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First milestones

First-time buyers have a lot to consider when investing in a robotic automation system

When investigating your first robotic automation cell purchase, multiple considerations are involved, but the overall process can be categorized into a few simple milestones. As more companies struggle to maintain their competitive advantage, automation can be a key part in that process.

Looking at the big picture, the decision to automate is the easy part. Ironing out the details is what is daunting. The various choices can be intimidating, but if you treat it like any other large project and reduce it to smaller milestones, you will find it’s easier to track progress and manage the various groups that should be involved.

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An M-900iA robot holding a skid-steer lift arm while two F-200iB robots perform a deburring process.

Milestone 1: The decision to investigate

If you are reading this article, chances are you have already decided you need to do something different. If you are on the fence about automating, ask yourself what you are doing now to grow your business. The decision to automate may be forced on you by a lack of talent, resources or throughput. It may be due to overhead or poor quality. Or maybe you just landed a large order and now have to decide how to fulfill it.

Whatever the reason, the options have never been more plentiful. If you take a proactive approach and investigate before the decision is forced on you, you will have the luxury of time and will be able to avoid being pressured into tight timelines to implement a less thought-out decision.

Milestone 2: What to automate?

Is it a complex process you are looking to simplify or is it a high-volume process and you’re looking for efficiency increases? Are you automating the bottleneck in your process or looking to improve quality? Evaluate the processes that are upstream and downstream of the process under consideration. Sometimes, it’s beneficial to address these areas to allow for creating flexibility for your overall production line to possibly handle more variations.

Also investigate the environment that the automation equipment is going into. Is it a sterile or harsh environment? Does the process require a frigid environment or excessive heat? These attributes will help determine the ideal robot model for your application. What is the payload requirement? With robotic payloads now ranging from 0.5 kg to 2,300 kg, chances are there is a robot built specifically for that environment and application.

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An M-2000iA/900L robot holds a construction backhoe frame while two pairs of QuadArm ARC Mate robots simulate welding. The pair of R-2000iB robots are sorting and inspecting parts and placing them on the frame for welding.

Write down the applications you are looking to automate and make a list of the goals for each of them. Then use this list when getting bids, performing your final run-off or buy-off (the final inspection and approval at the automation supplier or integrator before shipping), and again after it is up and running at your facility. This will help ensure your objectives are clearly laid out and agreed upon by you and the automation supplier and scrutinized at each stage of the implementation. It will also provide opportunities to learn about possible new solutions and approaches to your particular goals.

If your current automation consideration is only to address a short-term need that will render the machine it is used with obsolete afterward, consider where that machine and automation equipment could be put to use next. This may influence the size of the robot or the location of its installation. It could also influence what software options you add and help with the cost justification if it can be applied over multiple products or projects.

Milestone 3: Selecting a supplier, integrator

When evaluating an automation supplier, consider an OEM that has experience with the processes you are automating. Additionally, look at all of the processes inside your facility and not just at the immediate need. You may only be considering welding or painting at the moment, but later you might be interested in machining, cutting, packaging or palletizing. Select a manufacturer that can provide the luxury of one-stop shopping. Standardizing with one manufacturer can provide many advantages long term versus shopping by the “sale of the month.”

By staying with one manufacturer, you have the benefit of minimizing the variety of spare and service parts you will need to stock.

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Dual-arm ARC Mate 100iC robots working with a 2-axis servo positioner to weld the seams of a stainless steel toolbox.

You also have the benefit of having a common programming language across your floor. This, in turn, makes it easier to cross-train workers on multiple machines. It also allows for introductory programming classes to be offered to larger audiences, thus minimizing training costs.

If you do not have the internal capability to integrate your new equipment, you must select someone to perform that function. Multiple automation companies are available that can integrate your chosen robot into a more complex, fully functional system.

The first thing to ponder is the location of the integrator, as this will control the response time to your needs. If you have several factories located in various regions, ideally you would select one integrator with many remote offices that could service your various facilities. This again keeps things consistent within your company.

But don’t leave the smaller integrators out of the picture, either. Smaller integrators offer benefits of their own. They can take on projects some of the larger ones cannot. They may also have expertise in special process areas that larger integrators do not.

Ask the integrator or automation supplier if there is an opportunity for a lease or consignment contract. This will give you the opportunity to “try it before you buy it.” For some applications, you can also ask the supplier or integrator to process some of your parts so you can see firsthand what your finished product will look like and get a more realistic feel for the capabilities of the supplier or integrator.

After narrowing down your preferred list of automation suppliers and integrators, I strongly encourage you to visit their facilities. Spend time meeting and interviewing a potential integrator’s support personnel and also visit the supplier and meet your extended support group.

It needs to be a team effort with everyone pulling for you, the customer, to be successful. Look at their customer support network and evaluate if it will fit your requirements. Ask about their spare parts inventory. This will help you understand what types of parts you will need to stock internally and what can be shipped overnight from the supplier to minimize downtime.

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An LR Mate 200iC/5L robot welding a bracket in a simple production cell.

Milestone 4: Making a budget

Your automation supplier or integrator should work with you to provide a system that will meet your objectives and have enough technology to address your current issues and possibly some you may run into in the future. They should make you aware of all the various technologies available, but not try to incorporate all of them into your cell if they aren’t needed. Your budget has to include any spare parts needed to minimize downtime and also any training to bring the current workers and support staff up to speed with your new automation equipment.

You will need to determine if you will do the programming in-house or subcontract it out. There are multiple companies that offer programming services onsite. They could also be used to train your resident programmer and maintenance personnel. You will need to have someone onsite that knows the programming language to minimize the downtime and expense of supporting your new automation system.

Also, you will want to budget for regular maintenance. As with any piece of equipment, the more frequently it is maintained, the longer the life expectancy.

Additionally, government programs and other state-specific funding are available for investing in manufacturing. There may also be tax incentives for purchasing capital equipment, as well. And don’t leave out your local municipal service providers. Some power companies offer incentives for purchasing equipment with better power efficiency.

If you are considering automating a high-volume product, you may see a return on investment in a matter of months. For complex or expensive assemblies, you may be able to reach an ROI in a few parts.

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An ARC Mate 710iC/12L robot working with a 2-axis servo positioner to weld a utility vehicle frame.

Milestone 5: Getting buy-in

This, surprisingly, can be one of the most critical milestones. Projects – both large and small – fall to pieces because this step was not taken into consideration at any point of the process. Therefore, it’s key to determine who on the shop floor is going to be responsible for your new automation system.

An all-too-common mistake is not identifying this person and getting them involved in the project from the beginning. If they are allowed to provide input into the design and function of the automation system, they will most likely have pride/buy-in and a sense of responsibility for its success once it hits the floor. They will know all too well the various struggles of making that particular product.

Also, try to have regular informational meetings on the progress of the cell with your operators, mechanics, tooling supplier, electricians and any other applicable skilled tradesmen. They can be incredibly informative when it comes to designing an automation system that is serviceable and functional. Combined, these individuals typically have much more experience than the engineer or project manager heading up the project, and their observations can be productive toward the success of implementing new automation equipment.

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An R-2000iB robot with a laser welding head inside of an enclosure.

Hopefully these milestones have provided enough food for thought to create the necessary comfort level for deciding whether or not automation is the right choice. And although this list was intended for first-time buyers, it’s just as applicable to a 10th and 20th piece of automation equipment.

Fanuc America Corp.