Are Robots the Answer?
During this unprecedented time of the COVID-19 pandemic, many of our customers, both new and longstanding, have been rethinking how they deploy their employees, and how they utilize process automation to manufacture their products. Mask wearing and social distancing have become the norm for the foreseeable future and guaranteeing the safety of people in their workplace has become a primary concern. With these new pressures as catalysts, our clients are considering automation as a means to space out people on the production floor, with the added benefit of substituting machinery to do mundane tasks so employees can be moved into new roles where they can add more creative value.
Now might be the appropriate time to consider implementing a robot-based automation step to perform that mundane, repetitive task that is currently being done by a production worker. Robots have come of age, they are reliable, and the capital costs for the machines have been steadily falling, making them attractive as potential solutions. The question that needs to be asked is, are robots a panacea for these entry level activities that are suitable for being automated? What other options might be available to perform them that might compete with a robotic solution? How does a manufacturer with a desire to make an automation investment decide what method may be best for his particular production operation?
At Optimation, we view a client’s project opportunity (like a possible robot implementation) holistically. That means, we anticipate that our customer will collaborate with us through a number of necessary project phases and decision points to arrive at a successful outcome. We call this project workstream “Phases and Gates”. The first three phases, “Problem Statement/Opportunity”, “User Requirements”, and “Concept Design” may be the most impactful, as they establish the boundaries, budget, schedule, risk level, technology and design for the project solution. It is during these first formative pieces of work that the validity of a robotic system to perform the production work required will be established.
As we look at the defining project work that will be accomplished through these initial project segments, our intent is to assist our customer in clearly stating the problem they are trying to solve along with the business goals and objectives that need to be achieved. Sometimes the problem statement includes things that are not desired or are excluded from the scope of the solution. The first project phase should include financial goals and limits based on the project business outcome. In the case of a possible automation project to replace the client’s operating staff, metrics like labor content and yield losses will need to be quantified so that they can be used to calculate spending limits that will yield a positive financial situation or return on investment.
Once a concise problem statement has been crafted, with desired business and financial goals and limits established, the next phase of the project can be launched. This phase, User Requirements, builds on the first phase but adds more details that will be material to the solution design. In partnership with the client and his production leadership, process performance data is now documented that will drive the ultimate selection of new methods and machines to be applied to the project challenge. User Requirements capture client needs for things like line capacity and throughput, reliability, maintainability, material flow, data flow, system functional expectations vs. operator tasks, etc. Our customers leverage this phase to articulate how they want to pursue a particular project outcome, with respect to things like their production philosophy, culture, staff capability, etc. It is during this phase that a robot-based solution may emerge as a potential option could and should be considered.
It is important to note that the first two steps in the project workflow are designed to encode what the client needs the solution to provide for his/her business, with regard to all aspects of his production organization and system. It is this definition that helps provide criteria that is used to judge what automation techniques and equipment employed in the project solution will be most compatible, be well received and supported on the customer’s manufacturing floor.
The third piece of defining effort for an automation project, once User Requirements are documented, is the Concept Design phase. This is again a collaborative effort but owned by the solution provider. Our obligation to our client during this phase is to respond to the client’s goals and objectives for the project, plus his User Requirements, with a solution construct that satisfies these project criterium. During the Concept Design phase, engineering content will be produced that defines the solution in terms of equipment and methods that will perform in a manner compliant with the customer’s needs. One of the key elements of the Concept Design phase is a technology investigation and assessment. It is at this step in the workflow and life of the project that a robot-based automation solution, if it can satisfy the project objectives, will be considered, and analyzed.
Now, the ultimate selection of a robot to perform the requisite functions of the project will have to satisfy not only the technical needs like speed, payload, accuracy, repeatability, and reliability, but because we have taken the time to gather a broader set of project criteria, we also know how much complexity, training, technical support the client has or is willing to commit/invest in the solution. For example, if the machinery to be provided by the project is going to be dedicated to this task for the foreseeable future, this negates one of the benefits of a robot solution, namely that it can be reprogrammed to do another, different task at some later time. Another attribute to be explored might be the existence of examples and tooling where a robot has been used to perform the client’s task (for example, palletizing, or welding, or painting, etc.); this speaks to how much robot related development of unique tooling may be required. A third criteria to be tested is the needed level of complexity of the project tasks: If a limited number of moves/maneuvers are required, a simpler 2 or 3 axis machine may suffice, rather than a 5 axis jointed arm robot. Level of complexity also speaks to staff training, and supplier/OEM availability and responsiveness. Even though a robot may be able to perform the required project functions, it may not be the best fit for our client.
As we assist our client in selecting an automation solution that embodies not only performance, but other nuances of how they run their business, the value of the Phases and Gates project methodology is borne out. Being diligent in stating the problem, capturing requirements, and doing a thorough technical analysis in creating the best fit project solution may prevent the customer from selecting an approach that will create some regrets in the future. Robot based automation cells may be popular now, but the correctly vetted system solution, mutually investigated and defined, will stand the test of time.
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