Liquid Clinic: Justifying Liquid Automation

Q. I am trying to justify liquid automation for my plant, but am not sure how to develop a return on investment. What are some guidelines that would help?


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Q. I am trying to justify liquid automation for my plant, but am not sure how to develop a return on investment. What are some guidelines that would help?

A. One of the first things to think about is why you’d like to automate. Is it because of cost, quality, waste or something else? Is there a problem you are trying to solve or a risk you are trying to reduce?  There are many good reasons, but these are some of the key things to consider before deciding if automation is right for your company.  

Equipment Cost: Does the cost of equipment alone make automation seem like an impossible venture? Don’t let that scare you away. It’s not as expensive as you might think. According to the Boston Consulting Group, the price for automation is decreasing each year by about 22 percent and automation’s performance is increasing each year by about 5 percent. 

Labor Cost: Is there potential to reduce headcount? Management usually focuses on labor when considering paint line automation—generally the largest factor of savings. The key to reducing labor costs is making sure the actual headcount is lower than what would be required to produce the same volume manually. Just consider that you will have to initially account for some skilled labor to program the robot.

Workforce: Does your workforce perform a lot of repetitive tasks that might cause on-the-job injuries and job dissatisfaction? If so, automation can help solve some of these problems. Robots can often remove employees from dangerous jobs, allowing them to focus on skilled labor jobs that require decision-making and judgment (something robots don’t do well). Another benefit of having a robot is being able to handle an increased volume. For example, if the robot typically works two shifts, five days a week, any increased volume can be run on third shift or on the weekend. Without the automation, you might need to add and train employees in order to handle the peak volumes.

Flexibility: Do you change parts, materials and colors frequently? Robots can easily be reprogrammed to do new jobs. Rather than creating a new fixture, a robot can make adjustments on-the-fly. This flexibility not only saves time during change-overs. It also saves money and simplifies your production planning.

Quality: Do you strive for consistent quality in your final product? To stay competitive, manufacturers can’t afford to have a variation in product quality, especially when it comes to painting. Robots can ensure that the spray gun parameters and spraying motion is exactly the same each time, which increases quality. Even the most skilled painters can’t ensure that type of consistency and precision for each part. Better consistency means less wasted material, better finish quality, and ultimately happy customers.

Reduce Waste: Automation can reduce material consumption by up to 30 percent, thanks to the accuracy of robots. To reduce waste even more, manufacturing managers should look at the type of equipment used with their robot. There are plural component proportioners, which mix material close to the gun, saving you money on material and solvent usage, or electrostatic guns that can increase your transfer efficiency. Spraying less paint not only saves money, but it also means less maintenance, cleanup, lower filter costs and VOC emissions.

Parts: Review what parts you’d like to automate. Are they high-volume parts, labor-intensive parts, or parts with similar configurations? This can reduce the investment related to fixtures and spray path programming. Here are some guidelines.

Automate parts that:

  • Have the same or similar size/features/surfaces
  • Are the same or very similar processes during painting
  • Contribute up to 80 percent of your volume and include only 20 percent of your part numbers
  • Are already organized into a continuous-flow manufacturing line
  • Require a high amount of non-value-added labor like painter repositioning and movement
  • Require precise control or allow zero margin for error

 

Do not automate parts that:

  • Have unique features or processes different from the majority of your part volume
  • Are difficult to fixture, are not stable after fixturing or are difficult to align repeatedly
  • An operator can accomplish the task much easier or quicker than a robot
  • Have low labor content operations, where automation would not gain anything in the manufacturing process

Automation can definitely save manufacturers money far exceeding the implementation costs. Companies that don’t think they can afford robot automation should look again. The savings are everywhere from quality and increased production to reducing waste and overhead costs.

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