How To Know It's Time To Invest In An Industrial Robot

Timing Is Everything.


There is a good chance you've heard this phrase over and over again. However, it is not often followed up with an explanation on how to narrow down a window when the time is right. If you're a small or medium sized manufacturer, you likely have that timing question in regard to if it's time to invest in robot technology to improve your manufacturing capabilities.

In this case a binary yes-or-no answer will not suffice. You will want to know what this robot will be doing and estimate its full impact to operations. By seeking answers to some key questions below we'll be able to shed a light if now is the time and, if indeed it is, prove out exactly what this robot system should be designed to perform. Our journey will take us through potential application areas and cost-benefit scrutiny to decide if a robot system is a worthwhile pursuit.



Identifying The Candidates


Picking through each process on the factory floor to calculate possible improvements would be a time consuming and difficult endeavor. We need to fast track this. The four questions asked below can help narrow the field and ultimately get us an answer more quickly.




1. Are There Any Dull, Dirty, Dangerous, Or Dexterous Tasks?


The Dull

Manufacturing a product often calls for repetitive tasks that are considered dull to be doing manually for long hours. Industrial robots are built to perform these types of motions over and over again without hesitation for years on end. The person who was formerly embedded in this process can now be free to be reassigned to handle more complex and interesting projects.


Robotic Applications To Consider:

  • Palletizing

  • Packing / Packaging

  • Inspection

  • Machine Tending


The Dirty

Some production tasks simply can't get done without dealing with some uncomfortable working conditions. Relying on manual labor in these areas can lead to unhappy workers and high job turnover rates.


Here dirty just doesn't mean covered in grime (although it certainly means that as well), it also applies to jobs that require any work in unfavorable environmental conditions, such as near ovens that produce extreme heat, machines that create intense noise, or tools that produce fumes and extreme light, such as welding torches.


If this sounds familiar, it might be time to explore augmenting these tasks with an industrial robot designed to operate in such conditions.


Robotic Applications To Consider:

  • Welding

  • Material Handling

  • Machine Tending


The Dangerous

Industrial robots continue to be deployed in ways that increase the safety of factory workers. The risk to the worker can present itself in a variety of ways, which we have split out individually.



Objects

Are workers directly handling a product that presents an immediate danger? Working with sharp or hot material present is an injury risk each time it is handled. See further notes on the repercussions of injuries in the "Analyzing Your Investment Impact" portion near the bottom of this article.



Tasks

Strenuous tasks increase the risk of pain and long term harm to the human body. If a job called for a worker to lift 50lbs overhead, it wouldn't likely be much of an issue. However, if this was called for frequently, it would be a strong candidate for a source of overexertion. Negative physical effects can be seen from persistent precision work as well, where conditions such as carpal tunnel can occur.



Environment

A worker's surroundings can pose as much of a risk as their task. Does your process call for personnel to work in crowded areas or oily or uneven surfaces that risk slip / trip? Does work need to be performed at dangerous heights?


Air quality is another environmental factor that must be considered. Toxic gases, particulate matter, and even prolonged exposure to dust can be detrimental to worker health over the long term.



Machinery

Production equipment is designed to create uniform product as quickly as possible and is not always a pleasure to work around. When high throughput is a priority it is best to leave the machine loading, transfer, and unloading to robots that can move with unparalleled speed and have proper safety integrated into the control system.


Robotic Applications To Consider:

  • Material Handling

  • Machine Tending

  • Bin Picking


The Dexterous

The last "D" in our phrase relates to the industrious skillset that robots have at their disposal. A portion of this skillset that is highly valuable to manufacturers is the speed that is designed into each robot model. Machine tending applications are a prime example of where the speed of industrial robots shine. In the layout below there are 6 locations where a product must be fed into equipment to perform a value adding process, along with another 2 locations to accommodate the incoming and outgoing parts. When throughput is a priority and any machine idle time is lost money, the decision to pursue robot technology is clear.


Take a stopwatch and take a look at the utilization of the machines on your factory floor. What would the machine's operating profit look like if it could be run faster? Could multiple processes be combined all handled within one robot cell?



By coupling advanced software with precision motors and drives industrial robots also boost incredible accuracy and repeatability. Being accurate and repeatable helps in completing any task but such impressive performance in these areas means that more detailed assembly work can now benefit from robotic automation. Robotic assembly is used to connect components in a variety of industries such as consumer electronics, semiconductors, automotive, among others.


Robotic Applications To Consider:

  • Assembly

  • Material Handling

  • Machine Tending

  • Palletizing

  • Packing / Packaging

  • Welding



2. Are Operating Costs High?


Your business is going well and sales are strong, analyzing the dollars contributing to your cost of goods is an essential step to assuring profitability margins are the best they can be. Are you adding labor but not seeing productivity gains on a per unit basis? It might be time to consolidate and use robots to optimize the process.


It is important to scrutinize your injury costs and insurance costs as well. As we'll see in the justification section, they can be a significant factor to shortening your ROI.



3. Are You Experiencing High Turnover Rates / Open Positions?


Regularly recruiting and training new staff can wreak havoc on production schedules and create a drain on company resources that could be put to better use elsewhere. Review your staffing with key managers and the human resources department. It may lead you to an area craving automation.



4. Is Customer Feedback Missing The Mark?


Ultimately, everyone is in the customer satisfaction business and client retention is an important factor to company growth. Even if the vast majority of feedback is positive, what's stopping you from improving your score? Have there been any defective products that have been improperly passed through quality control? Did any shipments reach the customer late?


Industrial robots excel in maintaining quality with their pinpoint accuracy and repeatability. If feedback takes you to an end-of-line that cannot keep up, packing and palletizing robots can be used to speed up the process and be designed to flexibly handle different pallet configurations and product types.



Analyzing Your Investment Impact


Congratulations! If you've come this far, it means you've matched with any of the qualifiers above and have located one or more promising locations for a potential robot. So far this exercise has proved that a robot makes manufacturing sense but now we must determine that it makes financial sense as well.


It is it tempting to simply take output of the status quo and compare it against the improved output of the automated process to calculate a break even and ROI. Doing this would leave out other, more complex costs and benefits of the change. Luckily, the Robotic Industries Association has a ROI Calculator that allows you to input your real-world data and see important data such as cash flow over the course of the system's lifespan.


However, the calculator does not take into account the costs associated with workplace injuries and the rising insurance costs to cover them. The possibility of even a minor injury can prove significant in an ROI calculation as research shows that total indirect costs of an injury are often 3 to 10 times the direct costs. By implementing robotic automation these cost burdens would be reduced or removed entirely. A list of indirect costs and a safety calculator resource can be found in the article, How To Quantify The True Cost Of An Injury In Your Facility.



Compiling Your Results


You should now be equipped with application hot spots and a method of analyzing the financials of a potential investment. The cost and benefit of each system under consideration can now be compared against each other, alternative improvement projects, and the status quo to see what makes the best use of your capital.


Questions on applying this approach? Speak to a robotics expert at IAS to help you through any stage.


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