As one of the industrial automation companies that assists clients in maintaining their competitive edge, we frequently participate in capital upgrade projects for industrial automation controls that embrace the application of automation as a means to keep production costs low and product quality consistently high. We have frequently been invited to engage in our client’s projects at the time they are studying how they manufacture their goods, and are asking the question, “What will be the most effective use of the latest automatic processing technology in my operation?”
There is a tendency on the part of our clients to simply default to automate either the most complex, or the most ergonomically risky steps in their process, or the operation with the most variability, as the likely candidates to be automated. A quick decision to pursue an upgrade project to “fix” one of these key areas may not always result in the best return on our customer’s investment. Here are some early project steps that we recommend taking, to help ensure that money spent on automation yields the positive and lasting benefits in an ongoing business.
Document existing processes
The first step we recommend to our clients is to baseline their current manufacturing process. While this may sound like an obvious suggestion, the right process metrics produce the data that will be used to analyze improvement opportunities that may be available before any capital spending is pursued. When an existing process is documented, we work with our client to produce a flow map of their manufacturing steps that breaks their production down into discrete cells, and that captures the key process information in each cell. A cell’s functions, operating steps, rate, yield, working queue, and manufacturing data represent some of the information that can be recorded. Also of interest will be describing the interfaces to upstream and downstream cells.
A client’s overall manufacturing process map will show all of the individual cells, the correct sequence and flow of product between cells, the production rates of each cell, and the working queue that is held at each cell. This will be fairly typical of a batch and queue type of process, and provides a view into the client’s operation that enables brainstorming of several lean improvement methods that might be relevant to the client’s business. The two ideas that most frequently are explored involve: synchronizing production rates (in lean terms, this is working to the same Takt time), and looking for ways to simplify or straighten out product flow by rearranging cells and even cell activities. These two concepts can result in a reduction in WIP throughout the factory floor, and the need for queues of parts at individual cells which are not necessarily balanced for throughput is reduced. A logical third opportunity that is also worth exploring as an adjunct to achieving the same throughput/Takt time is increasing the overall throughput of problematic cells through improved yields (rather than speed) via “Mistake proof/failsafe” or poka-yoke efforts.
The second step for our clients who are pursuing industrial automation controls, who have properly baselined their existing production line and have brainstormed their own lean improvements (which results in a future state manufacturing process map) is to then write up their User Requirements. This is a document which is the starting point for communicating needs, wants, and goals between our customers and Optimation’s engineers and designers. The impact of well thought-out and complete User Requirements (or URS) is high, as this document sets the stage for the capital project team to understand the project features and performance metrics that will define success and deliver the client’s business case and provide the needed return on investment. The URS will also, in the case of automation projects, give guidance as to what benefits will be delivered by the requisite equipment; it should give insight into what process conditions and problems need to be mitigated by the automation, and it will outline how the automation will be measured for acceptance.
With a future state “lean” process map, and an agreed to URS, our Optimation team is now well equipped to begin working with the client to perform technology evaluations and create concept solutions for client review and approval. The costs for these concepts can be estimated, then analyzed for their financial performance. The financials’ contribution to the customer’s business case, and the expected Return on Investment, if positive, can signal the launch of the capital project. With these important up front steps competed, our clients can now pursue their automation effort with a high degree of confidence that their production business will improve as expected.