better if companies include human monitoring as well, he said. Yet any monitoring system should be balanced with business needs. “There’s a trade-off between quality and quantity,” Salvalaggio said.
He added that safety is another prime consideration for all levels of industrial automation. Manufacturers, logistics companies, and other end users need to comply with Occupational Safety and Health Administration, state, and local standards. Companies also need to keep track of newer standards as they are developed.
“Look at the competition; learn from their mistakes,” Salvalaggio advised.Read More