In the early days of the 21st century, the role of the manufacturing engineer is very difficult to define. It's a role that grows more complex day in and year out.

What does management expect from manufacturing engineers today? In particular, what does management want manufacturing engineers to accomplish with automated assembly systems?

The answer is as simple as it is complex--an ever-expanding level of knowledge and expertise in areas that were once considered singular disciplines. Today's manufacturing engineer is looked upon as a technical specialist, a manufacturing strategist and an operations integrator with expertise in manufacturing processes, manufacturing equipment, project management and equipment acquisition. These roles become extremely critical when the business strategy of a company requires significant investment in assembly automation.

Manufacturers are facing ever-increasing customer demands and constantly rising competitive pressures. More than ever before, new products require the shortest possible time to market. The traditional decision-making chain--where new products move from product development to engineering, through marketing, to material purchasing to manufacturing and on to sales--is no longer valid.

Everything now needs to happen at the same time in a productive, cohesive program that brings the best product to the marketplace seemingly overnight. In today's world, these programs are managed by manufacturing engineers. But, they are challenged to acquire the very best in process and assembly automation equipment within budget and timeframe windows that are constraining at best and impossible at worst.

Acquisition Process

Acquiring the necessary assembly automation equipment requires a high level of risk and complexity. A combination of factors, which are difficult to package into a one-size-fits-all solution, make this process very complex. For instance, every assembly automation project is unique. Each solution or system is also unique. However, there are often many solutions that are as equally good as they are different.

Most automated assembly systems purchased today are used for assembling products that are not currently being produced or marketed. These new products will not be assembled in any significant volume prior to the installation of the system and any peripheral equipment.

Automated assembly projects typically begin by identifying a product that requires automation rather than manual assembly. Reasons for choosing to automate vary from high volume requirements to individual piece-part quality verification to process verification and product functional testing. In terms of the individual piece parts, all but the most unusual parts are generally produced from an assortment of standard machine tools, processing equipment and tooling, such as dies or molds, or are purchased.

Generally, the costs associated with the manufacturing or acquisition of components are easily identifiable and become known early on. In many respects, this part of the overall product production process is generic. But, the acquisition of required assembly automation tools and other related equipment is not.

Knowledge and definition are the most critical tools manufacturing engineers need to navigate the complex maze of the equipment acquisition process. Key components include:

  • Complete working knowledge of the capabilities of those vendors from whom you plan to ask for proposals. This should include information on the types of equipment produced, industries served, company history, a top-10 customer list, details on the company's most recent installation and financial information.
  • Development in writing of as much project information as possible. This should include a project definition, project specifications and key project personnel from product de-sign, manufacturing and purchasing.
  • Earliest possible identification of selected builders of all custom automated systems required.
  • Total commitment of the project manager and his or her team to the project. This should include allocated time for a visit to the vendor.

Arrange a Personal Visit

Before the automation procurement process begins, manufacturing engineers must have in-depth knowledge of the types of equipment produced and the capabilities of potential suppliers. There are many ways to acquire this knowledge, but a personal visit is the best.

In the early stages of projects, upper management is often reluctant to allow engineers the time and funding required to make in-person visits, believing that this can wait until after a vendor has been selected. This is flawed thinking. Travelling to prospective vendors prior to requesting proposals can avoid the enormous cost of poor vendor selection later on.

The knowledge gained from such visits greatly helps manufacturing engineers effectively define their project, compare proposals and eventually purchase a system best suited to their specific project's requirements.

Once a list of potential vendors has been identified, a certain level of project definition is required before accurate, meaningful project equipment proposals can be obtained. Specific areas that should be carefully considered include:

  • Product definition, including size and weight parameters.
  • Product drawings, including assembly and individual components.
  • Product variations.
  • Component part availability for both prototype and production models.
  • Annual volume requirements, including a production schedule and a ramp up time frame.
  • System delivery requirements. This should include both system acceptance by the vendor and system installation and acceptance by the buyer.
  • Specific process or testing requirements for both components and finished, assembled products.
  • Applicable financial information, such as project budgets and return on investment (ROI) requirements.
It is much easier to define project requirements when you have first identified a well-researched list of potential equipment suppliers. The quality of the information and feedback you receive will directly affect the quality of the proposals you receive. The more complete the information, the more accurate the proposal. It's extremely helpful if some equipment description or specification is part of the request for proposal.

While this is certainly not a requirement for an effective proposal request, it does allow for a more "apples to apples" comparison of proposal packages. But, adding an equipment specification requires a certain degree of knowledge of the different types and styles of assembly systems available.

With a thorough knowledge of the potential builder's capabilities and areas of expertise, it usually becomes clear, as proposals are analyzed, where the best technical solution can be realized.

The Price Is Right

Obviously, system pricing must also be considered. While price is not irrelevant, it should not be among the top three considerations. Areas far more critical in the vendor selection process are:
  • The builder's ability to adequately address product process and production requirements.
  • The builder's experience and financial condition.
  • The cost of system ownership.
Overall system price is often a moving target until the project is nearly complete. But, the principles of concurrent engineering dictate that vendors of special systems be selected before final product design and before final, firm price proposals. The normal process associated with more standard capital purchases--creating a project budget and having fixed funds allocated--does not work well.

Today's globally competitive man-ufacturing environment dictates that real life partnerships between prod- uct manufacturers and equipment builders must be established at the earliest possible point in a project. There must be mutual respect and active, two-way dialogue from project inception to completion. Project managers must be joined at the hip to both their own product design group and the equipment builder's engineering staff.

Traditional ROI formulas rarely work with custom assembly automation. Attempts to cram the cost of special manufacturing systems into these formulas is usually unsuccessful.

Corporate purchasing policies should consider product life when determining ROI on custom-engineered systems. Most products that are assembled with automated equipment have life cycles of 5 years or more. Purchasing equipment because of corporate insistence that overall system costs fit 1- or 2-year ROI formulas is a big mistake.

Ownership Considerations

The price of an assembly system and the cost of owning and operating it tend to be mutually exclusive. In the real world, some types of equipment outperform others. Some build-ers are better than others.

The goal should always be to own a system that, day in and day out, year in and year out, has the lowest amount of scheduled or unscheduled down-time and yields the maximum in net production. Relatively small percentages of higher yield can make seem-ingly large differences in initial purchase price insignificant very quickly after installation.

When an assembly system performs at or above expectation levels, no one ever asks how much it cost. When a system performs poorly, however, people always ask how much it cost. Manufacturing engineers who are responsible for selecting a system builder should do as much homework as possible on the cost of ownership before making a final selection.

Real project life begins the day a customer selects a machine builder. This process is a lot like getting married. The goal is to live happily ever after. Similar to marriage, the cost in both economic and human terms can be considerable if you select the wrong system or builder.

Manufacturing engineers must perform like the general manager of a football team. The idea is to put the best players at every position within the salary cap and keep everybody motivated for the entire season so all can toast the team with champagne at the end. This scenario happens every day with hundreds of automated assembly projects. And it's a role for which manufacturing engineers deserve a great deal of credit and respect.