Most business leaders in manufacturing will agree that the economic recovery has been in progress for many months. Proposal activity is surging and orders are beginning to roll in again for the strong companies that have survived.

Fulfilling these new orders is not as straightforward as it once was. The context of the manufacturing business in the U.S. has changed. Global competitive pressure has been present for a long time now, but the economic downturn has forced companies to become very lean, both with equipment and manpower. With the prospect of new business that requires growth, we must rethink old assumptions and ask if there is a way to become more efficient and competitive in the world marketplace. How can a company do more with existing equipment and manpower?

Robotic automation is one of the solutions that can improve efficiency of manufacturing. As production requirements increase, robots can be used to efficiently tend existing machines for medium and large lifetime production volumes. Companies that currently produce parts with machine tools, injection molding, die casting or other machine-oriented processes should consider retrofitting with robotics for machine tending.

Why consider automation instead of just adding machine or personnel capacity? Robotics can act as a “force multiplier” for existing production resources. Once the robotic application is set up, the cost of running a production operation 8, 16, or 24 hours does not change much. Adding an extra shift of personnel requires effort of hiring, training, supervision, wages and all the associated overhead. After the robotic process is set up, the quality and repeatability of the process is very reliable.

As the economy heats up, production planning is not easily predicted by you or your customers. In an environment of wildly varying manufacturing volumes, automation makes even more sense. Follow-up production runs require only that the robot needs to be loaded with the tooling and program for the product; then the run starts.

Set-up: Setting up automation does not happen instantly. It requires planning, design and programming. Waiting until the big order comes in before thinking about the automation is a mistake. Instead, consider the type of production you do and create a strategy of how robotics can be utilized in a general way for these products.

Selection: Choosing a robot with a PC-based controller can provide the flexibility for future expansion as your business needs change. Consider the details of tooling design and robotic programming as part of your proposal process. Document set-up procedures for easy replication in future runs. Be smart and plan ahead so when the order arrives, you are prepared to move fast.

Machine retrofit: Retrofitting an existing machine can be simple or complex, depending on the goal. The robot will need to communicate with the machine in order to coordinate actions. For a simple process, it may need only a start-and-stop signal. More complicated processes will need signals passed to the machine and response signals received back.

Find out what capability your machine has for interfacing with a robot. It may be necessary to upgrade the machine with an external control option. Injection molding machines typically use an industry standard SPI interface. Machine tools are less standardized. They may require control signals like Start Cycle, Stop, Open Door, Close Door, Open Jig, Close Jig and Error Codes. Planning and upgrading the controls interface is an important preparation task that could be done in advance of the projects that require automation.

Planning: Starting automation planning early is important. Part of the process is building the skills of your team. In-depth training can help change the corporate culture from thinking “robotics is frightening” to “robotics is our way to stay a strong competitor”. Designating an automation champion within your organization can facilitate training and knowledge transfer.
Management needs to leave behind the old short-term thinking and adopt a long-term strategy for success. Instead of asking “How can I maximize profit from this opportunity?” think “How can I position my company to be more scalable and efficient for the future and profit from every opportunity?” Becoming more efficient is the best way to ensure long-term survival.