By Adil Shafi, Shafi Inc.
HERE IN THE EARLY 2000s, American automotive manufacturing, the space where my company’s vision-guided robotics (VGR) integration expertise lies, faces several competitive pressures. First among these is high cost of labor and healthcare compared to other nations. A second is transportation cost and delivery logistics between the plants that make components and the plants that do final automotive assembly. Many automotive plants were built years ago with the intent to spread the wealth over different regions. Transportation costs were different. Nowadays, many new plants, especially in the southern U.S. are less dependent on transportation.
A third pressure is a lack of flexible manufacturing infrastructure to run new or changed products without major retooling and those annual automation line shutdowns.
A fourth issue is product traceability and in–line inspection to check quality as components and sub–assemblies are made.
From our perspective, innovative and flexible automation is becoming increasingly relevant and competitively important. American automotive manufacturing and business managers now take a serious look at these innovations to see if they help overcome these pressures.
This interest involves several factors: cost of implementation and return on investment (ROI), reliability of technology, and successful implementation, which, in turn, relates to experience, concepting, correctness of design decisions, project management, and the final user’s ability to sustain these applications via training, easy-to-use solutions, and readily available diagnostics.
Innovation is motivated by the current business climate. It also is fostered positively by technical factors that include ease of local and global communication, dramatic improvements in algorithm processing speeds, and ease of manufacturing simulation, ease of conferencing between interested parties to refine ideas and innovations, among others. The resultant solutions are being tested through qualification tools such as pre–sale demonstrations, a review of an innovating company’s technical and project implementation track record, its training and support record, plant references, etc.
Innovations happen frequently in academic and supplier labs, but they often are slow to reach plant floors. A lot of risk is assumed by early end user adopters, but there clearly is a lot of interest in being first. If they succeed for a year or two and a plant can point to solid cost of operations successes with quantifiable business performance, the adoption rate grows rapidly--typically in two to three years.
The subsequent rush to implement comes with its own risks--pricing pressure can provide an entry to unproven suppliers. New technology methods might incur delays in understanding, sourcing, and absorbing the value of “lessons learned.” Short implementation timeframes for larger volumes of systems can create logistical risk even if the solutions are individually reliable and sound.
Finally, a large failure can dampen or suspend the enthusiasm of the initial success. A lot is at stake for end users, system integrators and component suppliers. In an environment where commitments to capital expenditures are made with the utmost caution, a project failure can hamper future commitments. In the short term it is easy to overvalue the enthusiasm and adoption of new innovations. However, in the long term, it is easy to underestimate the capacity needed to implement a sea change of reliable adoption.
Our specialty, vision-guided robotics (VGR), is one such innovation that is under intense scrutiny these days. There are many appealing benefits to innovations in this regard. They include labor cost savings, throughput gains with consistent entry of product or components at critical bottlenecks, medical and healthcare savings, and the opportunity to use the same conveyors, trays, totes, bins, racks and dunnage when product geometries change and ability to switch over to new products quickly and flexibly.
Several innovations in VGR have had early successes, such as automatic rack handling (AutoRacking) and bin picking. Automated press tending is another highly appealing innovation.
At present, several end users have made large plant-wide commitments to bet their future competitiveness on these innovations. The stakes are high, and there are no easy ways to go back to a secondary methodology. Project management is different due to the technology. The timeframes are aggressive, and downtime is possible and always unforgiving.
The next year or two will demonstrate the success rate of these first large-scale implementations. This rate will determine the future rate of adoption.
|About the Author|
Adil Shafi is president of Brighton, Mich.-based Shafi Inc., a software solutions enabler of flexible factory automation. Learn more about the company at www.shafi.com.