Automated Assembly / Robotics Assembly
Assembly Automation

Working With the Lights Out

In their attempts to avoid costly labor, engineers can overinvest in machines.

November 26, 2012

Every company planning to repatriate manufacturing seems convinced that the solution to American labor rates is, basically, not to use labor. So automation and robotics are back in the spotlight. Automation unquestionably represents the future of manufacturing in Western nations, but the glitter of mechanization makes it easy to get carried away. In their attempts to avoid costly labor, engineers can overinvest in machines.

Automation is wonderfully economical—except when it’s not. Time and again, I’ve seen smart engineers make dumb automation decisions, some of them ruinous.

I’ve been hearing praise for the concept of “lights out” factories for close to 30 years. It sounds utopian (unless you happen to be an assembly worker, I suppose). But in my experiences, lights out factories tend to mean that everyone ends up working in the dark. For example, Apple Computer built a highly automated factory in Fremont, CA, in the late 1980s that it touted as the model of modern assembly—it closed in 1992. Steve Jobs built a highly automated factory to build NeXT computers, but his projected demand for NeXT products was wildly optimistic. The machines operated at a tiny fraction of their capacity, and the company got out of the hardware business. Ultimately, Jobs fell in love with manufacturing based not on machines but hundreds of thousands of Chinese hands.

General Motors bought into massive automation for the unfortunate Saturn experiment. The investment was so great that it was hard to see, on the basis of interest expense alone, how the company could make money. As it turned out, Saturn did become a financial dark hole. But GM was hardly alone in expecting more from automation than the machines could deliver. Very large plants of most major automotive suppliers ended up as little more than warehouses for equipment that became obsolete much sooner than the official amortization schedules.

With apologies to Isaac Asimov, here are a few rules about automation:

The first rule of automation is straightforward: Recognize that few machines are as flexible as human beings. People can be retrained and relocated. People don’t need preventive maintenance (although machines don’t require workers’ compensation premiums). People can adjust easily to slightly modified parts that may baffle a robot (although today’s machines tend to be more easily reprogrammed than those of the past). And, for better or worse, workers can work overtime or be laid off. There are compelling reasons why Chinese factories rely more on humans than robots (and, yes, the availability until recently of endless hands at exceptionally low cost has been the most compelling).

The second rule only appears obvious: Be sure the activity to be automated is actually a necessary activity. Does whatever those humans are doing add value? While doing everything at lower cost is preferable to doing the same things at higher cost, nothing beats eliminating the task entirely. Yet, over and over, I find factories where non-value-adding human activities have been mechanized. For example, in my field of electronics assembly, companies buy elaborate postsoldering washing equipment when cleaning can be completely avoided by using the correct kind of flux.

Third rule: Use realistic amortization schedules. Machines wear out, but technologies can change fairly quickly, too, so equipment that can meet today’s needs may be unable to handle the next generation of components even if the machine remains in perfect working order. Placement equipment for surface-mount electronic parts tends to have fairly short service life because components keep getting smaller and require greater placement precision.

Fourth rule: Don’t buy robots made by your competitor. For many years, the most sophisticated electronics assembly robots were sold by Japanese companies. But the robots in Japanese factories always seemed to be at least one generation ahead of those sold to American companies.

Ultimately, of course, the decision to automate will be determined by production volumes. Even though robots are increasingly flexible, they make most sense where batch size is huge. The type of production being brought back to this country tends to be characterized by lower volume and higher variety, not ideal candidates for automation.

What have your automation experiences been? Is robotics the inevitable future for your company or will the capabilities and versatility of American workers make labor a better choice than robotics despite high wage rates? What are your rules of automation?

Editor’s note: Before “Shipulski on Design,” “Leading Lean,” and “Uncommon Sense,” there was ASSEMBLY magazine’s longest running and most controversial back-of-the-book column, “Unconventional Wisdom” by Jim Smith. A nationally known expert on electronics assembly, Smith never hesitates to question the sacred cows of manufacturing and economics. You can read more from him at his “Science of Soldering” blog.

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automate power and precision functions

November 26, 2012
There's no such thing as "light out" automation. But there is, as the article points out, right-sized automation based on automating the right function, from a value-add proposition point of view and scaling it to the technical capabilities of a particular plant to support that automation while still being flexible. Most failed automation projects are the result of automating the wrong process by manufacturing engineers who really don't understand their own process and assume that automation is going to fix a bad process. Every plant has many of these "white elephants" out back. On the other hand, if automation is focused with the simple rule of automating power and precision functions while keeping dexterity functions manual, generally, the results are excellent and the labor substitution goes very well.

November 27, 2012
Mr. Smith's first three rules are certainly valid in today's global manufacturing environment. As a long-time custom machine builder and robotic systems integrator, our challenge is to cost-effectively integrate automated systems with skilled manual operations--not fully eliminate them. Note that skilled does not always mean education, but rather the visual, dexterity and analysis skills that automation does not yet have. Lights-out manufacturing for most products, while technically feasible for a few, is not financially achievable with current corporate cost- justification models. As automation costs drop and robotic technology continues on the evolutionary path towards human-like capability, this scenario will change.

Chief Engineer

Paul Grayson
January 17, 2013
Mechanical men, with dexterous hands that use downloadable skill apps that are not part of a companys permanent work force but instead are casual day labor, that works for less than minimum wage, might just be the answer. Following rule #4, we need to develop them within the borders of the USA for use within the USA. I would be glad to help develop a labor pool of mechanical men that could be leased for the hours they are needed.

automate the right tasks

February 25, 2013
Perhaps "fewer lights" automation may be more appropriate. Sometimes, automation can do a better job than humans, especially when volumes are large or the precision and repeatability of the task being performed are beyond reasonable human limits. It is gerenerally easier to calibrate a number of tools to provide repeatable results than it is to train human operators to produce the same results. Sometimes, the mistake may be to automate tasks that are easy to perform, such as loading and unloading parts, or transferring them to another automated tool. The ROI on these tools may be much lower and may complicate the overall process.

Automation saves labor costs

March 1, 2013
There are many reasons for automation. Labor cost, of course, is a very important reason. If production relies heavily on labor, then sooner or later production will move to a low-labor-cost country. If we want to keep the production local and labor cost is high, automation is the only answer in the long run. But there are other factors, such as quality concerns. Even in countries that rely heavily on the low-cost labor, more and more automation is being put in place to guarantee the quality of the products. The handling and placement of parts may be done manually, making use of the excellent dexterity capabilities of humans, while machines will perform the processes and testing, to avoid the human weakness of making judgment calls about quality.

have faith

March 4, 2013
Good comments, all. Let me add that the writer's view of automation seems quite narrow... Sure, GM and others may have made some questionable capital investments (mainly due to their own bureaucracy), but in general the technology they have bought over the years is sound and productive. In fact, they were (and are) able to leverage more value out of robots and other machinery with their behemoth purchasing power than most other companies can. One certainly cannot blame automation for their troubles, as their failures have far more to do with questionable business, labor and even design practices than with questionable investments in automation technology. Also, the writer seems to have little to no confidence in flexible automation. While the lean Holy Grail of "single-piece flow" is difficult to achieve in most real-world manufacturing environments, small batch sizes are easier than ever to accommodate. As with everything, "it depends." But electronics manufacturing is not a fair indicator for manufacturing as a whole.



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