With reshoring efforts and labor shortages, automation has become a natural next step for more and more companies. While automation implementation can be a fulfilling journey, it is often met with great apprehension or misunderstanding.
Getting past the ROI calculations, brand and integrator selection, part drawings, process refinement, proof of concept, purchase, delivery and installation can seem like a whirlwind. However, the steps that are taken next will help to ensure the satisfaction of a system, preparing for future automation and production growth.
The robotic champion should receive training and be able to educate other workers.
Justification for a robot purchase is usually measured by ROI. If a robot is idle most of the time, achieving the desired ROI will be an uphill battle. Despite science fiction fantasies, robots will not automatically find other productive tasks to complete when they are bored. (Deep learning and artificial intelligence hint at this ability, but the research and development required for such technology is fairly far off in the future).
Industrial and collaborative robots do exactly what they are programmed to do in a repetitive manner, and company decision makers will only be satisfied with a robot’s performance if certain investments are made into making efficient use of the robot or workcell purchased.
Robot suppliers offer classroom training for a variety of skills, including programming and maintenance.
Creating a robotic “champion” at the onset of robotic implementation is easily the key to success for most job shops. This valuable team member is accountable for all new or existing robotic equipment, and is responsible for learning machine nuances that arise along the way and garnering support from team members to meet deadlines.
If a robot is only running part of a shift and sits idle a majority of the time, a large amount of product – and profit – is left on the table. When a new workcell is received, it is typically programmed and ready to use for a specific part. This is great for companies that intend to apply full utilization to a single high-volume part, but what happens if a company wants to adapt a system for new parts?
If prior investment into a robotic champion has already been made, the process should be fairly simple. With the proper training, the designated champion should be able to plan for changeover and perform maintenance as needed. However, these types of production changes can seem daunting and take valuable time if dedicated resources have not been allocated and used to bolster worker knowledge and skills on the robot brand being utilized.
A robotic champion should not only have a keen interest in the success of the robot or workcell being used, but also, a high appreciation for the overall company. A can-do attitude combined with the ability to train new operators can be a competitive advantage, and the competence to interface with the robot manufacturer on troubleshooting issues is a must.
A growing demand for robotic champions has forced companies to get creative. Incentive programs for activities like training completion and deadline achievement help leading companies hire and retain the talent needed to advance production and maintain a competitive advantage.
The Password Function of Yaskawa’s DX robot controller creates a database of users with passwords and security level clearances. Users must log in to operate the robot; the logging function records the user name and the changes made
While it may seem difficult to create best practices for future growth, that is exactly what should be done. Decision makers know the corporate culture better than anyone, and a progressive action plan, executed through training and use, will go a long way in helping companies see improvement.
Setting goals for the company and tracking improvement via metrics is an ideal way to monitor success, or lack thereof. These metrics, or key performance indicators (KPIs), should be creative, specific and forward thinking in nature.
It is important to have good communication with the robot supplier so that they can recommend and build the right workcell that meets production needs.
Questions such as: Is the robot being fully utilized and meeting expectations? When is it time for another robot? These questions should be answered through metrics, such as:
- Part count – How many parts are completed in a shift, day or week? If this metric changes, can the cause be traced?
- Cycle time – If a single cycle takes 5 min. and is running 72 cycles a day, shaving a mere 1 min. (20 percent) off that cycle time could provide a 25 percent increase in part volume. What are some unnecessary steps that can be refined to smooth the job? Could multiple robot use in the workcell be justified to quickly cut cycle time in half or more?
- Uptime utilization – How efficient is the workcell? What percentage of the workday is the robot running? What is the robot idle time? What is the robot downtime due to maintenance or unplanned failures? What is the ROI, and how can it be increased by adding more time or parts on a given machine?
- Consumables – How frequently are welding torch tips being changed? Are torch tip changes being done at opportune times in the cycle? How much welding gas is being used? How much do consumables cost and how much could be saved if smarter technologies or new products were being used?
- Weld quality – How many non-conforming parts need to be reworked? How much time does this add to each part? Parts from vendors should be routinely examined, and any changes that impact weld quality should be noted. For example, a new gap in a part may end up with a faulty weld. This may result in the need for specifying tighter tolerances to minimize unexpected interruption to the products being manufactured.
Other metrics could be used, and analytics could be applied, to potentially create a scorecard. As goals are surpassed, companies would be wise to record KPIs that contributed to success. This, in turn, should help set new and improved goals to ensure peak robot utilization for high throughput production.
Every robot has a recommended maintenance schedule, which includes routine grease changes. Work closely with the robot supplier to make sure maintenance plans are in line with manufacturer recommendations.
Classroom training for workers is a valuable asset for programming and maintaining a robot. Based on employee experience, multiple levels of training should be offered, and in-house training that shows operators how to load and unload parts, recognize alarms and understand general safety is strongly advised.
While a particular application may dictate what is shown or taught during these training sessions, the designated robotic champion should receive the most training and, ultimately, should be able to educate other workers. Creating a standard training process or module for operators, facility maintenance and whoever else comes in contact with the robot on a regular basis may be helpful, as well.
Establishing a protocol for “who owns what” in the production process and making it a critical part of training is also suggested. For example, if multiple shifts occur on the shop floor, decision makers may want to limit job-editing access on the robot programming pendant, restricting control to a few qualified users.
Limiting access and creating user levels upfront keeps novice robot programmers from accidently deleting a job or worse. Likewise, this eliminates an avenue for rework, saving time and money.
As a part of protocol, all issues that arise should be tracked. Conversely, and equally important, is the task of monitoring how every problem was solved, as chances are the same issues will arise in the future.
It is no secret that communication is vital to success in almost any area of business. If a problem ensues with an incoming part, the supplier of the part in question needs to know about the problem so a swift resolution can occur. Likewise, if corporate leaders foresee a change in demand, suppliers (and possibly even customers) should be notified.
Fostering these relationships and providing immediate feedback can help facilitate a timely resolution. And, when the need for a new robotic system arises, the robot supplier will be able to start looking at manufacturing schedules and new product releases, so that the exact workcell can be built to suit production needs.
As with any machine, a plan for maintenance must be in place. Every robot has a recommended maintenance schedule that should be followed closely. Newer robots have built-in notification systems, but many plants utilize software and processes to ensure proper care is being taken for all capital equipment.
Another important facet of maintenance that goes beyond the routine grease and tip changes is planning for spare parts. Most robot manufacturers offer service plans to assist with this, but when multiple robots are involved, it can be more economical and less time consuming for a shop to have its own parts inventory.
The reality for most companies is that space availability and inventory dollars are usually very limited for this kind of thing. Therefore, a solid maintenance plan that consults the robot manufacturer for assistance, when needed, is ideal.
As companies plan for automation expansion in other areas of the plant, floor layout and how parts are moved across the floor is key to track. A part should never travel back and forth, creating a traffic jam and utilizing precious time.
Decision makers should also identify parts or robots that could potentially be added to a current robotic system to meet other production needs. For example, smaller components could be welded on a small or large system, but the best efficiency will be reached if the parts are manufactured using an appropriately scaled system.
Companies need to look beyond the robot and parts to consider labor shortages. And they’ll need to answer questions, such as: Who is retiring soon? What does the future job market look like? Does the current production potential match customer demand forecasts?
While many of these factors are challenging to control, the knowledge gained during the research process can serve to smooth volatile situations that arise during automation expansion.
Lastly, customer considerations need to be addressed. For example, the automotive industry requires traceability on safety critical parts. What capability does a robot have, if any, to ensure the parts being produced are compliant? New laser scanning, RFID and other combined technologies can easily automate these requirements to protect companies and customers, alike, from painful recalls or liability issues.
Automation implementation takes dedication, planning and resources. Companies that create and implement a strategy to maximize their current situation in an efficient manner should do well moving forward. Investing in worker education and tracking metrics while fostering partner and customer relationships will also help companies prepare for future automation and production growth.