Leadership in factory automation — Building capability through automation

In this final part of our Leadership in factory automation series, Colin Thomas describes some of the benefits of automating, drawing on his three decades of experience and a consideration of several different viewpoints within a manufacturing company.

I’ve been lucky enough to have been involved in automation projects in Australia for more than 30 years. 

As a young engineer in a fridge factory we learned about Lean Manufacturing and the Toyota Production System, and then automated it with pre-painted steel cabinets on a flexible cabinet line, robotic sealing, quick change foaming modules, barcode matching of components and two-minute testing (rather than two hours.) 

We brought the throughput time down from three days to three hours.

In my Adelaide cooker factory days I toured parts of the world several times, learning how other factories had implemented volume manufacturing of appliances. The Australian market demanded lower volumes and higher flexibility, and robot-based automation often proved to be the right solution in a wide variety of processes from stamping press operation to powder coating systems, gluing and assembly systems to materials handling tasks and then on to packaging.

In my three years running the Innovation Hub at Tonsley (Flinders University) I visited many local factories and listened to engineers describe their own automation journeys with a wide range of applications.

Automation is often “sold” on the basis of a cost saving through labour reduction or a way of achieving process accuracy that humans can’t achieve (or performing tasks that are unsafe for humans to complete.)

The real benefit of automation is to grow your organisation’s capability.

That is, to be able to process things in new ways, and then make things you couldn’t do any other way. For engineers and operators to imagine new ways of doing things and for designers and the marketing team to think, “If we can do that, perhaps we can do this.” Flexible automation (robots) allows you to perform continuous improvement activities and often to imagine or to trial new processes and products.

The best automation application in an organisation is rarely the first one. And the first automation is rarely the last. 

Operators see a robot performing a task that was previously done by people, and ask, “Why do I have to do this, when can you get a robot to do this and then I can do something more interesting?” 

And it is such a joy to see the operators programming the robots, or fine-tuning the positions or assisting maintenance with debugging, or discussing ways of increasing the output; rather than being head-down performing repetitive tasks. Operators are more engaged with the organisation and have greater fulfillment when working with automation.

After seeing automation in action, designers think, “If we make this whole casing a single piece a person couldn’t handle it, but perhaps a robot can.” (And create a new highly-durable end product for global export, Seeley International).

The quality team will see that the robot performs the task the same way every time and always reports non-conformances. Humans can’t reliably do that.

The logistics team might realise that they couldn’t accurately forecast a huge range of products with an imported lead time, but a local automated production cell could manage the complexity and apply QR codes on demand with short lead times saving huge inventories and avoiding obsolete stock. (Mass customisation in practice, Schneider Electric).

The engineering team will appreciate that automated dispensing gives a highly controlled materials usage, resulting in a better product at lower cost. Consistent, reliable pre-treatment and adhesive application means the safety factors can be reduced, the area allocated for adhesive can be reduced and the components smaller and lighter and consuming less material.

The robot can swap its tools and pick up a circular saw and trim the part without risk of cutting themselves. (Then send the finished product to the UK, Vector Technologies).

Robots can give incredible and rapid, low-cost flexibility. If you need to move the conveyor – reprogram the robot.

If you need to build a bigger or longer/ taller/ wider product – you can reprogram the finishing robots and perhaps launch an entire new product range without high capital expense for a new finishing line. (And replace imported product with local product and dominate the market, Electrolux Home Products.)

If you need a different aesthetic – it can often be achieved by reprogramming the robot.

If you need to add an extra production line, or even a whole new product you can retrain the robot.

That product is obsolete! Redeploy and reprogram.

Sometimes automation will force you to be better and more consistent than you currently are. It will expose variations that you didn’t know about. Some of them will be annoying (“it didn’t used to matter when people were doing it.”) And some will save you a lot because the variations that were occurring were causing product failure or requiring rework. Capability increased.

Automation, particularly flexible automation, will increase your current production capability and open your world to new capabilities for both product and process.

Colin Thomas is Regional Sales Manager, South Australia, at Bosch Australia Manufacturing Solutions.

@AuManufacturing’s editorial series – Leadership in factory automation – is brought to you with the support of Bosch Australia Manufacturing Solutions, and the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre.

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