Published in Manufacturing

West Michigan manufacturers must plan ahead to avoid automation missteps, experts say

BY Sunday, November 11, 2018 09:23pm

While many companies adopt automation to improve factory efficiency and equipment uptime, some West Michigan-based experts warn that improperly implemented technology can cost businesses in the long run.

That’s especially true for companies who automate for the sake of it, or those who add the technology without a proper level of strategic planning involved in the process, said Joe Dyer, team leader of manufacturing technology at Disher Corp.

The Zeeland-based engineering, consulting and product development firm has seen many examples recently in which companies run into problems when they overemphasize automation or miscalculate the return they’ll get on the technology, he said.

“If you are going to invest in automation, you really, really have to understand your processes and what value that automation is creating,” Dyer told MiBiz.

Dyer pointed to struggles nationally at electric vehicle maker Tesla Inc. as “an interesting case study” of the phenomenon.

In April, Tesla CEO Elon Musk admitted to over-automating, saying “excessive automation was a mistake at Tesla.” The blunder resulted in the OEM missing output targets for its all-electric Model 3 sedan.

According to Dyer, Tesla’s mistake with over-automating its factories is a common issue shared with many West Michigan manufacturers. In recent months, Dyer said he’s talked with area companies that either have over-automated or had “unrealistic expectations” when it came to the technology.

“If you don’t understand the process and the value the automation is creating … then it’s not worth it,” Dyer said. “I see it all the time. I had a client that contacted us and they said, ‘We are buying a robot this year.’ I said, ‘OK, what are you going to do with the robot?’ And they had no engineers on staff and it was a continuous-line process. They want to load their lines with a robot … but didn’t have a plan to do that.”

The lack of a cohesive plan for deploying automation such as collaborative robots, or cobots, and other advanced manufacturing technologies is perhaps the biggest “no-no” manufacturers are facing, he said.

“I couldn’t get it across to them that you have to have a good plan and setup for that to be successful,” Dyer added.

Ultimately, West Michigan companies must “do their homework” to understand how the robots would work within their current manufacturing systems, according to Dyer.

In Tesla’s case, the problem was automating a process — the building of “fluff bots,” which create insulation for battery packs inside cars — that didn’t need to be automated, which is a waste of money, he said.    

“If you get a robot that sits on the floor and doesn’t do anything because there wasn’t a plan in place in order to implement it, the shop floor is not going to look favorably upon that,” Dyer said. “That was an idea of (installing) automation before any other plan was in place. The problem I see is people come to conferences and see a lot of cobots … which is great technology. But how are we implementing it with effectiveness? We hear them say they need cobots, IIOT, pulled data … but how are they truly (implementing) that?

“That’s the difficult part, and the part that, quite honestly, takes more effort.”

In his visits to West Michigan factories, Dyer oftentimes sees “in maintenance areas and in shop areas (and) tool rooms, robots sitting.”

It’s not that the “robots did anything wrong, it’s that there was this impetus from the C-level to buy robots, to buy automated equipment because they know it will help their businesses, which is a good thing.”

The problem: “There’s a disconnect between that motivation and the implementation on the shop floor,” said Dyer, adding that when that happens, “robots sit.”

“I see it every quarter,” he added.

Doing it right

According to Dyer, one company “understanding their product and their product’s use” when it comes to automation is DeWys Manufacturing Inc., a Marne-based metal fabrication company with 175 employees.

“You have to truly take a deep look,” Dyer said of a company’s processes. “That’s why DeWys has done such a good job — of knowing in their operations what’s going to be the most value-add, the most effective way to implement automation, including cobots and robots and sensors.”

According to Ryan Crandell, a welding engineer for DeWys Manufacturing, the company increased its earned hours — a measure of production efficiency — with robotic arc welding by 375 percent since 2013. Last year, Crandell said arc welding robots made up 79 percent of total automation at DeWys, “with forming, automated insertion, and collaborative robots” making up the rest of the company’s portfolio.

“Automation is a priority at DeWys, and we talk about it weekly,” Crandell said during the Manufacturing Leadership Summit, an Oct. 30 conference put on by The Right Place Inc. and the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center West in Grand Rapids.

“The main goal for the innovation team that I work on is to increase automation earned hours,” he said, referring to the time saved through the use of automation. “One way we do this is by taking manual work and moving it to automated cells.”     

This year, DeWys Manufacturing has purchased two new Fanuc arc welding robots, a Bystronic forming robot, and its second collaborative robot, Crandell said. DeWys’ investments, along with internal training for team members, have increased the total automation earned hours by 70 percent since 2017, Crandell said.

At DeWys, non-welding processes now make up 38 percent of earned hours for robotics, he added.

“To put this growth into perspective, it would be equivalent to 7.5 team members earning 40 hours per week over the course of the year,” Crandell told MiBiz. “I’d … give our two new arc welding robots a payback period of three years. We know these arc welding robots have a very long life, and it is something we’ve been using since the mid 1990s.”

In addition to the arc welding robots, cobots have a payback period of roughly nine months, he said.

“Technology can be very overwhelming,” Crandell said. “It’s growing at a rapid rate, (but) having people on staff that can have it be their sole job to look into these technology advancements can be the key to future growth.”

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