Modern manufacturing is a data-driven endeavor. The sheer volume of data available to be collected and analyzed is staggering—and something that couldn’t have been envisioned even 20 years ago.
It directly contributes to improved productivity and supports advanced decision-making based on predictive analytics, and it’s the primary driver behind increased adoption of automated metrology in the manufacturing space.
Automated measurement has evolved from a process where primary systems for inline inspection were dedicated gages specifically made for those operations, to one where more flexible options like CNC metrology systems are now used by manufacturers. This evolution is a natural progression, given that today’s systems are less costly, allow for considerable time savings when it comes to adapting to rapid-fire design or process modifications, and have connectivity to enable continuous monitoring of the “health” of both the manufacturing process itself and the systems that comprise it. Combined with SPC data collection, machine uptime and utilization, and other statistical process data, operational management teams now have the real-time data they need to make more educated decisions about where in the process their capital investments will have the biggest impact.
The Automated Metrology Journey
In general, manufacturers start with the design of a go-to-market product and then break down the design to the component level in terms of what parts will need to be made. They then turn to engineering specifics and develop the tolerances a particular component will require to ensure the overall assembly lands within required tolerance ranges and meets exact specifications.
It’s at this point that manufacturers typically begin to consider automating manufacturing, including metrology, as a means to improve inspection accuracy and quality control, replacing manual processes that can impede efficient production. The vast majority of the time, flexible automated metrology is a viable and desirable alternative. However, exceptions exist, as in the case of re-manufacture houses or small shops that reverse engineer obsolete components no longer on the market. The one-off inspection of these customized, small-batch, low-run parts means automation isn’t always beneficial.
Automation Benefits and Barriers
Manufacturers that opt for an automated measurement process find that in addition to ensuring products are within designed tolerance limits, they can also set control limits to make automatic adjustments to the process and oversee it in real time. And, by reducing or eliminating operator-induced errors, they can also achieve improved repeatability of inspection processes and faster remedy of deviations to ensure quality part production. In many cases, this allows the operator to focus on remedies to assignable causes of production downtime.
Manufacturers don’t have to wait long to see process improvements and realize ROI from automation. In fact, many achieve ROI almost as soon as the process is released to production. But that can only happen if organizations are able to overcome adoption barriers. The greatest hurdle is often the initial investment, especially for a manufacturer concerned about whether they’ll need specialized staff to support the new technology. In addition to uncertainty over having the right staff to support the technology, the question of having the right outside resources for implementation and trouble-shooting is also a major consideration.
It’s also important to keep in mind that automation can mean something different for every manufacturer. For example, automated metrology could be as basic as installing a value-added accessory to an existing measurement solution. Or, it could be as complex as a complete overhaul of the manufacturing process.
A manufacturer’s industry segment can likewise impact the approach to automation. Many industries where automated metrology is already making headway—such as automotive, aerospace, medical, and semiconductor—still have long-proven methods in place and might face environmental factors that impact adoption of automated metrology. However, most “big players” understand the competitive edge that automation provides.
One final consideration: many manufacturers are concerned with the learning curve related to automated systems, regardless of their staff’s level of expertise. The good news is that most individuals with a natural technical and mechanical ability can pick up on automated metrology processes fairly quickly, irrespective of their level of formal schooling or vocational education. This can open the door to additional opportunities for many motivated employees, allowing them to greatly accelerate their career paths.
Reflections on Automated Metrology
The reality is that automated metrology will never bring inspection error down to zero. No technology can do that because situations will always arise that cannot be predicted. However, automated measurement can significantly help manufacturers get closer to zero versus manual processes alone. The key lies in the data that automated systems are able to collect and the ability of the technology to not only monitor equipment and its status, but also to dive deeper and analyze the performance of individual components.
For instance, manufacturers can keep tabs on motor mileage or the number of axis runs and then use these touchpoints to more accurately determine when the lifecycle of the component will diminish, or to schedule preventative maintenance before a major breakdown occurs.
That’s why manufacturing organizations that don’t adopt an automated metrology process within the next five to ten years will find themselves at a distinct disadvantage over their competition—especially given the current job market and low unemployment rate. To attract and retain highly skilled personnel, manufacturers must provide employees with job tools that keep them engaged and empower them to be productive contributors to the overall success of the company. Automated metrology is one such tool.
Taking the automation leap doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Taking an incremental approach is a viable option. That starts with finding a trusted partner who can help design the right automated solution for your manufacturing environment and measurement challenges. You could also consider testing technologies in a more controlled environment within your organization before pulling the trigger on implementing automation facility-wide. After all, automation is here to stay. The growth of automated metrology that’s already occurred in manufacturing industries is testament to that.