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Automation for Small Manufacturers – Pitfalls in Planning and Design


August 25, 2023

Automation projects have become a beacon of efficiency and productivity in the rapidly evolving manufacturing landscape, especially for small manufacturers. Automating processes can offer substantial benefits for small manufacturers aiming to stay competitive. However, success in automation requires meticulous design planning. Failing to consider critical aspects can lead to costly errors and suboptimal outcomes. In this article, I’ll delve into the common pitfalls small manufacturers should be cautious of when embarking on automation projects, ranging from design documentation to material selection.  

1. Lack of Clear Design Documentation and Performance Specifications:

Meticulous documentation is the backbone of successful automation. Clear design documentation and performance specifications are like the blueprint of a building. If they’re vague or missing, then the entire structure becomes shaky. For instance, imagine a small manufacturer automating their packaging process. Without specifying the required packaging speed, dimensions, and weight tolerance in the design documents, the automation equipment, when built, might not align with the production requirements, leading to inefficiencies or equipment failure.

Or, say, if torque requirements for a specific assembly are missing or overlooked, the automation system might not achieve the necessary force, leading to either product damage or under-torquing.

2. Incomplete Analysis of Specifications:

Beyond just having specifications, understanding them is vital. Suppose a manufacturer fails to recognize that a proposed robot’s reach doesn’t match the workspace required, as defined in the prints. In that case, it could result in costly modifications later or even complete project abandonment.

Let’s say a small manufacturer is automating a welding process. Failure to analyze the compatibility and limits of the automation equipment with the existing welding prints and specifications can lead to issues. For instance, if the welding process requires specific positioning of the welding torch, and the automation equipment doesn’t accommodate this, the resulting welds might not meet quality standards. What human welders can adjust for easily in component variability, a welding robot will, in contrast, follow a pre-programmed path.

3. Overlooking Off-Print Assumptions:

“Silent” specifications—those inherent practices known only to experienced operators and not documented—can trip up automated systems. In any manual process, operators develop intuitive workarounds over time. For instance, an operator might apply extra pressure at a particular machine point due to known inconsistencies. Ignoring these tacit insights during automation could lead to process breakdowns.

In an assembly line automation project, overlooking the fact that operators have been doing an off-line test and minor adjustments to parts before assembly can be catastrophic. If the automation system doesn’t account for these tests and has the necessary provisions for performing them, it could lead to misaligned parts, reduced product quality, and increased scrap rates.

4. Treating Designs as Immutable:

Automation often requires rethinking traditional designs. For example, if a component’s positioning makes automated gripping challenging, a slight design modification might save costs on complex grippers and reduce the likelihood of handling errors.

Consider a scenario where a small manufacturer is automating a precision cutting process. Suppose the initial design places cutting features in challenging locations to automate. In that case, the automation system might require intricate and expensive mechanisms to achieve the desired precision. Requesting design tweaks to place these features more strategically could simplify the automation process and lower costs.

5. Overlooking Alternative Joining Mechanisms:

An existing assembly line’s non-automated process may have operators manually insert bolts or screws. Using rivets or spot welds might be quicker, require less precision than bolts, and could accelerate production times. It would also reduce the need for sophisticated, high-precision machinery for automated bolt installation. By ignoring the benefits of one method over the other, manufacturers might miss out on cost savings or improved quality that a different joining mechanism could provide.

6. Expecting Automation to Fix Quality Issues:

By design, automated systems require consistent products going through the system. Asking them to compensate for inherent quality issues, like inconsistent raw material sizes or large variability in dimensions, can lead to frequent stoppages. Addressing root causes of the deviations rather than relying on automation to adapt to the variability, which is a cost-prohibitive proposition, is more advisable.

A small manufacturer automating a painting process cannot rely solely on automation to cover up underlying poor surface preparation issues. Suppose the surfaces are not adequately cleaned before painting. In that case, the automation process, without the benefit of a human eye looking out for areas requiring extra touch-ups, for example, will amplify the defects generated from improper surface cleaning, leading to poor-quality finished products.

7. Lack of Standardization:

While adaptability is commendable, designing an automation system to handle every conceivable variant could make it prohibitively expensive and complex. Suppose a small manufacturer aims to automate a product assembly line. Creating the automation system to accommodate various product design variations might result in a complex and costly setup. Striking a balance between flexibility and practicality is essential.

Imagine if every product variant required a unique automation setup. The time and costs would be prohibitive. Grouping like components and modifying designs to make near-alike parts identical can make automation less expensive. Components and processes can be seamlessly integrated into a single automated system, rather than multiple, and lead to less need for changeovers and reduced downtime. Consider manual interventions for rare exceptions.

8. Failure to Combine Short-Run Jobs

Combining similar short-run tasks can optimize machine usage. Instead of having frequent machine setups (each of which can introduce errors), one approach may be to combine tasks to streamline processes and make automation more viable, even for small batches.

If commonizing processes is not possible, reducing the changeover time, such as using a common datum for various-sized parts, as one of many options, may make it possible to automate short-run jobs.

9. Overlooking Product Lifecycle:

It’s impractical to invest heavily in automating a product that’s nearing the end of its lifecycle. Such foresight ensures that the automated machinery remains relevant and doesn’t become obsolete prematurely.

For example, the manufacturer automating the production of an electronic component should consider its future iterations. Suppose it is rumored that the part will be redesigned soon to be smaller or more efficient. In that case, the automation system must be designed with adaptability in mind to prevent equipment obsolescence.

10. Feeding Problems:

Part feeding issues are the most significant causes of automation system failures. A well-designed part-feeding system ensures smooth operations. But if components aren’t consistent with specifications (for instance, bent or deformed, oversized, with burrs, etc.), jams and stoppages can occur.

For example, suppose a packaging automation project’s feeding mechanism is not designed with precision components. In that case, parts might deviate from the intended orientation. That could lead to packaging defects, misaligned labels, and operational stoppages.

11. Underestimating Modular Subassemblies:

Suppose a manufacturer is automating a conveyor system. Instead of using standard modular conveyor sections, they custom-build every section. That increases design and manufacturing time and makes future modifications or expansions challenging. When the conveyor line is down, a modular system is more straightforward to troubleshoot or replace (to keep the line running) than a custom-built one.

Modular, off-the-shelf systems can be easily procured, upgraded, or replaced. Instead of designing an entire automation system from the ground up, build the design around time-tested, off-the-shelf modular assemblies, which are often complex works of engineering. Imagine how significantly the design time is reduced by avoiding designing and building such a complex assembly. On top of that, If a component fails, modular designs allow for targeted updates, ensuring the longevity and adaptability of the entire automation system.

12. Process Considerations:

Every stage of a process impacts automation. For example, when automating a machining process that involves metal shavings, deciding between manual pick-up and automated chip collection can significantly impact cleanliness and efficiency. Say the existing process consists of manually picking parts from a bin. In the automated process, if the parts are fed from a hopper system, then any metal shavings or other debris that would have otherwise stayed at the bottom of the bin is introduced into the sophisticated automation system. Understanding these nuances can guide more effective automation strategies.

13. Materials:

The choice of materials, like for example, magnetic steel vs. non-magnetic stainless steel, impacts automation. Magnetic steel might be easier for robotic pick-up using magnetic grippers. In contrast, stainless steel might require vacuum or mechanical grippers. Such considerations are essential and influence automation system costs, automation speed, and efficiency.

14. Excessive Wear due to Process Complexity:

In an automation project involving bowl feeders or similar complex material handling with multiple intricate movements, parts can undergo excessive wear due to the complexity of the process. Components falling off the tracks and being re-fed repeatedly can cause part wear and surface damage. Simplifying the process or incorporating abrasion and impact-minimizing materials in the material handling systems can extend the longevity of the automation system.  


These examples highlight the potential pitfalls that small manufacturers must be vigilant about when planning automation projects. Unless one thinks of such eventualities at the start, when designing the automation system, the result will be a poorly designed, costly, problem-prone automation system. By addressing these pitfalls head-on and seeking iterative feedback during the design phase from all parties involved, manufacturers can build robust, efficient, and cost-effective automated systems.

Automation in small manufacturing demands careful planning and a nuanced understanding of existing processes.


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