Green light time on a typical press brake is 24%. Introduce the first level of automation, such as an automatic tool changer, and you can achieve 80 to 90% green light time, says Amada's Scott Ottens. Click image to enlargeby Mary Scianna

Is automation the right choice for your shop?

Free trade has made the world a much smaller place for manufacturers. Your competition is no longer just the shop down the road, or the shop in the next province nor in the next country. Your competition is now the world and it can be a tough environment in which to work.

The obvious solution is to invest in manufacturing automation and that’s what many parts of the world, namely countries in Europe and Asia, have done. Indeed, in my travels to manufacturers in some of these countries, what has struck me the most is the prevalence of automation, even in the small and medium sized family run businesses.

So why does Canada and, to some extent, its partners to the south, continue to lag in manufacturing automation investments?

“The largest obstacle to any type of automation in manufacturing is capital cost,” says Paul Kwiatkowski, sales manager with PythonX, a Lincoln Electric company that specializes in robotic plasma cutting. “It’s always the number one concern and companies want to ensure they get a good return on their investment.”

Salvagnini's Giovanni Piccolo says manufacturers considering automation should focus on how automation can reduce your cost per part.  Image: Salvagnini's L5 Fiber laser system equipped with automationClick image to enlargeAn equally large obstacle is simply the misconception about robotics, adds Louis Dicarie, president of AGT Robotics, a Quebec-based robotics integrator and system partner for KUKA Robotics.

“The biggest misconception among manufacturers is that you need volume of the same part to consider robotics, but we take a different approach to robotics. Even if you have a low volume, high product mix, robotics can still help you.”

While a typical job shop with a wide variety of parts is still not the best candidate for robotics, shops with similar parts are good candidates and fall under Dicarie’s “low volume/high product mix” category.

“The level of automation depends on the application. We did a system where we used a plasma source to cut steel elbows for pipelines. There’s a huge variety of these elbows and the specifications vary in terms of material thickness, radius of openings, curvature diameters of each elbow and so on. But they’re all in the same family so the robot can create programs automatically based on these parameters.”

The cost quandary
Cost can be a significant deterrent for manufacturers with limited capital funds. While many recognize the benefits automation can bring to a shop floor, the challenge is to figure out how quickly they can achieve a return on that investment. And that ROI can be as varied as the automation options available to a company.

If a company decides to invest in simple automation, such as loading and unloading of a laser or punch machine, the ROI can be achieved quicker than a machine with an automated palletized handling, storage and retrieval system since the investment cost on the former would be less than that for the latter, says Timothy Brady, punching product manager with Amada America, based in the company’s Buena Park, CA, facility.

There are also associated costs to consider, adds Scott Ottens, bending product manager with Amada America based in Chicago, IL.

“Compared to a stand-alone brake, you’re looking at three to four times the cost because you have to consider tooling–many press brakes are now offered with automatic tool changing systems–the type of machine and the software. And then you have to make sure you have enough work to fill the automation.”

Workflow is an important consideration, adds Giovanni Piccolo, vice president of project management and application, Salvagnini America, based in Hamilton, OH. Automation introduces a level of efficiency that will speed up production, but you need to ensure your downstream processes are capable of handling this.

And while automation can introduce some challenges, Piccolo encourages manufacturers to focus on one simple concept: cost per part.

“Automation will move manufacturers to a new level of efficiency and there are many considerations, but it’s important to focus the investment on the cost per part. Automation will change how you operate your shop and it’s a good idea to speak to your suppliers and concentrate on how you will reduce your cost per part because that is where you will gain the most benefit.”

The people quandary
Automation can introduce fear and uncertainty among employees, and for good reason. Automated machines need fewer, but more skilled people to manage them because there’s a higher level of complexity.

Automation can bring huge productivity gains and long term cost savings to a shop.  Image: KUKA Robotics Click image to enlargeEquipment suppliers have tried to address part of the fear by introducing systems that remove some of the complexity of running them. Robotics are a good example. Companies like KUKA and ABB have developed smarter, but easier to use robots integrated into automated fabrication cells.

“A major difference between our robotic machine, which is equipped with an ABB robot, and general robotics is that you don’t need to program it,” says Kwiatkowski of PythonX. “There’s no need to teach the robot a complex path, which can take a couple of weeks with fine tuning depending on the application. We’ve automated this process. We have a PC interface in which the user loads the files from a 3D model and the robot programs itself. The user just hits the start button. Without this type of robotic system, you’d be looking at a day of programming and that’s lost efficiency on a shop floor.”

It’s important to get buy-in from your employees, adds Amada’s Brady.

“You need the commitment and the team behind it when you consider automation because automation won’t work by itself. The people managing the system need to have an understanding of how automation works and specifically how the automation installed in their plant works. It’s important to have a leader that can help with changing the mindset of how automation will improve processes.”

AGT Robotics’ Dicarie advises that manufacturers ensure they’re in control of their production processes.

“Alone the robot won’t be the solution. Robotics have to be integrated into your manufacturing processes and systems, such as MRPs or ERPs, and you need to be ready to make changes to help the robotics in your shop help you. For example, if you integrate a vision system with a robot, you may have to make small changes in product design to help your vision system detect the part more accurately. If you keep these considerations in mind, your entire system will run more smoothly and more efficiently.”

The stark truth is that “simple manufacturing is moving out of North America,” says Salvagnini’s Piccolo. “Before moving to America in January of this year I was area manager in Scandinavia, England and the Netherlands where labour cost is important. In Denmark for example, the labour cost is over $30 an hour. How do you compete running a manual operation with that kind of cost? With some of our customers in Denmark we simulated an automation model, not just for the machine, but the entire operation to illustrate how we could help them reduce the overall cost of making their products. With one customer who invested in an automated production line, he became so efficient that he was able to cost effectively export his product to Poland.”

Piccolo makes an important point that is echoed by other suppliers: the idea of automation being an integrated process in a manufacturing shop. As manufacturers consider automation, a increasingly important question to ask is how it will integrate with the broader processes of a business, systems like ERPs, MRPs and other cloud-based digital platforms increasingly being offered by equipment suppliers to monitor, analyze and troubleshoot machinery.

The learning quandary
Even if you’re successful in changing the mindset of your employees, the learning curve for some can be daunting. Despite the move to simplified systems, most automated systems are more complex. There are new software platforms to learn and machines to program and monitor.

The best advice that suppliers offer: consider modular automation that will allow you to introduce different levels of automation at different times, as needed. You can start with simple load/unload parts systems, add robots and ultimately introduce lights-out style fabricating cells to create a “blank to bend/cut” system with no human intervention.

Lincoln Electric's PythonX automated plasma cutting system with automated robotic programming.Click image to enlargeAmada’s Ottens uses press brakes as an example to highlight how a manufacturer can benefit from automation in incremental stages.

“For a typical press brake, green light times are 25 per cent and that’s without introducing any kind of programming or automation. Introduce the first level of automation, such as an automatic tool changer, and you can achieve 80 to 90 per cent green light time on your press brake. Add a robot, which is the next level, and you increase your green light time even further.”

Shop employees’ understanding of automation is not the only aspect of the learning curve. An important consideration is to assess and understand what you need for your shop.

Many customers typically want to minimize their costs so they often look for a “one size machine fits all” approach, but that doesn’t always work. “You can stretch a machine a bit to accommodate sizes, but at some point you need to size the system according to your parts,” says Ottens.

Amada's Tim Brady says buy-in from employees is important. Image: Amada's punch/laser combo machine  with automated material handling and storage.Click image to enlargeThere is no doubt the learning curve can be intimidating for some people but as the next generation of workers enter the market, this will become a obstacle of the past, says Piccolo.

“The younger generation of people are much more educated in software and more comfortable using it. They are used to working with software, with computers and the Internet and today’s machines are more like computers so they will be more comfortable using them.”

If you decide automation is the right option for you, Brady has a word of advice. “We always say to our customers who are going with automation that for the first six months of using your automation, you’ll hate Amada, but once you get over the learning curve and begin to reap the benefits you’ll love us again.” SMT

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