Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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AUTOMATION INSIGHTS – Find the low hanging fruit in your plant and automate

June 15, 2009
By Chris Stergiou

Surveying the plant, it is easy to “see” automation opportunities. A typical signal is a manual operation performed at several manual or semiautomated stations on a product family. Typically these are “adjustment” operations, packaging and secondary processing operations. The product may be assembled/manufactured upstream with automated process equipment, (molding is a good example), and this is the final manual operation, (degating, secondary finishing or assembly). Management’s response to this is often a fluctuation of labour to meet demand, leading to significant costs and other inefficiencies. “Throwing bodies” at the capacity problem as it were. Inefficiencies include labour cost variations; quality variations and personnel turnover rates.
The converse situation is also a good visual indicator for an opportunity to automate. That is a high skill operation that is so specialized and operator dependent that only a limited number of employees are qualified to perform this crucial manufacturing step. This leads to lack of predictability as well as dependence on a select few members of the team so that cross training becomes difficult and costly, especially when an employee leaves and that specialized knowledge leaves with them.
In the previously mentioned situations, the operations may be manual or semi-automated simply because the status quo has been accepted with no engineering or management investigation into automation of the process, which can decrease overall costs. The problem is seldom technical, but rather managerial, as competing priorities for scarce capital let this low hanging fruit “die on the vine,” and the manufacturing process is that much less efficient because of it.
Value stream mapping results and strategic core competency decisions are guided by what is happening on the manufacturing floor, and if you perform an on-going survey of opportunities to automate, those key decisions can be better informed by our results. Constantly “picking” the low hanging fruit either in practice or in theory gives manufacturing management more options with which to make those strategic decisions.
The automation survey of your plant isn’t a one time event, as the reality you create by picking the first set of low hanging fruit exposes the next readily available set of low hanging fruit and so on. Therefore, the automation strategy must be an ongoing discipline of looking for and exploiting opportunities to reduce labour content, increase capacity and streamline process through cost effective automation. This approach is perhaps the “handmaiden” of lean manufacturing as it works in the service of waste reduction.
Whether performed by our outside automation partner or through our in-house automation team, the identification of opportunities to automate is a high impact manufacturing activity that has the transformative effect of clearing bottlenecks and can change the basic manufacturing cost structure and improve overall profitability. While sustaining manufacturing activities maintain and incrementally improve our manufacturing competitiveness, automation has a more far-reaching impact if it’s properly thought through and executed with creativity.
By starting with the simple rules that any operation can be automated and automation must pay for itself, you can then walk through the manufacturing floor and assign automation levels to what is presently being done and then perform a paper simulation of increasing every operation to the next level of automation and “seeing” how that impacts throughput.
For the simulation, you must set four automation levels:
1) Manual
2) Fixturing
3) Semi-Automated
4) Fully Automated
Assign your parts per man-minute or capacity levels accurately as the low hanging fruit will appear in your simulation matrix and several attractive opportunities will present themselves. These should “smooth” capacity by eliminating bottlenecks in the process. Then it becomes a management decision of priorities and you will have given your manufacturing management a “menu” of automation low hanging fruit to select from so that the decisions can be well informed.
So we may generalize that there exist, at any and all times, automation low hanging fruit, which will make the process more profitable and efficient. Following a systematic and disciplined process survey, using the visual signals of labour allocation on the floor itself, you can identify candidates for automation, which are justified through labour reduction and capacity increase. Finally, by performing the simulation of theoretically increasing all manufacturing operations to the next level of automation, some of your visual signals will be confirmed by the theoretical capacity increase by implementing the next level of automation. With this information you can provide management options for making the necessary capital investments in the process.
Chris Stergiou ( is a manufacturing consultant with 25 years of experience. He provides custom automation and consulting services to clients, many of them Fortune 500 companies.