Viewpoints: Automate for Success
By Skip Thompson
Erowa Technology Inc.
Arlington Heights, IL
As economic recovery continues in the manufacturing sector of the US, it's now more important than ever for companies to re-examine manufacturing processes to ensure longevity and growth. And, as companies go through this exercise, one thing becomes apparent: the way they did business a few years ago is no longer a viable option in today's global economy.
Offshore pressures coupled with our weakened economy have ushered in a new dynamic in terms of competition, forcing many companies to focus on new, improved automation techniques. As I see it, automation is not only a viable solution in the short-term in the global economy but, ultimately, automation has the potential to impart the changes that will ensure our future economic success as an industry.
Put simply, automation improves processes. Companies must begin to think globally, and realize that their ability to compete is directly connected to their ability to automate effectively.
For example, machine tools continue to get faster and faster, which creates the potential for improved productivity. When you factor in smaller lot sizes of different types of products, however, you must also factor in the possibility of the increased downtime that often results from multiple changeover and setup operations. By including palletizing in the process, you can significantly diminish downtime and increase overall productivity.
Automation also helps companies maximize existing resources without significantly increasing overhead costs. In the past, the need for additional capacity immediately translated into the need to purchase additional capital equipment. Today, more than ever, we find that shop owners are looking for ways to enhance the resources they already have on the floor.
When they closely examine process bottlenecks, many manufacturing engineers and managers are shocked at the amount of downtime on their shop floor, and the money lost when machines are not burning, making chips, grinding, etc. They are always pleasantly surprised when we show them that many of these bottlenecks can be overcome by automating one or more processes. Add to that the recent advancements in automation technology, which make it easier than ever to automate entire cells and procedures, creating additional opportunities for process improvement.
Of course, there are always a few persons who challenge the benefits of automation, citing fears of workforce reduction. Automation need not result in layoffs, however, and can often improve the employment security of a company's existing workforce by opening the doors to higher-level opportunities, including better-paying, more-satisfying careers.
Companies that have embraced automation to stay competitive in the short term are realizing that it opens doors for growth in the long term. The flexibility of being able to run equipment on a 24/7 basis is just one of the benefits arising from intelligently applied automation. Workers who were previously tied to machines for repeated setup and changeover operations are now free to focus on process design and other areas of potential improvement. The result: improved productivity.
The ability to embrace the latest technology is a key factor in making future growth and success possible. As previously mentioned, machine tools are getting faster, but progress does not and should not end there. As each day goes by, new technology is born in the shape of more accurate machining centers, faster EDM, better grinding machines, and more-efficient cutting tools. If a company is going to use the latest technology, employees must keep their skills up to date. A workforce with experience in automating processes is better equipped to embrace and implement this technology. After all, new technology is meaningless to a shop without trained and experienced workers who can implement it effectively.
American manufacturing has long been associated with high-quality products, rapid delivery, and customer satisfaction. Combine this history with improved processes, a more skilled workforce, better-paying jobs, and the ability to embrace and implement technology, and the end result will be greater than the sum of these parts. We have a responsibility to maintain the historic standards of manufacturing in the US, both in the short and the long term. Automation will, without a doubt, allow us to do exactly that.
This article was first published in the July 2005 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine.