Investment and ongoing optimisation
The cost of automation has been steadily declining, but it still requires investment to install a robotic system. It is important to think things through before investing, to clarify the improvements in efficiency that can be achieved with different changes in production. How will a robot solution streamline your process? How can Lean improve your overall flow? Lean is a complete business strategy based on two elements: flow and waste reduction. A single robot or entire robot line will always contribute to more flow. A number of questions are important in this context:
Which product variants do you expect to produce in the future and in what numbers? How many of these variants will run on the robot line? All of them?
What affects the flow through the processes feeding the robot? How efficient are the processes after the robot? Can you establish a well-functioning production flow with minimal transport around the robot?
Is the production area suitably organised and tidy (5S – see figure) with space to receive a robot installation, or will you have to look elsewhere?
What is the uptime of the equipment that will be in the same production line as the robot? Will this surrounding equipment in fact dictate the use of robotic systems?
Do we have experience in using equipment with the same complexity? Do you have existing personnel that can upgrade to handle the robot?
How similar are the parts being processed? Will the robot be able to deal with the variation while maintaining high efficiency?
Futuristic production requires greater and greater flexibility. Be careful to create an installation that can accommodate future new product variants and smaller batch sizes.
Checklist before automation
Before investing in automation, there are a number of things to consider.
Will the investment be profitable -- do we have a comprehensive payback analysis?
Are our items and materials suitable for automated production?
Is our organization geared towards automation? Do we have knowledge and experience regarding project planning, operation and servicing at this level and can we assimilate this technology into our workflow?
Do we know the tolerances of the objects and materials included in the automatic systems - and are these tolerances acceptable for the automated solution?
Will automation improve the process and quality of items so they gain higher value?
Should there be quality control before and / or after the automated system? Manual operators normally consciously or unconsciously conduct quality control of items and react if something is not as it should be.
Does the company itself have knowledge about the process in an automated context, or can we find suppliers who can present a reference plant of the same processes?
Will the automation preserve the production flexibility that our customers demand?
Do our products need redesigning to be suitable for automated production?
Should there be changes elsewhere in the production process to improve the ability of an automated production?
The Genefke Scale
In automation, there are different categories of solutions. To illustrate the complexity and the need for knowledge to realize the solution, the Genefke scale is developed at Danish Technological Institute. Genefke scale is divided into 5 levels difficulties in automation solutions. Before investing in a solution it is important to clarify with a system integrator what kind of solution is most suitable for your production. Below is a definition of each of the five levels:
Category 1 Standard solutions
No external axis.
Number of reference systems: Many
Category 2 Adapted standard solutions
Off-the shelf products, adapted to fit the specific task.
Possibility of several robots (note: without overlapping work areas).
No or few external axis.
Number of reference systems: Sufficient.
Category 3 Unique solutions
Solutions that require new knowledge gained through practical preliminary testing in order to solve technical challenges.
The solutions include processes.
Simple sensory input.
Possibility of several robots with overlapping workspaces.
Cooperative robots with a standard controller.
Number of reference systems: None identical, but parts of this solution can be found in other systems.
Category 4 Innovation/development
Solutions that are so complex that the systems integrator (or: robot supplier) needs to contact specialist knowledge centres to set up the initial trials.
These solutions are most often developed as innovation projects partially financed by development funds.
Solutions include complicated processes.
Input from several different sensors.
Cooperating robots programmed offline.
Number of reference systems: None identical, parts of the solution may sometimes be found in other systems.
Category 5 Research projects
Research projects which are only interesting to industry in the long term.
Robotic solutions that are unlike any seen before.
Cooperating robots programmed in real time.
New types of sensors.
Number of reference systems: NONE.