A Lesson about Automation

The advantages of automation on the shop floor can run deep, but many shops struggle with determining the best starting point.

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The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.
— Bill Gates

The advantages of automation on the shop floor can run deep, yet many shops question whether or not it’s right for their applications. True, it’s not always a good fit, and determining how to use it or where to start may seem like a daunting task. While a lot of questions certainly arise during this evaluation process, with the right approach it doesn’t need to be overwhelming.

I recently attended DMG MORI USA’s Chicago Innovation Days event at the company’s American headquarters in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. The event featured a nice lineup of seminar sessions, including a customer panel discussion on automation. The panel in this session consisted of Tony Nighswander, president and founder of ABT Manufacturing Solutions; Cory Carolla, vice president, corporate development, Red Rabbit Automation, a division of Vickers Engineering; Geoff Dawson, senior district account manager, FANUC; and Dean Deakins, national product sales manager, DMG MORI Automation Group.

The panel agreed that the first step in determining if automation is a good fit should involve general observation of the activity on the shop floor. Notice where people tend to gather, because that is a sign of a bottleneck or excessive labor, where a lot of waste, rejection or scrap may be happening and where some form of automation may be able to help.

This evaluation process is important, because it allows a shop to pick a single starting point that is likely to have the greatest impact. Often, shops tend to dive in too deep, trying to implement too much from the very beginning in an attempt to quickly meet long-term goals. But rather, it should go after the low-hanging fruit. See what the operator is doing over and over, every day, and look to take some of those simple, repetitive tasks away. More advanced automation processes can be added once initial pieces of the puzzle have been perfected. Implementing an expandable integration, rather than jumping “all-in,” is the best approach.

A natural starting point for implementation is often related to load/unload, where there may be awkward parts or ergonomic issues. Look closely at assembly operations and the processes immediately before and after. Consider how parts are being moved in and out, and determine if a robot may be able to assist in this part movement or even within the assembly processes themselves.

Another frequently expressed concern about the implementation of automation is the displacement of employees. But the panel of experts expressed that they have never seen automation eliminate jobs. Instead, it changes the scope of the work that is needed, traditionally calling for new opportunities for training and positions of higher wages.

The shortage of qualified shopfloor employees is a well-known issue that is not going away any time soon; the population won’t catch up with the amount of jobs available. To be able to compete on a global scale, we need to embrace the opportunity to redeploy our workforce in a manner that supports the advantages of automation. Automation, while reliably handling repetitive tasks, creates the opportunity to make more parts, which, in turn, adds jobs in more relevant areas.

It’s these more technically challenging roles that commonly appeal to the young people coming into the workforce today. They would rather interact with the machines, or more to the point, the computers that control them, than do labor-intensive loading and unloading work. These types of jobs allow the employees to take on more responsibility with work that better suits them because of the multitasking nature of managing more than one project at a time.

Increased use of automation is allowing U.S. manufacturing to bring back work that it has lost in the past because of low-cost labor in other parts of the world. It’s a good idea to take the time to evaluate your production process and give deep consideration to how you can take advantage of what automation offers in achieving your goals. Think about the steps it will take to get there. If there’s a place where automation can help, take small steps to begin implementing it. Even if there’s not a good fit for automation now, you likely will discover other ways to maximize machining time, which should always be the root goal of any changes to the process.