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EquipmentInnovation Does Buying a Robot Equal Automation?

I have been asked many times about how to automate things in manufacturing. I’ve been asked if automation is like “Buying a Robot?” Many people feel they need to replace the human component with a robot to integrate automation. It sounds simple and straight forward. If you look at it this way maybe you or your company are missing the picture of what automation actually is.

The definition of automation:

1. The technique, method, or system of operating or controlling a process by highly automatic means, as by electronic devices, reducing human intervention to a minimum.

2. A mechanical device operated electronically, that functions automatically, without continuous input from an operator.

I think the key here is by reducing human intervention and without continuous input from an operator you are increasing productivity. The other key, I believe, is something that no one really talks about when they look at automation, which is the objective or vision for what you want the automation to do. I see too many organizations say they want to replace the human in the existing setup with a robot and increase productivity.

The question becomes “Do you get a maximum amount of up-time in the factory?” I’ve heard of many companies that have automated with a robot, but every time I visit an installation of this type I find the robot and system are not working for some reason or another such as, the robot ran out of parts to feed the system and therefore the system stopped. Many times it happens during lunch hour or break time, which determines the installation is still very dependent on human operators. There could be many more reasons why the system stopped but usually they are directly related to the need for the continuous attendance of a human/operator. Ironically this doesn’t meet the above of reducing human intervention in the definition of automation.

The actual reason it stopped was because the installation lacked all the components necessary to ensure that the robot ran continuously throughout the day and night.

What really happened was a robot was substituted for a human, but no one took into consideration all the things the human does to keep the system running. The installation lacked the vision to carefully examine all the aspects needed in order for the system to run continuously, in which case a robot is often not enough. There might be other automation that is necessary to have ongoing productivity so that the system does not continuously stop.

In order to really look at automating a process the company must start by looking at what they want to accomplish. I believe the objective to be continuous production with minimal downtime. With this in mind, a company must look ahead and examine everything that is related to the production of the components in order to see what other things are needed for continuous automatic production and not just look at replacing the human/operator with a robot.

What are your thoughts?