Who wouldn’t want to run their plant more efficiently, while reducing costs and improving workplace safety? Process improvements that drive up efficiency and drive down costs have long been the keys to competitive advantage across multiple industries.

Today, robotics technology is opening new avenues for a whole range of process improvements. With robotic technologies growing smarter, more versatile and cheaper, more manufacturers are actively exploring a variety of automation scenarios.

Until recently, robotics technologies were accessible mainly to larger manufacturers. Now they are being deployed by companies of all sizes on an increasingly wide range of machine processes and applications.

For example, collaborative robots (or co-bots) are increasingly working alongside people, particularly on electronics assembly lines. Demand for co-bots is soaring because of their flexibility in handling short runs on repetitive and challenging tasks and because the prices of sensors and other electronic components have become affordable even to small businesses. Because of their small size, these co-bots are much easier to train and deploy than much larger industrial robots. They’re helping eliminate the need to offshore labor intensive tasks. Co-bots are so affordable and adaptable — almost plug and play — that most analysts expect massive growth in this segment.

If your facility has reached the point where advanced automation via robotics or other processes is feasible, it may be time to consider the engineering, procurement and construction support you will need. Whether you are starting from scratch with all-new processes or simply automating an existing one, it is not too early to begin thinking about partnering with a team with a holistic understanding of your entire facility, ranging from power needs to structural design and permitting support. A team experienced with seamless integration of a comprehensive solution can even keep your lines running throughout the upgrade process.

Why Automate Now?

  • Let’s start with the potential for improved profitability. Automation processes are proven to reduce manufacturing and distribution costs, so it is relatively easy to demonstrate ROI in as little as three months.
  • Next, let’s consider greater reliability. With typical mean-time failure rates of 100,000 hours, manufacturers can count on predictable performance.
  • Now, think about quality improvements. With high accuracy and repeatability of plus/minus  0.02 millimeters, robotics-driven automation is producing higher quality results across all industries.
  • Robotic flexibility is no longer a barrier. Many robots are approaching near-human standards, with most robots today incorporating six-axis movements with ability to carry loads ranging from 5 to 2,300 kilograms.
  • Injuries could drop dramatically. Common workplace injuries are greatly reduced as automated processes remove ergonomic risk for repetitive tasks while robots with integrated sensors and soft and rounded surfaces reduce the risk of impact, pinching or crushing.
  • Faster, controlled production can also be expected. With process automation, on-demand production with half-second pick-and-place rates are now feasible.

How Do I Start?

Certainly this is a big step for a plant owner, particularly small businesses, so the place to start is with a specialist who can confirm or rebut assumptions and thoroughly evaluate your operation. Equipment and technology suppliers often have a network of consultants available who can perform an objective analysis of your operation based on understanding of needs, budget and schedule requirements. It’s important that your consultant address probable costs under various likely scenarios.

An experienced consultant will create a business case for one or more automation solutions. This process will assist in understanding system capabilities and cost benefits with a primary focus on investment capital. In today’s environment of declining costs, automation solutions can typically be cost-justified when the workforce they are augmenting or replacing has labor rates of $15/hour and above.

Once the business case is built, it’s time to consider the engineering. At Burns & McDonnell, we use a Lean Six Sigma approach, incorporating application of DMAIC (define, measure, analyze, improve and control) principles. This is a proven method to integrate your solution seamlessly with your existing operations.

With advancements in robotics technology, coupled with declining costs, plant owner/operators may not realize the potential that is now possible. Leave a comment or connect with me on LinkedIn if you want to explore how seamless integration and improved speed to market can benefit your plant.

by
Brian Chatham is a project manager based in the Burns & McDonnell Oklahoma City office, working with a focus on pairing technology with lean processes for efficient client operations.