Automating for Competitive Manufacturing

Working closely with knowledgeable automation solution providers makes the difference.

Imagine the plight of a manufacturing company about to become uncompetitive due to low-cost offshore imports.

A custom automation solution.<br>(Image courtesy RT Engineering.)

A custom automation solution.
(Image courtesy RT Engineering.)

The company is left with few options: It can join the trend and offshore its services, or it can get creative and find a way to pull significant costs out of its production process through automation.

Manufacturers can automate assembly, packaging and inspection processes, but may struggle to know where to begin.

Companies sometimes start by employing a piecemeal automation approach, using single point automation to replace simple, repetitive hand operations. Chad Blair, president of RT Engineering Corporation, considers this to be a risky start. “You don’t want to say, ‘Let’s just focus on this one problem.’”

Blair compares automating the overall manufacturing process to writing a book. “Manufacturers need to understand what the ultimate story looks like so that as they’re writing an individual chapter, it makes sense in the context of the rest of the book. You can’t solve any one problem without a way to integrate it with the total solution and the next problem down the line.”

Production, maintenance and engineering personnel should expect a learning curve when automating processes. Having an in-house expert or reliable automation partner and implementing as few machine brands and varieties as possible are the keys to success. The more brands a manufacturer uses, the more PLC languages and codes your experts will need to know – adding failure modes and complicating troubleshooting.


Automation Requires Involvement

Blair believes many manufacturers underestimate just how much time and money it takes to automate a process. “The cost is going to be much more than you expect, the lead times are longer and there is far more development time than they allow for.”

However, he insists the solution is as simple as getting more involved in the process.

“Creating a successful piece of automation equipment requires a true partnership between the people on the shop floor and the management team. Everyone should be involved at some stage of the development in order to make sure they have everything that they want.”

Blair’s team at RT Engineering have experienced the consequences of a lack of manufacturer involvement first-hand.

“We built a piece of equipment where two engineers on the project happened to be around 6ft tall. After we had finished the design and the customers had signed off on it, we brought up the operators who were going to be working on this machine. They were two women who were both just about 5ft tall. We had to shrink it down so they could reach certain buttons and see the screens. If we had their involvement up front, that would have not have been an issue.”



Why Automate Now?

What separates manufacturers preparing for advanced automation from those just starting to catch up is data management.

Companies with a capable automation setup can utilize data collected in real time and share it rapidly throughout the workforce. This allows them to go from acting on past mistakes to eliminating these mistakes as they happen.

Advances in Human-Machine Interface (HMI) technology answer the problem of time-costly operator training. Setups can be as easy as connecting smartphones and tablets to a system through an app, a technology that a growing number of people are accustomed to today.

Companies like RT Engineering Corporation help growing manufacturers integrate systems like these and automate their processes.

“Customers that call on us are looking for ways to reduce labor costs or improve efficiency,” Blair explained. “We don’t go in and change all of the equipment and say ‘You should be doing it this way.’ They’ll come to us with an idea, we’ll build that idea for them from a whiteboard exercise, to design, to a build on our shop floor and then manufacture, test and ship.”

Blair recommends that manufacturers have a clear understanding of what success looks like to them when working with an automation solution provider.

“They should come to us with a realistic budget and a sensible timeline. The biggest issue we have is that customers are unwilling to share that information. Not coming with parameters on what you expect to achieve or what you want as an ultimate goal – that’s a mistake.”

For those considering offshoring, Blair emphasizes the importance of not being frightened by the short-term costs of automating.

“Raw material costs are largely the same so the only variable left is labor. If you can reduce the costs by improving efficiency then you’re on a level playing field with competitors. What we’ve found is that companies don’t need to be on par with competitors, they just need to be close enough and their determination will get them the rest of the way.”


Is Your Business Ready for Automation?

Oftentimes, companies have a difficult time knowing when to invest in automation for their manufacturing facility. With this in mind, RT Engineering Corporation developed a Manufacturing Growth Checklist to help decide if a business is ready for a custom automation solution. To download this resource, simply click here or select the button below.



To learn more about how RT Engineering Corporation can help in the automation process, click here.


RT Engineering has sponsored this post. It has no editorial input to this post. All opinions are mine – Kagan Pittman