Global Material Handling System Integrators

Who’s Afraid of a Little Automation?


Like most things in life you have your early adopters, mainstream buyers, and your technology laggards. So how do you comfort those with automation phobia when they become members of a high profile project? In short, it takes a lot of patience and communication to help eliminate the perceived risk. Since the 1980s, there have been several claims that automation is the panacea to solve all problems. Robots and AGVs (automated guided vehicles) were probably oversold back in the '80s and the capabilities and overall reliability didn’t quite live up to the promised ROIs (return on investment). Fast forward 25 years and the advances in servo-driven robots and mobile robots / AGVs have been tremendous. ROIs have been reduced to often  less than 2 years based on the flexibility and speed of the automation tools. An automation risk assessment framework can be very helpful to ease the worries of those team members who would prefer to keep on going with the manual labor methods of the past:

  1. Go on two to three site visits with similar applications and talk with the operators who run the automation equipment. Installation and ongoing operational challenges will quickly be determined. An alternate is a well planned out factory acceptance test of the technology.
  2. How complex is the information interface? Is it a common and open protocol? Are there good tools for the customer to make configuration changes on their own? Often the exception handling of information either on the host or automation side can trip up even the best automation technology if not well thought out.
  3. Is there a customer system expert with the right mix of technical skills, sound troubleshooting skills, and a positive attitude to run the new automation technology reliably? After all of the suppliers and controls engineers go home, the reliability of the system is directly proportional to the competence of the on-site system expert who has been trained to run the automation.
  4. Ideally you can regulate the flow of orders into the new automation over several months as the system ramps up in order volume. It is naive to believe that all issues will be uncovered while performing integrated testing before the project go-live. As the order volume ramps up new problems will be discovered. It is very important that your supplier or integrator maintains a healthy mix of resources on site during these order ramp up periods. It is very common for overall productivity to drop 10% to 25% with a new system until everyone is trained and the bugs are worked out. It is usually the kiss of death to do a large stair step ramp up in orders and assume that on day one you will realize all of your productivity gains and you can immediately eliminate half of the workforce.
  5. Protect your automation equipment from blackouts and brownouts in power. The best way to do this is with a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) on all critical equipment to filter the power and protect it from surges (lightning). Also make sure you isolate your local area network (LAN) associated with the automation, otherwise when accounting kicks off a batch ERP or host system report your sorter may have quite a few no-reads.
  6. On the job training is critical to properly running the new automated system. The more comfortable the associates or operators are in running the system, the more success you will have. Helping the operators feel comfortable running the system typically results in several great operational recommendations that optimizes the running of the new system. In short, listen to the operators.

Having had the good fortune to implement many automated systems through the years, the people factor and change management is a big deal for the operators and senior management running a new system. There is a fine balance in letting the customer run the system themselves versus having the integrator always jump in to troubleshoot and save the day. During the start-up, we recommend that you process orders at a pace so everyone can be successful. Be sure to dole out a healthy serving of “atta-boys” for the operators that do well. Often automation is an island that is dependent on upstream and downstream material flows. If you can’t stock or replenish the automated technology it doesn’t really matter how good the technology is if it is starved for product. Also, all material flows have to be synchronized throughout the entire process. You can have the world’s fastest ASRS or robot, but it will sit idle a majority of the time if upstream and downstream operations are not synchronized. To wrap up, with good communication and small successful start-up steps, even the most ardent naysayers can be brought around to the benefits of automation and into the 21st century. Good luck with your next automation project!

Author: Sheila Dooley


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