I have been involved in the robotics and industrial automation industry (on and off) for over 30 years. Over the years I have seen a lot of projects make the transition from wild concept to productive and effective reality, and I have learnt a lot about what is behind both the successful and the difficult projects. That experience boils down to what I call “The Three Ps”: Product, Process and People. You must manage all 3 for success.
The first step when thinking about automation is to fully know your product. Intimately. Totally. All its nuances, variations and faults. Knowing and documenting the full scope of products is the most important section in the requirements document. It is probably the fastest and the biggest that will determine the design solution, but you should also weigh that up with the percentage of your production that is spent on each product. If there is one very big or heavy product but you only run it occasionally, is it worth including in the must-have list?
Just as important as the range, and for single-product operations, you must also have a deep understanding of the variation in each product. One project we did was packing croissants, but if they were left in the proofing room too long they fluffed even more and didn’t even fit in the box! That there is variation in the amount a bread loaf rises is perhaps obvious, but the variance in a bottle, carton or casting might be more subtle.
And then there is all the ways that the product can fail – or be a bit less than perfect. What are the checks that your operators might make, possibly even subconsciously, on every part? If you miss them or don’t understand them you run the risk of shipping bad product or having to add additional quality checks to a finished machine.
Just like you must know your product intimately; you also have to know your processes just as well. What are all the steps you need to execute your production – and I mean ALL the steps. Yes, most will be obvious, but it is the subtle or occasional task that are probably just as important to quality and reliability.
What can go wrong? What doesn’t always work perfectly? What are the checks you need, the alternatives and the subtleties of all the products? Especially dig deeper for the subtleties because they are the things you might not notice, or perhaps don’t always need to be done, but can have a big impact on the finished product.
I frequently see operators on a line, perhaps packing product, flip some or all the products over and quickly glance at something. When you ask the manager what they are doing they often have to ask the operator and learn that the printer might not be super reliable, or there might sometimes be a flash from the injection moulding.
As your automation system is being designed a deep understanding of your processes will be critical to ensure all the checks, fault capture and failure management is in place.
Regardless of what equipment you purchase, what machines you have bought or what robot you install, if your production team are not committed and on-side to make the project work – it won’t work. That is not a statement about your team – it is just human nature. When the thing stops – is the operator going to say “I told you it wouldn’t work” or are they going to ask “how can I stop that from happening?”
Get your team involved right from the start. Get the people who are going to make the system run buying-in from the beginning, especially since they are probably the ones with the most insight into the subtilties of the product and the process.
I have seen perfectly good and capable automation projects struggle because the shop floor team does not want it to work.
We recently installed a major upgrade to a palletising system that runs 24/7. Almost every night the system was getting locked up at about 3AM and the crew could not recover the system so an emergency crew had to be called in to hand palletise. We did more training of all the crews, updated alarms and messages, but the problem continued. One day we told the crew we were getting the CCTV camera moved so we could understand what was happening so we could fix it – but funnily enough, the problem never happened again.
The 3 Ps
The most successful automation projects are those where the whole team is involved and committed to success, and where everyone’s input is used to ensure a thorough definition of what is needed. When you have covered
- The Products; all the variation, all the rates and all the faults,
- The Processes; all the operations, all the failure modes and all the checks,
- The People; the team that will be responsible for making it work take that responsibility early in the project.
then you will have the 3 Ps covered and will be set for a successful automation deployment.