Several important factors must be considered before automating a plant or assembly process.

As competition continues to get tougher, the need for manufacturing companies to automate continues to increase worldwide. Even countries such as China are starting to ramp up automation in factories due to rising labor costs and increased competition.

However, while I am a big supporter of automation and have helped many factories throughout the world automate, there are some factors to consider before automating a plant or assembly process. The list is long, but here are a few tips to get started. We will add some more in coming months.

1. Know Your Application
As I mentioned in a previous blog, the most successful automated robotic solutions usually come from those companies that have a thorough understanding of their current process. From that knowledge, a good robot vendor or system integrator can help design very successful automated robotic solutions. So, before even starting to compare vendors or robots, make sure you have a good understanding of your current process.

2. What is the Motivating Factor for Automating?
There are many reasons to automate, such as to increase throughput, lower costs, improve quality or manufacture new parts that can’t be made by hand. It is a good idea to clearly understand the motivating factors for your next automation project prior to searching for a solution. This sounds obvious, but sometimes, people get too focused on one factor, such as cost savings, and forget about what is really important for their factory, which could be quality or yield improvements. While most projects have multiple motivating factors, always try to keep your focus on the ones most important to your project.

3. Return on Investment
This probably should be the first item to consider when thinking about automating a new or current process. What is the ROI for this automation project? In other words, how long will it take to pay back the initial investment for robots and other automated equipment? In years past, it could take five or 10 years to reach a breakeven point on automated equipment. However, with the technology improvements and cost reductions achieved by robot vendors, some companies now are able to measure ROI in terms of months instead of years. While every process is different, ROI times today are certainly far better than even just a few years ago. Prior to starting your project, make an estimate of your total costs of production today and then compare them to an automated robotic solution to get an idea of how many months it will take to achieve payback. Keep in mind that robot vendors and system integrators are experts in automation, so they will be happy to help you with these calculations at the beginning of your project.

4. Robot Specifications Are Not Enough
When considering robots for your next automation project, it is important to understand that “robot specifications are not enough.” While it’s easy to compare specifications from brochures, the reality is that the specs don’t tell you enough about what each robot can really do. They are a good starting point, but more research is needed for each specific application. For example, let’s look at cycle times. Vendors usually publish champion cycle time rates for their robots. However, those numbers can’t be used to calculate the cycle times for a new application. They are simply a statement of the fastest moves that a particular robot model can do. If your application has moves quite different than the champion data moves, it is quite likely your fastest cycles will not even approach that of the champion data cycles. Therefore, it is a good idea to have an application mocked up or simulated to get a better idea of cycle times you can expect. You may find that the vendor that wins on the spec sheet may not be the best choice for your application.

Rick Brookshire is senior manager of product development and engineering at EPSON Robots.

Editor’s note: “EPSON on Robotics” is one of a new series of guest spots by industry experts that will appear regularly on ASSEMBLY’s blog page. Check back frequently to read more commentaries from Rick, as well as contributions on automated assembly systems, leak testing, machine vision and ergonomics.