Recent Universal Robots research suggests that a lack of budget and knowledge of available options are still major barriers preventing small to medium manufacturers investing in automation.
Although automation can be highly beneficial to businesses in relation to efficiency and cost, most don’t know where to start when it comes to modernising the factory floor.
Various details need to be addressed – from deciding on the processes that need to be automated, to choosing the appropriate automation solution and ensuring the safety of workers – which can be overwhelming, especially for small and medium businesses.
Clearing up some of the confusion that can surround the process of automating processes is crucial to helping businesses thrive in an increasingly competitive environment.
If you’re thinking about automating and you’re not sure where to start, here are six steps to help you on your way towards automating your manufacturing processes.
1. Identify the most suitable processes to automate
Look at your manufacturing facilities and identify the different processes you would like to automate. Start with the simplest and most cost efficient project where minimal changes need to be made to the production line.
Look for manual processes that are repetitive and don’t require on-the- spot decisions, critical thinking or human dexterity. Machine tending and pick-and- place operations are a good place to start.
Choosing the simplest and most cost efficient project will allow you to achieve a high success rate and keep your investment to a minimum. It will also be easier to train your workers to operate the machines.
2. Determine whether components within the processes need to change
When you automate a process, it doesn’t necessarily mean a robot with a gripper can be instantly deployed. Often manufacturers need to make changes to the mechanical components around the robot so they’re able to consistently feed products to the robot for handling.
It’s important to decide whether such changes will need to be made to your production. If so, think about what these changes will look like for you and whether or not there will be any additional costs if you decide to automate. If you’re prepared to incur additional costs after the initial investment, you’ll receive benefits and great value in the long term.
3. Look for available space on the factory floor
Look at the processes you would like to automate and determine whether you have the space available on the factory floor to deploy the robot. Consider your needs now and in the future. If space is tight, look for solutions that are small, flexible and easy to implement.
Today there are compact and lightweight solutions available that will fit in the smallest of spaces and operate efficiently and safely. This means you don’t have to wait until you’re in a bigger factory to automate.
With solutions like collaborative robots, you can save money on property costs, while at the same time increase your production and grow your business.
4. Choose flexible automation solutions
If you have a low-mix high volume manufacturing environment where you’re producing the same product - look for flexible automation solutions. You may be producing the same product now however in the future things may change, which is why it’s important to look at solutions that will grow with your business.
Automation will bring you long-term value if you adopt flexible solutions that can be used in different areas of your business. You will receive a much greater return on your investment if you look at your short-term and long-term business goals.
For businesses with a high-mix low volume production, flexible solutions are critical because they will allow you to meet the changing needs of your customers and make it easy to reconfigure your workspace quickly for the production of different products and processes in your business.
5. Always consider worker safety
Worker safety is critical when you integrate robots into a production. Most automation solutions require safety fencing so the robot can operate in a closed off area away from workers keeping them safe. Keep in mind that fencing can increase costs, it takes up a lot of space and having fenced systems/solutions can make your manufacturing processes inflexible.
Consider solutions that don’t require safety fencing (subject to a risk assessment) for example collaborative robots, which have certified safety measures allowing them to work alongside workers safely.
Unfenced solutions bring many benefits including the ability for workers to stand in for the robot to prevent downtime if the need arises.
6. Explore the value of automation
When considering your options think about your future needs. Look for solutions that will create efficiencies in your business now and that will grow with your business. Automation isn’t about reducing staff numbers; it’s about integrating new technologies that will support and work alongside your staff.
Automation will allow you to create and grow a sustainable business, be more competitive in your market, reduce your production costs and allow you to consistently produce a higher quality product time and time again. You will receive short-term and long-term benefits though automation that will maximise your return on investment and bring immense value to your business both in the short-term and the long-term.
Shermine Gotfredsen is the General Manager of SEA & Oceania at Universal Robots