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Improving Product Quality with Flexible Automation and Software
by Rush LaSelle, Director of World Wide Sales and Marketing
Adept Technology, Inc. Posted 08/31/2010
With recalls taking center stage in today’s media, manufacturers must closely evaluate the cost of poor quality (CoPQ) to their business. CoPQ is typically defined as the costs that would disappear if your manufacturing process was perfect. These costs include lost goodwill and expenses incurred from replacement, refund, rework and scrapping. It has been estimated that CoPQ amounts to approximately 5-30 percent of a manufacturer’s gross sales. This means CoPQ is costing manufacturers millions per year and, therefore, every executive should recognize that quality must be addressed to remain competitive. In industries where the price of product is the most prevailing factor, quality can be a significant differentiator and can either help or hurt your reputation as a manufacturer.
There is a common perception that improving the quality of products being produced can be a costly endeavor. And because of the pressure to shrink budgets and maximize the value of systems already in place, it is often an area overlooked in favor of getting product out the door. Flexible automation and intelligent automation systems are tools manufacturers consider adopting to increase production, streamline their processes and cut costs, but there remains the perception that implementing automation is cost prohibitive. However, when improved quality is included in the analysis, the return on investment associated with flexible automation frequently meets corporate hurdle rates.
Expense of Automating
Probably the most stated reason given for a manufacturer’s hesitation in investing in automation is cost. Many manufacturers claim robots are just too expensive. In the short run, it may seem too expensive to adopt new methods to increase the quality of the products you produce. But in order to remain competitive, you must look past the near-term expense and conceptualize ways to design a system that delivers products with quality assured. Although the cost of a robot isn’t insignificant, when factoring in the total cost of manual labor, you find that in actuality automation is generally more cost effective and efficient.
Consider the cost of one employee. You have salary, benefits, training costs, worker’s compensation, vacation, sick time and of course employees are limited to how long they can work during a shift. Coupled with the fact that automation can run 24/7, manufacturers find that their production increases and in most cases they see a return on investment in less than two years.
“It is important to note too that the cost of automation over the last ten years has dropped significantly,” says Mark Beatty, Automation Project Manager, Mecano Industrie Inc. of Quebec, Canada, a leading robotics integrator. “This coupled with the availability of new pre-engineered software, the ability to provide plug and play systems and pre-delivery testing of systems prior to installation at the customer’s site, all reduces the implementation cost of automation.”
“When considering the ‘total cost of ownership’, or the life of the product they’re building and selling, manufacturers should also consider that automating their systems domestically may be less expensive than incurring the high costs of poor quality and the rising costs of shipping products to and from off shore facilities,” said Mike Koziel, Vice President of Sales, Eagle Technologies, a Michigan-based automation systems provider. “We believe that in the long run, automation, especially ‘flexible automation’, will not only lower manufacturers’ overall costs, but building their products domestically will help restore the United States to the manufacturing power it once was. And that will be good for all of us in many ways.”
Flexible Robotics Can Improve Product Quality
According to the Centre for Disease and Control and Prevention, approximately 70% of all food borne disease is due to viruses spread by direct or indirect contact with infected individuals. The less contact employees have with products, particularly consumable products, the better. Not only does this ensure the delivery of safe foods to the consumer, it saves the manufacturers and packagers exorbitant cost of product recalls and the demise of a company’s reputation. Automating the handling of products will naturally help reduce the human contact equation and reduce incidents of contamination. Where efforts are made to quantify the real and potential costs associated with the many forms of poor sanitation, a reduction of contamination will frequently outweigh the savings associated with the labor reduction itself.
All reputable manufacturers have some type of quality inspection program for their production lines. A typical manual inspection process uses employees visually inspecting small groups of products off line. This proves to be error prone by virtue of the fact that humans are just that, human. They can be easily distracted and their inspection criteria are subjective. This coupled with the fact that they cannot inspect every piece makes the system slow and inaccurate.
According to a report by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, continued improvements in technologies, including the introduction of flexible automation, allow firms to automate inspection tasks, increasing the productivity of their workforce and reducing the demand for inspectors. Flexible automation in combination with machine vision can improve the inspection process significantly by inspecting product earlier in the production process.
Robotics with machine vision can consistently inspect every product with the same criteria every time. This method eliminates human error, is extremely fast and repeatable and can be measured and reported immediately for analysis.
“Vision systems can be a key analytical tool for quality teams,” said Scott Klimczak, President, CHAD Industries. “Not only does an automation inspection process track pass or fail parts but it can also track failure modes. An analysis of a group of similar failures can lead to uncovering issues in the manufacturing process either on site or from a vendor.”
These advantages, and the fact that machine vision systems are more cost effective than ever, makes automated inspection an attractive solution for manufacturers and provides a key advantage for quality improvements. An automated process improves quality by rejecting bad product early and can be adjusted in-line to keep products within quality specifications without disrupting the entire process line. For high- value products this also improves equipment utilization as value is not added to products which could have been detected up stream.
Reducing Bad Parts and Increasing Consistency
Tedious tasks, such as picking and placing products into packaging, are prone to error when manual labor is used. Human error can increase the number of bad parts just by virtue of the fact that employees tire more easily, require breaks, cannot repetitively inspect each part and so on. Automation can accomplish precision-based tasks faster, more efficiently and with consistent repeatability. Robots are designed around the principles of precision and repeatability. For repetitive tasks, which are areas most susceptible to human error, robots provide superior performance, endurance and precision. To replicate a task, a robot need only be trained once through a programming interface then a reliable and consistent process can be achieved.
It doesn’t take a leap of faith or a calculator to conclude that the higher your production rate the lower your cost per unit will be. After all, if you can make twice as many widgets as your competitor in the same amount of time and/or floor space, your advantage is obvious. Lowering your fixed costs, including factory floor space, power and other types of overhead is achieved by ramping up yield, so those costs are spread over a greater amount of output. For this to be achieved, speed remains automation customer’s most pressing requirement. Often when the focus is placed solely on getting product out the door however, quality can be overlooked.
Manufacturers who want to remain competitive need to consider avenues that will allow them to increase production and production speed without compromising quality. Robots can do the things that are tedious, difficult, or unsafe for humans without worry about the humans skipping parts, not assembling them correctly, suffering repetitive-stress injuries and many other problems that slow production down and increase the costs of manufacturing. With a flexible automation application in place, parts can be assembled 24/7, if needed, and not miss a beat or produce bad parts.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration, businesses spend $170 billion a year on costs associated with occupational injuries and illnesses. They further cite that workplaces that establish safety and health management systems can reduce their injury and illness costs by 20 to 40 percent, which can mean the difference between operating in the black and running in the red.
Manufacturers looking to improve quality and safety can take a lesson from the auto industry. As an example, automating the painting process of automobiles has taken the employees out of poor working conditions where they were exposed to hazardous fumes and provided a much more consistent painting application. Automobile painting by robots provides far superior quality.
Another example is the reduction in repetitive stress disorders in employees. Relieving employees from tedious assembly lines with automation reduces the incidents of injury and increases the quality of assembly by using robots that consistently perform the same tasks the same way each and every time.
Automation Software Improving Quality
Understanding the value of flexible automation on quality is fairly straight forward and easily conceptualized. Deploying it is a whole different consideration. Manufacturers looking to improve quality with flexible automation may not have the resources to build complex, automated manufacturing processes that require multiple robots, controllers, conveyors, cameras, etc. Getting from concept to production requires designing, writing and debugging many thousands of lines of code. That’s where automation software comes in. Newly developed automation software brings all the benefits of flexible automation, including improved quality, to users who would not have the resources to build these complex applications in a timely manner.
Intuitive automation software, featuring integrated point-and-click capability, can effectively deploy applications without lengthy, overly complicated programming. Software tools and functionality are now available to rapidly integrate an entire robot line from concept to a fully-operational system. Automation software makes it easy to entirely configure, program and manage single and multi-robot systems (including mixed systems), conveyors, feeders, vision and device IO assignments, without seeing anything other than a user-friendly, PC-based interface. Automation software can be additionally enhanced to incorporate vision-guided and inspection applications and customized for deployment of, for example, packaging applications. By having a means to easily deploy flexible automation for manufacturing applications and reassigning employees to more complex tasks, manufacturers can significantly improve product quality.
Previous incarnations of automation software provided programming functionality, but saw each robot cell as an "island" of automation. While being able to control robots and peripheral automation equipment very well, it was not interfaced to upstream or downstream robot cells so, for example, functions such as dynamically allocating product to specific robot cells required advanced programming. New software based on a .NET platform opens up the software architecture enabling the "application layer" to take on more of a supervisory role in controlling a whole line of robot cells. Today’s software can connect to all robot cells and allocate parts to each one dynamically. If, for some reason one cell cannot process a part, it gets handed back to the software, which allocates it to the next available robot. Now not only has product-handling ability been moved up to the software, but product data as well.
New automation software now has access to all production data. If a part or assembly is inspected somewhere along a production line, it has knowledge of the inspection results and can decide how to process that part. Additionally, it can tie directly into a factory MIS system (using built-in technology such as OPC [Object Linking and Embedding for Process Control]) and instantaneously update product quality information. These techniques can also keep track of product/batch information. So, in the unlikely event of a recall, manufacturers will know where that particular product originated and where in its lifecycle things went wrong, providing the traceability demanded by an increasing number of industries.
Manufacturers can improve quality using flexible automation by improving sanitation, safety and inspection while speeding production, reducing bad parts and increasing consistency. Precise and repeatable robots, coupled with new powerful all-in-one automation software which simplifies automation deployment, can deliver a complete system to help manufacturers produce high-quality products. This protects their image and results in increased levels of business.
Adept Technology, Inc., a leading provider of intelligent vision-guided robotics and global robotics services, is an RIA Supplier Member. For additional information, please contact Adept Technology, Inc. at 925-245-3400 or visit www.adept.com.
CHAD Industries was founded in 1973 as a design and manufacturing company specializing in custom automation. www.chadindustries.net.
Eagle Technologies was founded in 1995 and is a leading automation systems provider. www.eagletechnologies.com.
Mecano Industrie Inc. of Quebec, Canada is a leading robotics integrator and provider of quality robotic systems meeting ISO 9001 international requirements. www.mecanoindustrie.com.