Automatic for the people

Automation may seem appealing, but is it right for your company or is a manual approach more effective? Will Bourn looks at the pros and cons

The justification for buying capital equipment may seem just a question of arithmetic. But is it always so simple? The answer, actually, is very rarely.

COST ANALYSIS

Let’s tackle the tricky one first, head on. People are one of the most significant costs in any manufacturing process. If you’re looking at simply redeploying your workforce more strategically as a result of embracing automation, then calculating costs and payback periods can be performed reasonably successfully. But suppose your problem is not one of redeploying your labour force, but rather how to recruit one. Some geographic areas have a chronic shortage of skilled and semi-skilled labour. In areas where labour is a problem, increasing levels of automation might be the only sensible option, even if the strict application of a cost analysis doesn’t justify it.

The working environment is also a major factor when considering automation. If the application requires clean room hygiene, or is such a hostile environment that manual intervention is impossible, automation may be the only answer, irrespective of costs. Semi-conductor manufacture, for example, requires a very high level of automation to avoid contamination.

Probably the most irresistible reason for adopting automation is quality control. Many companies recognise that automation or semi-automation is the only practical way of ensuring the quality of their products. If processes are truly to be defined and repeatable, they must also be automated.

The demands of defect-free engineering practices, common now throughout industry, require automation as the only way of ensuring that quality standards and tolerances are met. In the automotive industry, for example, first-tier suppliers are generally only considered for contracts if they employ automated processes. As product quality relentlessly becomes the defining factor throughout manufacturing industry, increasing levels of automation will be inevitable.

UNIT COSTS

There is usually a chicken-and-egg decision to make when considering automation: you don’t have the market share and therefore lack the volumes to necessitate automation; but, if you don’t automate you won’t be able to reduce the unit cost and improve the quality to a level that increases sales. There is no easy answer.

It is usually not possible to change the working environment and, therefore, if this is the critical factor, the decision is made for you. The availability of labour and the training requirements to bring them up to the required standard must be decided regionally. And the issue of quality can either be a marketing decision for your company or one that is imposed from outside.

Whatever the circumstances it pays to be sure. The cost of automation can be high, particularly when it employs the latest robotics, vision systems, welding technology, etc. But the cost of not automating can be devastation.

Will Bourn is sales manager at Modular Automation.