As we speak with Chinese factory managers, one question comes back again and again: How to do automation right? And, in particular, they are confused about the manufacturing automation timeline to follow.

Let’s first take an example that everybody can understand easily, and then let’s look at the approach that usually makes the most sense.

 

1. Example: automation in the airport security inspection process

You are certainly familiar with security inspections at airports. You have probably placed objects in a plastic bin. And then you left it on the other side of the security station.

And all these bins accumulate on one end of the conveyor, and they need to be brought back to their starting point.

automation in the airport security inspection process

Source: CNBC.com / Joe Raedle | Getty Images | Passengers wait to clear security at Miami International Airport.

Let’s look at several ways to handle that process.

It seems like most airports pile them up and then push them manually on a trolley. That’s a fully manual process, with a bit of help from the trolley (see photo above).

You might decide to fully automate the process – have the bins automatically get under the main conveyor (on another conveyor) and re-appear at the start. That’s what Dubai airport has done. It is impressive and, no doubt, was not cheap.

Or you might want to use your brain and come up with a much simpler solution that achieves the same result at a much lower cost… and that doesn’t require any advanced maintenance system. It is sometimes possible to reduce most of the waste and, this way, to avoid the need for automation.

This is a photo I took recently. The passengers place the bins in a side conveyor, and the bins roll down to the starting point.

non automated airport security process

This is the best solution I have seen so far.

In this case, there is no need to automate that process!

 

2. What to do before starting to automate

The logical first steps are:

  1. Eliminate the waste in the process. Look for ways to use simple tools and low-tech solutions.
  2. If it still makes sense, automate that process with higher-tech solutions.

Here is an example. Years ago, an automotive factory had an overly complex process for installing seats. It had to be done by 2 to 3 people.

They decided to use a big and expensive robot to lift the seat and install it. That robot had repeated breakdown problems (a very common challenge with manufacturing robots). When the robot was down, several people had to come on the line and install those seats. Automation was NOT a source of cost savings.

In contrast, other car plants use a mechanical assist arm that is easily operated by 1 person (see photo below). It is simple, inexpensive, and is never down. That’s the best solution at this stage of technological progress.

car plant mechanical assist arm

Image source

Putting automation in place might help a lot with safety, quality, and/or costs. But, to reiterate my point: make sure to improve the process in a low-tech and inexpensive manner first. Once that is done, maybe the business case for investing in new machines or tools no longer shows a positive ROI.

 

 

3. What manufacturing automation timeline makes sense (if you still need automation)

I like this table from the excellent book Creating Continuous Flow. It breaks down the 5 typical stages a company can follow.

5 levels of automation

In many cases, a process is at level 2 and necessitates a few operators, and the managers are thinking of jumping to level 5. It is often hard to convince them to take a step back and rethink their approach.

It makes sense to add automatic unloading first. This way, operators load the machine and have time to go and do other things (on other machines, for example). If issues come up, add the right type of sensor and link it to an alarm system (or have it stop the machine) – don’t pay an operator to keep watching!

This is smart, step-by-step automation. At the same time, the maintenance personnel learn how to work with complex equipment and can put in place the right preventive and/or predictive maintenance plan. This takes time.

In the chart above, you can see the jump from level 3 to level 4 is separated by “the great divide”. In many cases it is best not to cross that divide. Why?

There are four reasons for this.

  • The ability to load a part requires great precision and much more complex automation (which tends to be much more expensive) than the ability to unload
  • The flexibility to respond to demand goes down. You no longer have operators working on that process. What if demand grows to 120% of that equipment’s capacity?
  • The more complex automated system has many more points of failure. It will probably be down from time to time. If there are no longer operators and if machines are down, production is not happening!
  • More complex automated systems require much more expensive parts which need replacing and are sometimes not in stock in China. (In contrast, lower-tech equipment can usually all be made locally.)
Here are more details about this:

Robotic components including the reducer, servo motor, actuator and controller account for approximately 70 per cent of the total cost for an articulated industrial robot. Currently, a large number of parts such as precision reducers, servo motors and actuators necessary for the production/integration of industrial robots in China have to be imported. This is especially the case for precision reducers and precision sensors with reliable performance, as few Chinese enterprises are capable of large-scale production of this product.

In 2015, approximately 75 per cent of all precision reducers were imported from Japan while over 80 per cent of servo motors and actuators were imported from either Japan, the United States (US) or Europe. Though some enterprises have successfully sought comparable local products, performance, stability, quality and reliability are yet to be generally seen during mass production. This problem, if it remains not dealt with, will prevent improvement in quality and performance of Chinese robots.

Source: Choosing the Right Robots written by Xinhua Zhao and published in the Eurobiz magazine.

 

I hope we provided a clear, step-by-step approach that is applicable for most processes. I would add that a manufacturing automation strategy should be developed within the context of a wider study on the way to save costs, maintain flexibility, and make materials ‘flow’ as much as possible.

We are happy to respond to questions or comments you may have about manufacturing automation timelines or other aspects of manufacturing in general! You can leave a comment below.


 

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Topics: Automation

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Renaud Anjoran

10 years experience in China.
President, China Manufacturing Consultants.
Audited and/or consulted for hundreds of factories in China.
Author of well-read blog, Quality Inspection Tips.

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