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manufacturing process automation

Automation has recently been touted as the next big thing in manufacturing, but outside of the bubble of media hype, the industry has been automating itself for years. Nevertheless, the recent wave of exposure likely has you wondering whether there are some processes on your shop floor that would be better performed by machines. And truthfully, there most likely are.

According to research from McKinsey, machines may soon be able to replace up to 45% of human effort on any given factory floor. With that said, your budget probably doesn’t stretch to purchasing cutting-edge machines that can replace almost 50% of your workforce. If it does, more power to you. If it doesn’t, however, there are still ways you can begin introducing more sophisticated automation to begin improving efficiency and reducing costs. Here’s how:

Identify Repetitive Nominal Tasks

Generally, when identifying early candidates for automation, you want to look at jobs that fulfill the 3 D’s: Dull, Dangerous, and Demanding. Jobs that involve repetitive tasks, jobs which can injure workers, and jobs that take place in contaminated environments are all great candidates for manufacturing process automation. Here are a few examples:

  • Dull “pick and place” jobs that require workers to take a part out of one machine, place it in another machine, wait for the machine to finish its work, and then place the finished part on another conveyor belt. If your worker is performing a job that can be done by an electric trolley, it’s probably better to invest in the trolley.
  • Dangerous jobs proliferate in manufacturing environments, but some can’t just be automated away. Here, your job is to find automated solutions that promote a culture of safety. Manufacturing processes that take place among hazardous gases or where there are explosion risks are great candidates for automation.
  • Demanding jobs are those that require your worker to constantly twist and turn for an eight-hour shift. These will inevitably cause repetitive stress injuries, which means carpal tunnel syndrome — which means workman’s comp. Find a robot to do these jobs instead.

Create Recipes for Automation

So, you’ve identified candidates for automated tasks. Now you need to actually automate them. This is not as easy as it sounds. In the process industries, over 35% of projects under $500 million end up 25% over budget, 50% late, or both. Implementing automation is expensive, and it’s definitely not immune to these potential pitfalls. How do you succeed?

First of all, by identifying the tasks where automation is most necessary, you’re already on the path to success. One of the easiest ways to fail is to essentially say, “automation is cool, let’s automate everything.” By identifying areas of limited scope instead, you make it that much less likely that your program will experience mission creep.

Your biggest challenge, however, will be integrating newly-automated systems into your process. This challenge is primarily software-based, not hardware-based, so it may be outside the realm of experience for a lot of plant operators. Therefore, integrating automation will be a process with many stakeholders, drawing in your automation vendor, your IT department, and your operations team. The most important output of this collaboration will be your HMI recipes.

A recipe, in this context, is a store of data that represents the number and variety of steps each of your machines will take while creating a particular product. As each plant is likely to produce more than one product, your machines might be required to produce 100 batches of one recipe, and then switch to another recipe for the rest of the shift. The only alternative to creating recipes involves having a worker manually reprogram your machines each time a production order changes — a potentially error-filled process that defeats the purpose of manufacturing itself.

Identifying areas that require automation and then implementing recipes will form the central challenge of your automation journey. By implementing recipes, you are essentially starting at day one of a continuous improvement journey — almost every step you’ve taken to lower costs and improve efficiency using human workers may need to be relitigated in an automated context. Once you arrive, however, you’ll find that your flexibility — your ability to experiment with your process and create efficiencies — will have increased by the same amount. In other words, getting to an automated plant environment will never be easy, but once you arrive there, the possibilities are endless.

The Value of Maintenance

The most important part of your automated manufacturing environment is your equipment. When you work toward an automated system, you want to know that the equipment you’re relying on is well-maintained and functioning correctly.

Are you using pyrometers in your automated plant? Take the properly maintain them to ensure accurate and reliable readings throughout your plant. Make maintenance easy: download your free pyrometer maintenance checklist!

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