W Of course, there are several mundane operations which are performed by the operator like handling of component, simple assembly operation, transferring from one machine to another, loading unloading, etc. Since these operations do not require much skill, the fatigue factor sets in after certain time, thus periodically leading to loss of productivity. By putting in simple automated systems, the production can be increased. Men, machine, material and money are all the important resources in a plant. By implementing automation for better utilisation of these resources will directly result in increase in profitability. By improving repeatability of operations, on-line inspections and corrective measures, the quality improvements are possible. Safety of operators and equipment are equally important issues and can be address by implementing automation besides following safety standards. In today’s competitive environment, particularly when the resources and money supply are becoming scarce in global meltdown, any money spent on plant and process automation and upgradation needs substantial thinking and planning. However, there are several aspects which we sometimes tend to ignore, but are very important with the fact that like many other projects and policies, automation is also a journey which starts with the first step when one thinks of automating a process or a manufacturing operation, and goes long way in the future. Let us discuss some of the important strategic points that are to be considered before hand.
Strategy to automate
When we take a journey for any industrial automation project, it becomes important to consider various aspects not only with regard to the particular project which is being handled, but also a bunch of important issues. Are we prepared with the right technology and strategy to ensure the success of the project? Or are we prepared to take the project forward by multiplying the success stories? Or are we looking into all the aspects of drawing a full roadmap so that we are able to have a seamless expansion of the first step we have taken in industrial automation?
Technical aspects such as the important characteristics with regards to process, the component being handled or manufactured and the fixtures or tools being used for this component is to be taken into account. A classic case of simple automation can be the integration of various operations, hitherto being done on several machines or several setups, by designing some specialty tools and handling system which can reduce cycle time and increase productivity. Every process has several non-value added operations and focus should be to see if these operations can be eliminated or at least minimised or speeded up. Some such operation are very simple to automate, like operator moving the components from one location to another can be handled by introducing conveyors or relocating machines for simple transfer. Similarly, loading and unloading in the machines can eat away lot of time. Loading of the component in the machine can be critical and skillful job in certain cases, however, mostly unloading will seldom require special skills. Hence it will be most appropriate to automate the unloading operations first by simple low cost automation techniques and, later, the loading can also be automated. Similarly if we are able to first make operations easier for operator, then it becomes easy to automate. While selecting automation projects and the technologies to use, several important criteria must be considered. First thing that needs attention is to consider the plant requirement and management objective. Many times it is possible to automate the operations by implementing low cost automation (LCA) techniques, but the management’s desire to implement high-end technologies like robots to showcase its ability to use high-end technologies would change the decision in favour of robot, although expensive. There have been several cases wherein solutions with pneumatics and servo systems were possible but the management insisted to use a cluster of robots. Management felt that sooner or later, looking at the production forecast, they will have to go for robotics solutions hence, they decided to send a message to their workforce that the company is leading a path towards robotics and hence, workforce should start polishing their skill levels. In another case, the management objective has been not to increase the manpower with increased production; hence, they went in for robotics solution, although it cost them much more compared to the conventional method of manufacturing as being done at present. Therefore it becomes very important for the managers to seek the management objective and the technological directions before deciding the technologies to use.Another important strategic consideration is to first look inwards and evaluate the adaptability to change within the organisation. The complex automation solutions will succeed if the technical and managerial staff are ready to learn and upgrade their technological base, work culture and environment matching the solution they intend to use. If the managerial and supervisory team in general is of orthodox view and see technology adaptation as burden, no matter how expensive, reliable and latest solutions management bat for, the possibilities are it will fail. There are several instances where very high end solutions lie unused because of in-house technical inabilities resulting in waste of large investments. In-house technical strength also helps in better upkeep of the automation solutions. The organisation can ask for support from the vendors as and when required, but getting total dependence on out-sourcing can be very expensive. Therefore if an organisation has tech savvy management, forward looking managerial and technical staff eager to learn and adapt new technologies, and strong in-house technical strengths, any automation project they plan to implement is bound to succeed.
Which automation to choose?
Having analysed the strategically important aspects, and with well-defined requirement, strengths and goals, it is important to choose the right technology and level of automation solutions available. There are so many different tools and equipment available in the market that can build the automation solutions. These can vary from low level solutions like use of power tools, automated mechanical aids, simple sequence controls, etc, or pick and place systems, conveying and transfer systems, robotics control, e-manufacturing solutions, etc.
In a nutshell, there can not be a generalised solution to suit any industry but the solution has to be very specific, most appropriate and the one which is best suitable for each plant’s need because every plant is unique.
Roadmap for automation
For implementing the automation solutions the first step is to build an internal team by drawing team members from various departments and within the organisation and finding a group leader. By group discussions within the team, and with information interchange, the common and specialised benefits each would receive from the project to be implemented must be charted out. It would be best to start with the simple to implement project with larger batch size and with not many complex operations. While planning to implement, the system expansion possibilities should also be considered. It should be such that whenever the scope is expanded, the earlier installation should not become redundant. Presently, the computers make deep inroads in the shop floor in some or other form. On-line data capturing, generating production reports, OEE calculations, breakdown analysis, etc, are becoming common at work place. Hence, if the provisions for implementing these industrial specific IT solutions are also kept in the roadmap, it would be possible to expand and implement these seamlessly in future. In conclusion, the automation team which plans the systems by reviewing the present need, management objective, adaptability to change, with a vision for tomorrow and taking a logical path to evolve e-manufacturing would succeed with appropriate technology and in a most cost-effective manner.
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