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By Mary Scianna

Automation isn’t for every shop, or is it?

At some point every fabrication shop looks at automation  as a way to improve productivity. Indeed, in today’s competitive environment, for most shops it’s not a matter of “if” anymore  but rather “when” and “how” to do it, says Bill Bossard, president of  Salvagnini, Hamilton, ON.

While the word “automation” still raises fears about high investments and employee displacements, the beauty of automation is its flexibility, says Lutz Ehrlich, punching and automation product manager for Prima Power, Arlington Heights, IL.

“Our company has a philosophy about how we design and produce our machine tools. We produce them with a goal that the machine tool can  do more than one thing. So a punching machine has become a machine that can punch, form, nibble, contour, can have a laser added to it, a load/unload unit and sorting and stacking systems. So you can add automation steps to achieve higher utilization rates.”

Manufacturing cells are at the top end of the automation scale. The perception is that such cells - which typically include robotics in combination with punching, cutting and bending operations - are expensive, complex systems that work best for high production runs.

Not so, says Keith Leuthold, director of inside sales for Mazak Optonics and a 45-year veteran in the automation and fabrication industry. The company’s Flexible Manufacturing System (FMS) at first looks like it’s designed for long production runs because of the large stacking towers.

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Example of Prima Power’s automation. Prima Power’s Lutz Ehrlich says
“automation doesn’t eliminate people; it eliminates redundancy in production.”

The system is designed for short production runs of about 1000  pieces of the same shape or lower for different lot sizes and that’s why we call it flexible manufacturing. The FMS is about half the price of a laser machine but you improve productivity by twice as much.”

And while there is some complexity involved on the software side, systems are also designed to be more user friendly, says Leuthold. “The more automation you add the less skill you require from your workers. With our system we have a Line Controller which is a glorified PC which stages and sequences parts for fabrication.”

In part, less skill is required  because there are fewer people who need to operate these machines since many of these FMS units run as lights out operations.

A variation on the FMS system is the Mitsubishi Free Space Compact (FSC) automation series, which is well suited to fabricators in Canada with limited floor space, says Bob Watson, president of Fabricating Machinery  Solutions, Mitsubishi’s Canadian  distributor based in Mississauga, ON.

The FSC system is modular and expandable to suit a fabricator’s needs. The compact design takes up 30 per cent less floor space than traditional automation systems, says Watson, and can achieve 70 per cent more productivity. The automation system can  incorporate a laser (Mitsubishi’s eX, LV or NX series) and two towers for raw materials and for finished parts.

Watson adds that MC Machinery offers a variety of automation systems, beyond the FMS which can help  fabricators improve productivity.

As Prima Power’s Lutz Ehrlich sees it, “automation doesn’t eliminate people; it eliminates redundancy in production to create more efficiency. People are forced to gain new skills when automation is introduced into the shop floor.”

When automation doesn’t work
What happens when you implement automation and it fails to provide the benefits you want?

In most instances, it’s because  automation wasn’t fully thought out, says Prima Power’s Lutz Ehrlich. 

“To automate you must consider sustainability; all the people involved in the process of making a product need to understand the Best  Practices for their shop to fulfill the goal of automation - meaning when you come in the next morning you have the quantity and quality of  product you require.”

In other words, automation must be managed properly using such systems as Enterprise Resource  Planning (ERP), “and if the team leader in automation does not make his vision of automation known to those involved in the process, it will fail,” adds Ehrlich.

And while automation can fail if not planned properly, Salvagnini’s Bill Bossard says “don’t let the concepts scare you because there is nothing to fear from automation, but lots to benefit. Automation is scaleable and we can take it down to a simple  application; it’s a matter of a company understanding how automation fits inside the business.”

Failure can also occur if the system isn’t properly maintained, adds Lukas Baechler, product manager for automation at TRUMPF, Farmington, CT.

“Automation is usually very simple and it requires regular maintenance. The bottom line here, if the  maintenance is done, then the system will run very reliably. Customers  usually keep some sensors on site so if something happens they can react very fast in a repair job.” SMT

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