By Mary Scianna
ABC Metal Fabricators (a fictitious company) set up shop last year with the intention of automating down the road when business picked up. The company purchased a laser cutting machine and hired an operator to load and unload the system.
A few months later the shop was so busy the company set up another shift and hired another operator. Now the shop has two eight-hour shifts running 16 hours a day and business continues to grow. What to do?
“This shop has three choices,” says Keith Leuthold, a 45-year automation veteran in the fabricating industry and the current director of inside sales for Mazak Optonics, Elgin, IL. “It can add a third shift. Companies that have done that though often have to cut back on hours during slow times and this third shift is weak in productivity. Third shifts often don’t work for many companies. Second choice is to continue running two shifts and buy another machine. But then you have to hire another operator. Third option is to add automation, which is either half or 25 per cent of the cost of another laser and now they can run a third shift unattended and they’re getting more hours out of the existing machines. Essentially they’re getting 88 hours more per week without adding more manpower and without having to buy another machine; that’s a huge benefit.”
Many people don’t often consider another important reason for automating: worker safety, says TRUMPF’s Lukas Baechler, product manager for automation.
“One other factor that is often forgotten is the safety of moving the sheets around in the shop. In many cases, there are stacks of material that are being moved around several times a day. It is labour-intensive to handle those goods; safety and material quality (damage) are jeopardized from the daily handling. If the material is stored in a system, it only gets moved as the machine is demanding the material via a job. The material is then transferred to the end user automatically, scratch and dent-free.”
Ten Challenges in Automation
If you’re considering automation on your fabricating line, here are the top factors automation must address according to Bill Bossard, president, Salvagnini, Hamilton, OH.
- Fit into the plant and fit within the scheme of the shop flow.
- Be sized correctly.
- Be affordable and allow a company to achieve a return on investment.
- Be useable.
- Be easy to maintain.
- Reduce costs.
- Improve shop throughput.
- Increase velocity of parts moving between work centres.
- Handle variability in manufacturing to address the growing movement to customization.
- Sustainable. Automation won’t work for short-term contracts; it must be something that will be used over years of operation.
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