Factory Automation Process
FACTORY AUTOMATION PROCESS
Because every manufacturing environment is different, applying an automation solution to your plant floor is not as simple as following any particular predefined process. There are, however, some guidelines you should consider as you think about applying an automation solution to your plant floor. The first recommendation is to prioritize. You should view automating your factory the way you might view eating an elephant--one bite at a time. Automation adds value to your manufacturing process in a number of ways:
- Managing repetitive tasks
- Improving communication across the enterprise
- Better handling of raw materials
- Maintaining quality
- Reducing errors
Keep these in mind as you consider an automation solution for your factory floor. Where are obvious areas for capitalizing on the value automation can bring to your plant? For example, maybe it currently takes several employees a relatively long time to assemble one of your products, with an error rate that is high for your industry. This may be an opportunity where automated assembly equipment makes sense. Perhaps, too, the components that go into your product originate from various locations within your plant. You might want to consider an automated material handling solution in this case. Pick only those areas where automation will add value, and then select only those opportunities where it would provide the best return on investment.
Next, ask yourself about the scope of the solution. Will you be replacing several machines with fewer more effective pieces of equipment? Or are you simply upgrading existing equipment to something that is more modern and efficient? By understanding the scope of the solution in question you will know what kind of suppliers to talk with. You may need to talk to OEMs and system integrators--the former to determine what equipment is right for your process and the latter to build and incorporate it into your overall manufacturing process. You may need to talk directly to manufacturers of industrial automation equipment, particularly if you are simply upgrading old equipment to something newer. It may be wise to talk to the system integrators to familiarize yourself with their equipment, its quality and how effective it may be at providing the solution you need. A system integrator or OEM will be looking out for these things, as well, but the more knowledgeable you are about the equipment the better you’ll be able to work with your partners on the project.
OEM and System Integrators
A few thoughts on selecting an OEM or system integrator:
- See who is talked about in the trade journals. Editors of publications such as Machine Design or Control Engineering will often reference suppliers they trust in their articles. Because their editorial reputation is on the line, and because many editors of automation industry trade journals were once engineers or plant managers themselves, their recommendations should be relatively solid.
- Shop your competition. If you can find out what suppliers they are using, that will be a starting point.
- See if a manufacturer you trust has formal relationships with OEMs, system integrators or other suppliers. Chances are these suppliers are high quality and also very familiar with the products in which you are interested.
Know how much downtime will be needed. Perhaps the most critical phase of implementing an automation project is planning for that implementation. Replacing or upgrading equipment is going to mean downtime at your plant. It will therefore be key for you to schedule the implementation of your solution such that it will have minimal impact on your production while being completed as quickly as possible.
Coupled with the implementation phase of your solution is also the testing phase. Any supplier worth his salt, whether an OEM, system integrator or other, will put your solution through its paces before bringing it online for you. When planning the implementation of your solution, work with your suppliers to plan for testing before bringing the solution online.
Finally, you should plan accordingly for bringing your new system online. Perhaps the most important aspect of this plan is employee training. Automation equipment is only as good as the operators running it. Manufacturers and other suppliers will often work together to provide your employees with the training they need prior to startup. Many times this will take the form of “train the trainer”, with training being provide to your key training employees, who will then pass that information on to your other employees as necessary.