Time costs money. A stitch in time saves nine. Better late than never. Don’t delay, put your toys away. As kids, we are taught that time matters, that quicker is better, that delays are bad. And when we grew up and went into the business world, we learned a whole new set of time-based axioms: net present value, cost of capital, 2%/10, net 30. We measure inventory turns, JIT inventory, supply-chain optimization, and all manner of lean. So, the less time we take to do anything, the better, right? I’m afraid I have to disagree when it comes to some disturbing current trends in automation systems. The constant pressure to shave time out of everything, including the design/build cycle, is taking its toll.
Now understand I am all for doing things better, and faster, where we can strip out any process or step that doesn’t add real value. But in too many cases, manufacturers are trying to buy complex automation systems that traditionally took 16-20 weeks to design and build, and expecting them to be ready for runoff in 8-10 weeks. In many cases, the delay starts far upstream, where decisions on new products, new models, and new production plans are put off. Every organization is short-staffed with staff functions like advanced manufacturing engineering being particularly hard hit.
Everyone in the automation community is wrestling with this challenge, and, in many cases, systems are, in fact, getting delivered on compressed schedules, processes are improving, and suppliers like ABB continue to work hard to reduce lead times. But many line builders and systems integrators report they are leaving something very valuable behind to make these delivery schedules: creativity. There is less time in the overall project cycle to explore new processes, to refine a new idea, to validate a different approach. There is less time for the project team to let ideas gestate and mature. In this new world of compressed deliveries, the first workable approach wins—lock it down and go with it. This is not to say automation customers are getting poorly designed systems, or systems that don’t work. The good line builders and systems integrators understand that risk only too well, and aggressively guard against failures. In many cases, hours that might have been spent on creative problem-solving at the front end of the project cycle are being reserved as contingency to ensure designs that were pulled together in record time will in fact perform. Customers are getting functionality, but perhaps not the best system—the one with the highest uptime, the most throughput, the smallest footprint, or the easiest to maintain and the most flexible. Equipment buyers can avoid being victimized by delayed decision-making and the pressure on the line builders and integrators by considering these three ideas:
Invest in advanced manufacturing engineering to refine the manufacturing process—put the creativity up front. Leverage internal staff, or go outside to a good consulting automation firm with the simulation and process engineering depth to come up with the best automation approach for your product, your manufacturing, and your business—well in advance of any bid process for the equipment.
Invest in simultaneous engineering with the line builder/integrator of choice. Instead of releasing the whole project, fund the engineering phase in advance. When the final decision to fund the program is locked down, the up-front creative engineering and design will be complete, and the fabricate/build cycle will be more manageable.
Build a long-term partnership with one or two key line builders/integrators. Encourage the partner to build a real knowledge base about your manufacturing processes. Allow that understanding and familiarity to free up project hours for creative design and development. ME
This article was first published in the September 2011 edition of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. Click here for PDF.