Think before you sink (money blindly into robotics, that is)
June 12, 2009 by Michelle Morra
You want to add a robot to a production line in your plant. You configure a list of specifications into a request for quote, then award the business to the quote you like best. In comes the supplier, who works with you to configure the robotic system and software and set a completion date. Badda boom, badda bing. The end?
That’s the hardware approach, says Richard Litt, president and CEO of Genesis Systems Group in Davenport, Iowa. The traditional, tactical way of plodding through a project from start to finish is what he hopes to convince manufacturers to change. A good program, he says, requires some strategic thought to outcomes rather than inputs.
“It’s a partnership between the user and the supplier that focuses first on desired outcomes, then goes back into the equipment and how it should best be configured to achieve that outcome,” he says.
Litt, who is also president of the Robotics Industry Association, made that clear in his presentation at the Robots 2008 conference earlier this month. After years of working in, writing about and pontificating on what makes some programs work so much better than others, Litt reaches the same conclusion time after time: robotics is a human-robot team, and humans must do their part by bringing their own strengths to the equation.
“And it’s usually all of the soft issues,” he says. “I’ve said for years that the system succeeds or fails basically on non-hardware, non-system issues.” Those hundreds of non-system issues are too-often neglected, he says, and include issues of design, knowledge transfer, material flow and parts variation.
“We engineers get very caught up in things that go pop and click and bang. We don’t often think about all the issues that allow them to pop and click and bang and achieve the outcome we’re looking for.”
How to use your (soft, human) head
Before your company sinks resources into its new robotic system, take time to think strategically. It’s what humans do best! In case ‘strategic’ is just a word to you, here’s exactly what Litt means by it:
1. Clearly communicate management’s objectives. Let’s say management tells you that cost reduction is this implementation’s primary objective. What exactly do they mean? Litt says before heading full steam into automating tasks to minimize labour costs, think about what really eats up profits. Rework. Scrap. Warranty and launch costs. Maintenance and support. At an early stage, really look at the design of the manufacturing process that you’re going to automate and if necessary, change the part design so it will be automatable with zero or minimal rework.
2. Know your automation or manufacturing objective. Don’t just think about machine specifications. Litt uses one of his customers as an example. That customer was absolutely on the right track. The company not only wanted to reduce costs but knew exactly how. “They wanted to reduce the number of components in assembly by 30 per cent, because they felt that would drive the behaviours outside of the hardware.”
3. Involve all constituents (hint: those are people). A successful robotics program goes far beyond the supplier. The product engineers, manufacturing engineers, workers and senior managers, ideally, should work in tandem with the supplier through the whole process, says Litt. He had one customer with an unlimited budget whose engineer, at installation time, proudly said, “This is the most complex piece of automation we’ve ever seen.”
But the customer had failed to consider whether they could support that level of complexity, how long it would take to launch that level of complexity, or who would be responsible for supporting it. That project had a very lengthy launch with lots of scrap, rework and employee pushback, because it was configured as hardware rather than as something involving all constituents in the factory.
Unfortunately, Litt says, failing to involve workers is the rule rather than the exception. Early in his career, another customer wanted to show off a new system. The tooling that would hold the parts to be welded by the robot was almost finished, so the engineer called over the men who had done the job manually. “The guys looked at it and were very impressed, but one had a question. He said, ‘Why do we have to load the parts upside down?’”
The way the system was installed, the worker would have to figure out how to turn a 1,200 pound part upside down. “Consider all upstream and downstream processes,” says Litt. “The workers will take you there.”
As a supplier, Litt admits getting to the worker is a delicate issue. “The only way you can make that happen is to involve senior management in mandating that it happens,” he says. “The awkward thing for us, as suppliers, is that when we demand interaction with senior management, the engineering-level folks often think we’re trying to go over their heads.”
Senior management should be involved in the program from the start, not only when a problem arises. “Senior management understands the issues,” Litt says. “It’s just not what they think about unless [the supplier] can get to them.”
4. Manage to a start date. A wise customer once taught Litt that rather than manage to an end date, it’s best to think in terms of a start date. It’s looking all milestones – evaluating part design, suggesting design improvements to simplify robotic automation, establishing a project timeline, as well as milestones for material acquisition, electrical and mechanical design, design approvals (allow a month for this), manufacturing, software debugging, programming and procedure development, pre-shipment runoff and training.
“Put the schedule together of how this automation program is going to play out. If you hit your start dates on every element, you’ll never miss an end date.”
So what if you miss your start date? Litt says the biggest and most frequent penalty for failing to think strategically is having to complete automation after the equipment is in production.
“In other words, you’ve missed your milestone dates, you basically have installed a system that is not really yet complete, but it’s capable of limping along in production,” Litt says. “Now you’re trapped in the endless cycle of having to finish it while it’s in production… and that’s the ultimate. That’s the death penalty for failing to plan strategically, and we see it happen a lot.”
Asked how he learned these lessons, Litt chocks it up to experience and a lot of analysis of what did or didn’t run smoothly and why. Genesis Systems Group is 25 years old this year and has completed more than 3,000 projects. “If you can’t start to get it after 3,000,” he laughs, “I don’t think you’ll ever get it.”
Michelle Morra is a freelance writer based in Toronto.