Pursuing Productivity in the Aftermath of COVID
Written by Peter Sherer, Technical Sales Representative for Re:Build Optimation.
While it would appear as though the worst of the pandemic is now behind us, in the manufacturing world, the struggle to regain control of supply chains and return to pre-COVID delivery times and volumes is still very much an issue. For many companies that produce goods requiring some level of assembly (could be discrete part or chemical batch), a significant challenge is restaffing their operations with skilled workers at the level enjoyed before the pandemic forced social distancing, quarantining, and working from home. Many companies are learning that their historical models for staffing and compensation are simply not luring people back into their factories. Thus, even though it would seem the recovery is here, the negative impact is still being felt.
One strategic approach to addressing the shortfall in qualified staff to replenish production teams in factories is to convert certain qualified manufacturing tasks to being performed by automation. Depending on task complexity, this conversion could alleviate the need to re-hire qualified workers, and over time would help boost output and reduce delivery time to restore pre-pandemic production performance.
The potential benefits of substituting automation for people, particularly in the face of a lack of interest by qualified personnel, is a solution that many companies are now pursuing. Executing a successful automation project, targeted at maintaining manufacturing quality and rate, becomes a new challenge for many companies that have throughout their history utilized skilled workers. For companies that have embraced the need to invest in automation, questions will arise about the most effective way to implement new capital equipment to achieve their production goals.
At the outset of a journey to embrace this shift in manufacturing approach, a company might do well to consider the following three simple ideas to assist in the initial defining exercise: Investigate – Innovate – Implement.
First, our potential automation user should investigate where and what in his production workflow might benefit from the implementation of automation in the place of qualified laborers. For many companies, this research should generate a list of possible tasks (where a machine could replace workers), determining how complex or sophisticated each task is, and thus get an initial idea of how challenging the conversion to an electro-mechanical solution each considered task might have. Another early thread would be to consider via a technology search what pre-engineered applications may be available and useful to a particular company’s needs (for example, welding, painting, palletizing, riveting, and cutting are all manufacturing methods that offer automated equipment adaptations). Other considerations for the suitability of automation might be the maturity of the company’s product (or the possibility that the product design could change and undermine the justification of the automation investment), product manufacturing flexibility needs (could be driven by production schedules, or product variations/families and differing build recipes). Also, a dimension that should be evaluated would be the ability of the company’s infrastructure (shops, technicians, spare parts, etc.) to support the ongoing needs of a new automation installation. Finally, our prospective automation user should generate his first pass business objectives and User Requirements to help define what he ultimately needs this investment to accomplish for his business.
In the typical progression of pursuing an automation project, once a business concern has reached the point at which they have done their initial due diligence and are committed to pursuing the potential improvement project, a decision must be made to bring in outside expertise to innovate an appropriate and beneficial solution. This step is of major importance, as it will set the conditions by which the potential project will be defined, engineered, and ultimately executed. Many companies may be tempted to select the appropriate production task based on the availability of a mature technology solution, and simply seek out in a competitive environment the most qualified purveyor of that pre-engineered solution or method.
At Optimation, we view the challenge of assisting our clients with deriving their most beneficial capital solution as an exercise in fluidity, where the eventual outcome is tailored to the client’s business needs, production nuances, capabilities, and cost and schedule constraints. It, therefore, follows that when pursuing an automation opportunity, we guide our customers through a series of phases and gates that we have learned to drive a predictable outcome, irrespective of applying pre-existing solutions or technologies. With the client’s strategic goals, business objectives, and User Requirements in hand, we are well-equipped to come alongside our customers and collaborate with them to innovate and create a system tailored to their specific needs.
This innovation has a two-part makeup, it is part process and part technology. We look to our clients for their process knowledge and coach him or her in articulating what they need the solution to do. Typically, this exercise involves reviewing and enhancing their project goals and objectives, as well as adding more specific detail to their User Requirements through our internal scripted templates. An automation “technology” evaluation (as the second part) would follow, that qualifies and assesses the most current machinery and methods that apply to the client’s production goals and requirements. A weighted value approach is typically utilized to determine which machines, etc. are the best fit for the client’s particular project. The selected means to the project objectives and requirements are then engineered into a Concept Design.
A brief word here about the technology selection and resulting Concept Design. While there is an emerging trend to promote robotics as the preferred platform to advance manufacturing companies into automated production, we promote these early defining exercises (investigate and innovate) as being technology agnostic, so that our solution is best fit for our clients. We have learned that it is better for the solution as defined by our upfront work to ultimately warrant a robot rather than trying to make the client’s needs fit the application of a robot. This to us would be totally out of order. In many cases, it may be more cost-effective over the long term to implement hard automation rather than invest in robotics, which can be more complicated and drive higher long-term support costs.
The two-part relationship between the client’s process and our technology can be best summed up by realizing that we need our customer to tell us how to “program” the automated equipment to perform the requisite tasks in a manner that yields the client’s needed outcome.
The third defining idea – Implement – involves the development of the crafted Concept Design through the follow-up phases of Optimation’s capital Project Process workflow. The implementation work (which is not the focus of our discussion here) involves the creation of Preliminary Engineering deliverables (i.e. layout drawings, controls system architecture, bills of materials, first-line electrical drawings, operating descriptions, etc.) that lead to fixed price costing information and an approval gate for the client. Follow-up phases are Detailed Design with its review and approval gate, Purchase/Fabrication, System Assembly, Debug and Factory Acceptance, Installation at the client’s site, Start-Up, and Site Acceptance.
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