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Getting the Most Out of Your Automation Purchase



Making good buying decisions means focusing on more than just price

By Patrick Waurzyniak
Senior Editor

Ask any buyer of manufacturing automation what’s most important in purchasing new equipment and you’ll get a laundry list of requirements. Foremost in buyers’ minds are the more nonnegotiable items, such as product reliability, training and support. Another key component today is flexibility—being able to quickly redeploy and retool automation as manufacturing needs change. But for many buyers, the ultimate decision often comes down to the bottom line: how much the system costs up front and how fast they can expect to get a return on that investment.

“Cost is an overriding factor, but astute companies base their investments in automation on increasing throughput and a reasonable payback period, not their gut perception of the price tag, which in many cases they deem to be high, right out of the gate,” said Kevin Meehan, general manager of Edge Technologies Inc. (St. Louis), developer of automated barfeeder equipment. “The other thing is they underestimate, especially on more production-oriented jobs, the long-term benefits of the efficiency gains and the increase in productivity that automation can deliver.”

Heavy-duty FANUC M-2000iA-900L robot rated at a 900-kg payload lifts a full car body.

Getting a Fast Payback

Automating factory processes improves overall manufacturing efficiencies and lowers overall costs, often more than buyers first realize. Adding robotic automation can have other benefits, too, such as improving quality and reliability. It can also expand a shop’s repertoire by adding new capabilities like vision, noted Dick Johnson, account manager, North American Distribution, FANUC America Corp. (Rochester Hills, MI).

“When you use a robot, the reliability goes up exponentially,” said Johnson, noting a recent study by a FANUC integrator comparing custom hard automation with multiple components to adding robots. “It was eye-opening. The MTBF [mean time before failure] of our robots is 100,000 hours,” Johnson said. “If you add the individual components of a custom automation system, each one has their own failure rate, and that all stacks up to result in a less-reliable system. Because the custom automation system is a ‘one of a kind,’ you just don’t have the time to do the design for reliability.
The Liebherr PHS1500 palletized automation system handles fast, automated part delivery to dozens of StarragHeckert CNC mills.
“Buyers should consider quality/reliability, and also think about ease of use. We’ve made some pretty good strides with software that’s tailored to applications. For welding, we offer ArcTool software, and HandlingTool for material handling. For high-speed picking, we have PickTool. We make it very easy to give users the exact types of things that they may want to vary, like current and voltage for arc welding to make the highest-quality weld.”

Other significant advancements are the company’s Dual Check Safety (DCS) capabilities and its embedded iRVision functionality, which allows visual error-proofing, now included with all FANUC robots, Johnson added. “DCS is allowing customers to decrease the size of the cell safely, decrease the use of safety equipment, and work in more collaboration with the robots,” he said. “Certainly cost and return on investment is a concern, but there are other issues that buyers face. A robot will do precisely what you ask it to do. If you have had quality issues, it can be a benefit.”

Managing the Automation

Along with getting ROI in a reasonable amount of time, buyers should be concerned with being able to support the automation after delivery and installation, said Kevin Heise, vice president of sales, Liebherr Automation Systems Co. (Kempten, Germany, and Saline, MI), a supplier of palletized automation systems, robotic solutions and gear-manufacturing equipment. An important factor, Heise noted, is whether buyers have the technical resources to support the automation system’s controls technology long-term.

“A key question is what controls decision is going to be made? For instance, we sell to Ford, and this is not a question for them, because they have the ability to take ownership and support that equipment,” Heise stated. “But let’s say I’m selling something to a company in Iowa or Wyoming. Do they have the resources to support flexible manufacturing? Do I have the staff in place there to take over that technology and own it? I know with the Big Three it’s not an issue, because they have the expertise to take ownership of the technology.”

An integrator of automation like Liebherr has to ensure that the manufacturing line functions at optimal efficiency. “My job as an automation supplier is, typically, I’m responsible for that entire line. I’m responsible for the part path through the entire system,” Heise said, “whereas, the machine tool vendors, they’re responsible for removing metal and producing quality parts. We’re responsible for the cadence of that line, to make sure it’s working—whether that’s clearly spelled out or not, we’re ultimately responsible.”

The controls are the most difficult to support, because the architectures from companies like Bosch Rexroth, Allen-Bradley, FANUC and Siemens, are all different and change constantly with updated versions, Heise said. “How reliable is it and how maintainable is it? Do I have the staff in place to intelligently take that system over and understand the controls?” 

Automated part programming with GibbsCAM software eases initial part setups for multitask machining, saving programming time and boosting production.

Reducing Costs by Automating Programming

Wringing as much of the human labor quotient out of manufacturing leads to great reductions in overall costs. With advanced CAM software like GibbsCAM from Gibbs and Associates (Moorpark, CA), shops can substantially reduce or eliminate time-consuming, costly part setups that make it difficult to compete on price with offshore manufacturers.

“Ultimately the importance of automation equipment is the reduction in human labor cost in manufacturing,” noted Bill Gibbs, president of Gibbs and Associates. “When we compete against China, Taiwan or any third-world nation, if labor is a large cost component, we have trouble competing with products made in the USA. But when the human cost can be reduced to a small piece of the overall product cost, then we have a level playing field, because the equipment costs the same to purchase, to run and to operate regardless of where you are in the world.”

Focusing on automating CNC-manufactured parts, Gibbs says he is encouraged when he sees higher levels of automation occurring in the CNC machines themselves. “This can be through simple machines that are expanded through automatic loading and unloading, barfeeders,” he said.

Tombstone systems for machining multiple parts, pre-loaded and pre-programmed on pallet changers, can run automatically 24/7 to machine parts in highly flexible, just-in-time modes, he added. “These are incredible technologies to reduce human labor, and at the peak of this category of CNC machines is the multitask machine—the single machine that replaces the functionality of many simple machines,” Gibbs said. “It has all the same advantages of high levels of automation where we can put raw stock in one side, have the part go through several types of machining processes inside the same machine, spit out a finished part and not have multiple setups, multiple QA [quality assurance] issues, and not have to transfer parts between one machine and the next machine.

“Some studies have shown that one of the biggest cost factors is just moving the part from one machine to the next to the next, each one with a new opportunity for human error, setup errors, quality errors and problems,” Gibbs added. “It’s not just the hourly rate of a human that you’re replacing with higher levels of automation, it’s also reducing the opportunities for those humans to mess things up. I’m human myself and I have great empathy for humans, but the reality is every time you let a human make a decision or touch a part, there is an increased probability, small, of there being a mistake made.”

With highly automated systems, the initial high costs are partly due to increased cost of initial setup and programming, Gibbs said. But those costs are defrayed long-term with much higher part-production efficiencies that advanced automation offers manufacturers. “You’ve got this high cost of initial setup and initial programming, as well as a high hourly rate for this more expensive equipment, and you have to amortize that against the number of parts that you process through.

“I think that’s the most important word in all business—cost. What most people do is they confuse cost with price,” Gibbs said. “And the price of this equipment is generally only one of many cost factors. You have the cost of training your people to use it. You have the cost of installing this equipment, you have the inherent cost of amortizing the price against all the parts.”

Software comes into play by offering the ability to dramatically reduce the initial setup cost of an automated system, Gibbs said. “In my case, GibbsCAM is a software intended to dramatically reduce the initial programming and setup costs for an automated CNC environment, like a multitask machine, for example. By doing this, the initial cost per part allows you to break even and to be more effective at a lower volume, because you have less overhead going into the front end. But equally important in your cost evaluation is how long does it take to train your people? How hard is the software going to be to use? Ease of use, ease of learning become huge cost factors. On the software side, the cost of training your people to be effective on a software almost always exceeds the price of the software by a large margin.”

More Flexible Automation

Part of the payback question is whether an automation system has the flexibility to be redeployed or retooled for new applications as needs change. “If you sell manufacturing equipment like our gantries, we do lifecycle cost models of usually 10 years, with the product it’s built to support,” Liebherr’s Heise said. “Obviously our gantries are retoolable, and therefore you can use them a lot longer than 10 years. But what if the product life only lasts eight years? That leads us to other questions on how retoolable or how redeployable are the assets I’m buying?”

A lot of companies want flexible automation like Liebherr’s flexible palletizing systems, he said. “They want retoolable items. Our gantries, conveyors are all highly reusable, even going from one commodity to another,” Heise said. “For instance, we have retooled gantries to go from camshaft to crankshaft, or block to head, depending on transport weights and the layouts.”

Palletized workholding and robotics solutions from Erowa Technology help shops lower costs and improve efficiencies with lights-out production.

Thorough analysis of a shop’s automation needs is critical prior to any automation purchase. “It is important to evaluate what type of automation cell you need by considering what you are using it for,” said John Lucier, automation manager, Methods Machine Tools Inc. (Sudbury, MA). “The type of automation recommended is based on several factors—part size and weight, number of different parts, lot sizes, number of changeovers per day/week, machine type/size and the job’s probable lifespan,” Lucier said.

With high-volume, low-mix jobs, flexibility isn’t a significant requirement, he added. “Today’s automation cells allow for one part or multiple parts to be run and will provide unattended operation, opening up valuable resources and saving costs.” These determinations help buyers evaluate the value versus cost of automation to determine the “payback” period, Lucier added. Another key is to look at the shop’s spindle utilization. “For instance, on a vertical milling machine where each part is typically loaded by opening the door, opening the vise, exchanging the part, closing the vise, closing the door, and then starting the machine, often the spindle utilization can be as low as 60%, or even 50%,” he said. “During your automation evaluation, work with your supplier to calculate how much you can increase spindle utilization with automation.”

Lights-Out Automation

Many shop owners don’t consider themselves a candidate for automation, says Chris Norman, chief operating officer for Erowa Technology Inc. (Arlington Heights, IL), developer of palletized workholding equipment and an integrator of robotic automation. But many die/mold shops and other manufacturing operations are often good candidates, he says.

Workholding solutions from Erowa are repeatable palletized automation solutions for handling the company’s pallets, Norman said. “A lot of people think about automation and think about six-axis robots picking and placing of parts. Customers buying our automation are buying it to more or less get more efficient with the equipment that they have. A key factor for a buyer is when he’s turning work away. Investment in automation can be as little as $100,000.”

Erowa’s systems can range from a single pallet tool with a machine or to full linearized systems with robots on a track, said Norman, noting that 2011 and 2012 were the company’s best for selling automation solutions, much of which are aimed at lights-out manufacturing. “In order to handle that and become more competitive, and to handle the growth handling that work coming to the US, there’s been an insurgence of automation,” he added. “We do a lot of education for customers on how automation can help—so many shop owners don’t think they’re a candidate for automation.”

The barfeeding equipment sold by Edge Technologies is considered level one automation, noted Edge’s Meehan. “It’s very much an off-the-shelf product that can be easily integrated with lathes and machine tools. It automates the process of feeding raw material into machines, taking labor out of the product. The machine doesn’t run out of raw material and precious skilled labor is freed up for higher value-added tasks.

“A customer’s choice in a magazine barfeeder is dictated by the production lot sizes they want to run, the diameter and shape of bar stock, part cycle time, and the overall length of the part,” Meehan said. “That’s important because if it’s a fast cycle time, say maybe 30 seconds and the part has an overall length of four inches, that customer’s going to go through a lot of material very fast. You need automation there to keep it stocked up all the time, especially if you want to achieve some limited or full-blown, unmanned production.” ME

This article was first published in the December 2013 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.  Click here for PDF

Published Date : 12/1/2013

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