By Konrad Konnerth
By Konrad Konnerth
When a Canadian automotive parts supplier was planning production for a new multi-year program, the intent was to move production to their Mexican manufacturing plant, rather than invest in new equipment in their Canadian plant. Due to the price pressure from the company’s customer, they were not able to justify the capital investment in their Canadian facility as they had done in the past with previous programs. The alternative was to produce the parts with less automation and more labour content in Mexico.
A few of the engineers at the Canadian production plant started to evaluate the existing equipment in greater detail and involved the original equipment manufacturer to evaluate the feasibility of re-using it for the new program. Their thinking was that if the existing machinery could be re-tooled for a fraction of the cost that would be required for new equipment, their management could be convinced to keep the production local.
Not every machine can or should be re-tooled for future programs. But when done right, upgrading existing machines can provide significant cost savings when bringing new products to market. The following six steps can help to evaluate and plan successful machine upgrades.
1. Evaluate machine condition. It is important to evaluate the condition of the machine to determine the feasibility of using the equipment for another program. Valuable information can be obtained from the current or previous performance measures and downtime statistics. If the machine lacked the needed performance to keep up to production demands, or had a lot of downtime, the reasons must be evaluated. If the downtime was related mostly to tooling or material conditions, the focus should be placed on the new product development to make it easier for assembly. However, if the downtime was mostly machine related, then each incident should be quantified and weighted to determine the severity of the problem. The cost for repair or implementing a remedy on the critical issues will then help to determine if it is advisable to keep using this machine for future production. A good starting point is also the maintenance costs and output of the machine going back a few years.
In addition, if the machine is no longer safe to operate in its present condition, it may require an expensive upgrade to renew guarding or safety circuits. Also, if certain important spare parts are no longer available, it may cause lengthy downtimes before the machine can be back in production again. It may be necessary to replace some of the components with new ones, which often requires a redesign of the mechanical or electrical systems.
2. Product requirements. Typically, a machine is re-tooled for a new product with a similar process when a new generation of an existing product is being released for production. In many cases, the processes and the sequence of the processes are similar. Generally, the upgrade, the modification or the elimination of individual processes is a manageable task. In many cases, however, changing the sequence of the processes, or adding additional processes in between others, becomes more of a challenge.
Very often, new products also require more elaborate verification and testing processes, both during the assembly and for the finished product. Can these additional quality requirements be implemented into the existing machine, and how much effort and cost will they require? Can the existing machine produce the required production volume that is planned for the new product? This can be easily determined by calculating the cycle time, the uptime of the machine and the planned annual production volume.
3. Selecting the right partner. Once it has been determined that it is feasible to re-tool an existing machine for the production of a new product, a company needs to carefully consider who to put in charge of doing the upgrade.
Many manufacturers have an in-house maintenance department responsible for troubleshooting and maintaining the production equipment during operation. Over the years, they have become familiar with the machines that they are responsible for and understand the problematic areas of the machines. They probably have already implemented fixes to some of the problems, or at the very least have ideas about what should and could be done to improve the performance and uptime. Also, depending on the workload, they may have some idle time that could be used to upgrade the equipment internally. However, their main responsibility is to keep the production running, and if problems arise on the production floor, they will not be able to focus on the machine upgrade. Therefore, a re-tooling project can easily be delayed and scheduling such a project becomes difficult.
Outside machine builders can provide many advantages. The first alternative is always the original equipment builder, since they should have the best knowledge and documentation of the machine. However, if the machine must be upgraded on the manufacturer’s floor and the machine builder is located far away, this could become a very pricey endeavour. Also, since a machine upgrade requires a somewhat different type of skill set than building new equipment, the original equipment builder may not be the best choice to take on the complex task.
Another option is a contractor with experience and a good track record with rebuilding equipment, as well as good knowledge of the customer’s products.
4. Planning the re-tooling. To minimize the disturbance to the existing production, it is important to plan the machine upgrade very carefully. Can the old product be phased-out before the production of the new product starts, or is there a period where both programs need to be produced simultaneously? It has to be carefully determined if the upgrade can be done on the customer’s floor, or if it is more advantageous to dismantle the equipment and ship to the contractor. Depending on the size and complexity of the job, each solution has its pros and cons. Contingency measures should be put in place in case there is a delay in the project or technical difficulties arise.
A buffer of parts must be produced for the time that the machine will be out of commission. Depending on the length of time that the machine will not be able to produce during the upgrading period and the available capacity on the machine prior to the upgrade, it can take weeks or months to actually produce the buffer.
5. Implementation. During the implementation, it is important to have good project management and to keep track of the progress on a regular basis.
A risk analysis of the controls, the safety guarding and any outdated components should be performed to determine if they need to be replaced in order to reduce the risk of lengthy downtime down the road. Every component installed in the machine should be evaluated, serviced or replaced if any problems are found.
After the machine upgrade is completed, a new Pre-Start Health and Safety Review must be done in most cases. If the contractor cannot perform this themselves, a professional engineer should be consulted from an early stage to assist with the correct measures that need to be put in place to make the machine safe for production.
The upgrade should be properly documented and the old documentation of the machine should be updated. As with any new equipment, it may be important that the contractor also provide some initial production assistance as well as service and support beyond the installation and debugging on-site, to ensure a trouble-free production start.
6. Planning for the future. Consideration should be given to allow for future upgrades and implementations of new products. It is good practice to add 20 percent extra capacity to the control system, I believe that the machine as a whole should have extra capacity built into it to allow for future expansion. In addition, each process and sub-process should also be created with built-in flexibility.
Modular and flexible machine design reduces the time to bring new products to market, simplifies the integration of new products and engineering changes, allows the implementation of optimum automation levels, and ensures the ability to upgrade the machine in the future for new products.
For the Canadian parts manufacturer mentioned at the beginning of this article, re-tooling the existing equipment instead of moving production to Mexico resulted in many advantages. The upgrade ended up costing only one-third of the price tag of a new machine. This made it feasible to keep the production in Canada, saving 27 local jobs.
Konrad Konnerth is the founder of Konnexio, a London, Ont.-based company that designs and builds machines for the automation of assembly and test processes for automotive, consumer goods and medical device industries. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.