Most manufacturers have, at the very least, experimented with different aspects of factory automation—everything from a single machine with a pallet pool and a robot in a self-contained system, to a multimachine flexible manufacturing system dedicated to a certain application, and even to more ambitious installations. As a provider of automation equipment and software, that thrills me; I’m glad people have been moving in this direction.
On the other hand, it also concerns me.
These experimental “islands of automation” are now creating trouble for some companies. Any reader of this magazine knows the trend towards Industry 4.0 and the slew of other descriptors for factory-wide automation. Not only large OEMs, but also small subcontracting shops are exploring what this means for them and how they can begin to implement automation beyond these independent pods.
That’s when the bad news comes.
Companies find out that their dedicated system doesn’t play well with others. There’s no way to connect the cells to each other, nor tap into higher-level enterprise software packages that they might be considering or have already that they want to integrate with. They either have to start from scratch and put systems and equipment in place that are friendly and open or choose not to take advantage of the increased productivity and profitability that interconnectivity can offer. Perhaps they’ve gone too far down the island-hopping route and it would be too costly to reconfigure.
As it is turning out, manufacturers are realizing that buying an automation solution for their factories, even a small first step, is no different than buying a large ERP program: it literally affects everything.
To avoid automation island fever, please, be absolutely certain that whatever piece or system you install uses software that is scalable, that can expand and grow with your business needs and play nice with the additional automation equipment you will purchase in the future. There are not many facilities that have just one brand of machine tool or just one type of cutter or just one type of process that they’re doing. To combine all these together in the coming years to stay competitive, confirm that there is interoperability and scalability in that initial software package.
As you scan the factory floor, imagine bridges to everywhere.
When it is the right time for your company to start connecting those bridges and you get demand information from your ERP or MES system you’ll get magic—optimal spindle utilization. The schedule, the programs, the material, the tool lists, the tool data, and the preset data—all will be fed back and forth seamlessly. Take advantage of this capability today and keep your machine tools running at peak efficiency—even when there are blips on the screen, likely due to a data entry error—the improvement will be quantifiable.
Also, when you review different automation software solutions—and it is all about the software, folks—be sure they have the ability to look forward to identify the next projects in the schedule, and, that the one you choose also has the ability to accept changes in the schedule as a customer might dictate. At Fastems, we call it “proactive scheduling.” Our system lets you know whether or not you have everything that you need, not just for the current job, but also for those on the docket several weeks out. And if you don’t have all the elements, it lets you know succinctly. “Go get this.” (We’re working on its bedside manners.)
And lastly, one of the most important bridges in the system is to your automation partner company itself so that if any issues do occur you can reach a live person immediately and get any issue resolved promptly.