Hey, Can I Borrow Your Hammer?

I was reminded of this application the other day by a colleage, we saw this at IMTS in September in the Motoman booth – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W8o8_IARRjg&feature=youtu.be

I love this idea. It’s not rocket science, but it’s a great example of how the best ideas are often the simplest. In this application an assembly is being put together by a dual-arm Motoman robot. The small robot is fast and dexterous for delicate tasks like this, however, it doesn’t have the muscle to lift the final assembly and move it out of its work area. The answer? Have the robot use a human tool for lifting heavy objects (a lift assist) to move the finished assembly when it’s complete.

You don’t often think to borrow a human tool to help a robot do its job, but in this case, it makes a lot of sense. More than just the idea itself, it reminds me of what I think the future is going to be like. I don’t think the factory of the future will be lights out.  For the foreseeable future, I don’t see robots and automation getting smart enough to solve problems and really think like people do.  Automation isn’t about replacing people, instead it is, and will continue to be, about enabling them to do more of what they are really good at.  Automation will continue to get safer and more integrated.  Robots and people will work side by side sharing tools and sharing work spaces. Factories and manufacturing processes will be laid out and designed to play to the strengths of both and minimize each of their weaknesses. The more we can integrate people and robots together, share tools, and share ideas, the more productive we’re going to be.


Bringing Your A-Game

On every team there’s always some people that just seem to get “it”.  They seem to know what to do almost automatically.  They are the clutch players you always call on when the clock is winding down and the pressure is on.  They have a certain quality about them that is hard to describe.  They just get “it”.

I’ve always struggled with what “it” was.  I’ve worked with a lot people that got “it”, but I could never put my finger on “it”.  Some are extroverts, and some are introverts.  Some are drivers and others were more laid back.  Some have years of experience and some are fresh out of school.  I could never find a common thread.

So what is “it”?

I believe “it” can be summed up in two characteristics:

  1. Awareness
  2. A willingness to take action

The best engineers are always aware of the big picture.  They intuitively tie the task they are working on in the present moment to the end goal.  They don’t get lost in the weeds.  They are always sub-consciously asking themselves, “Is what I’m doing right now moving me/the team towards the end goal?”  This means they don’t go off on tangents, or get side-tracked.  Like a great chess player, they are thinking 5 moves ahead about the impact of their present actions on the end game.

If they do sense (become aware) that they are starting to go off track, they then do item #2.  The style is different person to person, but the result is the same.  They immediately stop what they are doing, and do something about it.  They don’t go any further.  Some take charge, make a decision and run with it.  Others aren’t as sure and reach out for help.  Both actions are great.  What’s common to both, and the important takeaway, is this: they stop and do something to figure out a more effective path forward.

This applies to more than just technical issues and scope, it applies to schedules and budgets.  Their inner sub-conscious is constantly scanning all things to watch for gaps between where they are with whatever, and where they should be.  If there are any gaps anywhere, they do something about it.

So as a young engineer, what can you do to make sure you’re bringing your A-game?  Always know the answers to the following questions:

1.  Do I know what the ultimate performance this project is supposed to achieve?  If you can’t answer this question, you won’t be able to detect when you are starting to gap as you won’t have a clear measure of where you need to be.  Stop what you are doing and re-read the quote, or the functional spec, or whatever project plan document outlines what you are working towards.  You should know it cold and be able to state it in one sentence, “I know the project is done when XXXX performance is achieved.”

2.  How am I/the team doing to schedule?  Or do you see any risks that not everyone is aware of that could hinder the delivery/schedule?  If so, do something about it.  It’s better to speak up than to be silent.

3.  How am I doing/the team doing to budget?  If you don’t know, stop what you’re doing and find out.  Missing a budget is often a sign of deliverying something beyond what is needed.  Sometimes you need to deliver a Chevy, don’t deliver a Cadillac.  Othertimes you need a Cadillac, don’t deliver a Chevy.  Often this ties back to question #1, knowing your scope.

The Most Important Factor In High-Speed Robotic Food Handling Applications: Flow, Flow, Flow

They say in real estate that the most important factor is “Location, Location, Location.”

Well, in robotic high-speed food handling applications there’s a common misconception that it’s about how fast the robots go, but the real challenge to be managed is “Flow, Flow, Flow.”

When you are using labor to complete a process, say for example loading frozen burritos into a flow wrapper at 250 per minute, it may seem pretty simple.  Frozen burritos come in on an infeed conveyor.  Operators pick up the burritors, find empty spots on the wrapper infeed chain, and place them into the empty spots.  The result is an infeed chain to the wrapper where every spot on it is filled with a burrito to be wrapped.  Easy, right?  It’s not so simple.

There are many small nuances in the details of how the operators handle the burritos that affect the overall OEE.  In other words, the operators ensure that, within reason, every spot on the infeed to the wrapper is full (no lost opportunity) and all incoming product is used (none gets past the operators and goes off the end).  It’s kind of like when you are riding a bike and you see a pothole, without even thinking you get your butt off the seat and let your legs absorb the shock of the bump.  The same happens in a high-speed food handling application, without even consciously thinking, people look upstream, scan for the “shocks”, and dampen them out.  It can be as simple as having one or two products in front of them or palmed in their hands while they work.  These serve as a micro-buffer to pull from when there’s a momentary gap in flow and ensure that an empty spot doesn’t occur on the wrapper infeed. When there’s a momentary spike in flow, they add the excess product to their buffer and keep it there until there’s another gap.  The operators have thousands of hours of practice and, like a magician with lightening fast hands, it’s not immediately obvious to an observer the amount of modulation they do or the dramatic effect they have on the overall OEE.

Usually when we explain this, clients say something like, “Well just put faster robots in then.”  That doesn’t solve it.  That’s kind of like saying, “I’m stuck in rush-hour traffic in my Honda Civic, I need a Ferrari that will go faster.”  The problem isn’t the car, the problem is the traffic (the flow).  Obviously the car, like the robots, needs to be fast enough to get the job done, but the car can’t fix traffic problems no matter how fast it is.  It’s the same thing with the robots.  When a gap in incoming product occurs, the robots can’t magically make burrito(s) appear to fill the empty spot(s) on the wrapper infeed.  If there’s a momentary spike, the robots can’t magically create a spot(s) for the excess burrito(s) to go, the infeed to the wrapper is already full.  The system will let some product go by.  It doesn’t matter how fast they are.

The secret to automating this successfully is:  When moving from a manual high-speed picking/placing process to a robotic one, you have to change the process to deal with the flow because people and robots work differently.  Simply replacing people with robots will result in a lower OEE.  There are many strategies around how to solve this (how the robots communicate amongst each other and share workloads, the way the conveyors present the product, the ability to integrate with and manage downstream equipment to control speeds, etc).  These are all modifications to the process to do what people do unconsicously: modulate the flow.

Here’s some examples:  High-Speed Robotic Solutions for Food and Packaging


Great Project Management – Dealing With It

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place – George Bernard Shaw

When interviewing prospective project managers, I always ask, “If you had to sum up great project management in one sentence, what would it be?”  A frequent answer given is some variation of “great communication.”  I don’t think that’s a good answer, because it doesn’t take it far enough.  Let me explain.

Every project has issues that come up.  What seperates good project managers from great project managers is the extent to which they ensure issues get resolved.

Too often people use the word communication to imply a dialogue, when what they are really doing is one-directional communication.  There’s an issue that is affecting the project, one-side is talking but the other side isn’t listening or isn’t responding.  Voicemails are left and emails are being sent and there’s no response.  No answers.  No resolutions.  Sometimes it’s because people are too busy and don’t know the urgency.  Sometimes they’re just too afraid to deal with it (a form of procrastination).  The reason doesn’t really matter, the symptoms are always the same – there’s no debate, no dialogue or no plan to deal with the issue and the clock keeps ticking.

Great project managers don’t let this happen.   Individual styles vary from person to person, but the result is the same.  Issues get dealt with one way or another.  They realize that while it’s not always fun or comfortable, it’s easier and always less expensive to deal with an issue now rather than later.

If you’re not getting answers, hit ‘0’ and have the receptionist track the person down.  Escalate it.  Pause the project until the key element is figured out.  One way or another make the conversation happen.

Don’t get me wrong, this all needs to be done in a respectful way.  Often I hear the excuse that people are concerned about overstepping bounds, stepping on people’s toes or being too pushy.  That’s the wrong paradigm.  Imagine you’re a doctor and need to get the other party some important medical information regarding their health.  You’re looking out for their best interests.  If it were life and death, you’d find a way to make the conversation happen.

Well, it is life or death for your project.  When there’s an issue on the table that affects your project, it affects all parties involved.  It’s in everyone’s best interests to figure it out.

Better sooner than later.

Top 10 Signs An Integrator Is The Real Deal: #5 I Was Wrong

I was wrong.

This is one of the most powerful statements someone can make.  It’s pride swallowing, and ego humbling to say.  It shows your fallibility, but it’s also a sign of strength.  Manning up to an issue/problem/situation moves it forward.  It changes the conversation from finger-pointing, assigning blame and dodging, to a conversation about a solution.  Until parties are willing to take ownership over a situation, it can’t be solved.  Taking ownership is what separates average players from great players, average teams from great teams and average companies from great companies.

It’s the most important paradigm a person can have in life.

I recently held a close-out meeting with an important client along with my team and the President of our company.  We were wrapping up a not-so-fun project.   There were several unforeseen technical challenges that caused significant grief to both us and the customer.  In the close out meeting, the plant manager commented that in 35+ years in the business, he had never had a vendor own their problems and work through them the way we had.  He was used to vendors walking away when the going got tough, or only delivering a compromise of the original performance promised.

I’m proud to work for a company that has that level of commitment and integrity, and with a team that just won’t quit.

But if you’re selecting an integrator or assessing a vendor, how do you determine this beforehand?  How can you predict how they will handle it if the going gets rough?  Here’s some techniques and questions I use when assessing vendors in the selection process.

1.  Make them uncomfortable:  Whether it’s a supplier selling me a machine or an interviewee looking for a job, I think it’s good to put them on their heels.  If someone gets defensive and has trouble handling an uncomfortable question, then how are they going to handle a real world, challenging uncomfortable problem?  What is their composure under pressure?

Questions or statements like:

  • I’m not confident in your abilities to handle a project of this complexity/size/diversity. Convince me.
  • You’re pricing is not realistic.  Show me your cost sheet and how you got to this number.
  • You seem like too nice of a guy.  I’m not confident you can call a spade a spade when you need to.  You’ll roll-over.
  • I’m going to give the order to someone else.

Don’t take this the wrong way, I’m not advocating beating people up for the sake of beating people up. What I am saying is, gauging a reaction to a pointed question or request will give you insight into how a person thinks. The best response is one that deals directly with the content of the question or request, while staying emotionally neutral.

2.  What mistakes have you made?:  I want to hear about your failed projects, your biggest challenges, your biggest overestimations.  If I get a glossed over, text-book answer – that’s not real.  That’s not accountability.  That’s weak.

Don’t be a politician, give me something real.  Everybody has made mistakes.  I want to know how you handled them.  How you recovered.  What you learned.  What you would do differently.   What processes you improved to ensure it won’t happen again.

3.  What are your weaknesses?:  Every person and every organization has strengths and weaknesses.  You need to know where you fit and where you don’t.  I’ve talked about knowing your value proposition – this is it.  Being able to speak to your weaknesses, where you don’t fit and where you would recommend someone else shows a higher level of transparency, honesty, realism and strength.

Keeping It Under Control

Most processes clients ask for help with are really variations on the same thing…

I have people sorting/loading/moving product in my manufacturing process.  I want to automate this.  Can you use vision-guided robotics to pick individual pieces from jumbled flow and load them into my…? ”

It can be jumbled automotive parts within a bin and then loading them into a CNC or jumbled granola bars on a conveyor and then loading them into a flow-wrapper.  A vision-guided robot is just a tool to get something under control.  It takes objects from an unknown location and unknown orientation to a very specific location and orientation so that you can do something with it.  But, the question you should always ask is, “Why is it out of control in the first place? “

If you look upstream, somewhere in the process, the product was under control when it was baked/fried/machined/thermoformed/die-cast/whatever.  If you can change the game so that you can grab it there, it will be easier to automate.

Often times the process is the way it is because with a manual process it wasn’t possible for people to interact directly with the upstream equipment.  It was too dangerous or they weren’t fast enough to keep up.  Hence they were separated.

But with robotics, you don’t have those roadblocks anymore. You can change the process to make it simpler.  A good rule:  When you are looking at any manufacturing process, if you see a product become less under control at a particular step or stage, you really need to challenge if it is absolutely required.  It will take effort (vision, tooling, or labor) to get it back under control downstream.  Can you modify the existing equipment and change the process so a robot can reach right into it?  Can you buffer your product differently that doesn’t create so much chaos?  Can you re-arrange the plant to allow one process to flow directly into the next?

The more you simplify the process, the less technology you’ll need to solve it and most importantly, you’ll end up with a better process (typically faster, better quality and higher uptime).

Top 10 Signs An Integrator Is The Real Deal: #6 Experience

Experience is important.  Experience ensures the right technology is applied in the right way.  But how do you measure experience and what experience is important?  No one says “This is completely new to us, but please give us a chance to learn on your dime.”  On the flipside, you also want an integrator that isn’t afraid of some healthy stretching.   Too many times I’ve seen integrators who are afraid to step outside of their comfort zone and continue to implement antiquated technologies that sacrifice the final system’s performance, and maintainability.

Experience falls into two categories:

1.  Technology

2.  Application

Technology Experience:

The integrator may not have solved your exact problem before, but you want to see examples (and references) of how they’ve applied their core technologies in new and innovative ways.  You want to see solutions that were innovative and cutting edge, while still being maintainable by an electrician or millwright at 2:00 AM (no science fair projects).  They may not have solved your exact application before, but if they’ve stretched to solve other problems of similar complexity, then it shows a track record of success.  You can gauge your application’s relative difficulty to what they’ve done.  Talk to their references to make sure it is real.

Application Experience:

Technology only gets you so far.  The integrator needs to have application experience in your industry to put together a complete solution.  Integration is about applying technology to solve a business problem.  If an integrator doesn’t understand your business and its key drivers, how can they apply the technology correctly?  If you’re looking to automate raw food handling, don’t use an integrator that specializes in robotic welding and expect it to be designed to the AMI Meat Safety Standards.  I’m surprised how often this happens.  Ask the integrator to show you completed projects within your industry.  Ask them about key drivers for your industry (product quality, sanitary design, washdown, heat transfer/high temperature, validation, documentation, etc.).  If they don’t know this stuff for your industry, that’s a big red flag.

Finally, I’ll bring it back to my #10 sign an integrator is the real deal.  Ask them where they don’t fit.  What technologies, applications and industries are outside their wheelhouse?  Anyone who claims to do everything, is really a generalist that is great at nothing.

Top 10 Signs An Integrator Is The Real Deal: #7 Best Practices and Standards

You would think every integrator would have solid, proven standards.  It’s logical, and engineers are logical, right?  The problem is engineers love to create.  This often results in re-creating the wheel on a project to project basis, a lot of times when the previous wheel worked just fine.

Great integrators don’t do this.  Great integrators have a culture of consistency coupled with continuous improvement.  They understand the best approach is most often the consistent approach.  This doesn’t mean things stay stagnant.  On the contrary, they channel the engineers’ need to create into improving the company’s collective standards and best practices.

 This culture means that:

  • Good designs are evolved to spectacular designs.
    • Bugs have been found in code.
    • Fatigue points have been found in mechanical systems.
  • There’s an increased efficiency by the integrator and therefore reduced cost to the end user.
  • Better support – since everyone knows the standards, everyone can support it.  This means interchangeability of resources.  When you call at 2AM on a Tuesday and the person who did your project is on vacation, you can get support from someone else within the company, because they understand the standards that were used.

Best practices and standards don’t just apply to technology.  This culture pervades every aspect of the business including billing, project management (costs, scope, schedule), HR and customer service.

An environment where people have to think brings with it wisdom, and this wisdom brings with it kaizen [continuous improvement].  -Teruyuki Minoura

Top 10 Signs An Integrator Is The Real Deal: #8 You Already Know How to Use It

I saw a commercial for the new Apple iPad .  In it they said “You already know how to use it”.  That really resonated with me.  That’s the way great automation systems are – the operators already know how to use them.

What makes them simple to use?  I may be getting pretty nitty gritty here, but it’s the way they are programmed.  Most people tend to think, and therefore program, based on a series of steps or sequences.  The problem is, when a robot gets to step 78 of a 123 step process and something out of the ordinary happens, it doesn’t know what to do next.  Think of how frustrating it is for you when your Windows computer locks up.  That’s the same feeling an operator gets on a daily basis with a glitchy automation system that runs on step or sequence based logic.  This ties into people’s perceptions, beliefs and acceptance of the equipment in your plant.

Great automation systems don’t follow a series of steps, they are programmed with rules or priorities.  These priorities allow the robot(s) to make decisions about what is the most important thing to do based on the state of the equipment within the cell.  This means it handles the the what-if situations that inevitably come up with ease.  This makes it simple and intuitive for an operator to:

  • Recover after an E-Stop is pressed
  • Recover after a power outage in the plant
  • Recover when parts are out of sequence
  • Recover when the process is stopped and parts removed
  • Start up after a changeover
  • Start up on a Monday morning

Not only does it handle these fault scenarios better, but it also runs better and makes more widgets.  Because the system has an understanding of the priorities, it can continually adapt its cycle to optimize the process to keep the highest priority equipment running at the highest capacity possible.

Every integrator is going to tell you that their systems are easy to operate, but how do you really know?  Ask them to talk you through the recovery procedures for the fault scenarios I’ve listed above.  Or ask to see their operator manuals and review these procedures.  Ask their references how they recover from these situations.  It shouldn’t take an operator more than 1 or 2 steps to get the system running after one of these occur.  If they have a 12-step procedure to recover – it’s too complicated.

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction”  – Einstein

Top 10 Signs An Integrator Is The Real Deal: #9 They Have Real Strategies to Manage The Risks

Automation is a risky business.  You’re designing machines to do the job of people and that can be a tough task (see my post How To Automate A Complex Manual Process).

The main challenges or risks with any automation project fall into three categories: 

1)  Can you go fast enough to keep up? (Throughput/Speed)

 2)  Can you find the parts, pick them up, and place them accurately all while not dropping or damaging them? (Locating and Gripping Strategies)

3)  Can you ensure quality will remain in the process without people there? (Quality Checks)

The devil is in the details.  I’ve seen countless projects go sideways because integrators made assumptions about these variables and they came back to bite them.  You don’t want a science fair project on your floor.

Great integrators are up front and realistic about the risks of projects and have tools/strategies to mitigate these risks.  Kinematic simulation software can be used to determine robot move times very accurately.  Discrete-Event simulation software can plug these robot speeds in with the entire process to get an understanding of the total process throughput/flow (i.e. fork-truck traffic, CNC cycletime, etc.).  Prototyping of grippers or gripping strategies ensures you can grab the parts and handle as required.  Prove out the quality checks.  What tools/technologies will be used to solve this and how well will they work?

Have them show you similar projects they’ve completed successfully using similar strategies/technologies.

…more to come.

Top 10 Signs An Integrator Is The Real Deal: #10 They Know Their Value-Proposition

Most manufacturers that are new to automation don’t know what they don’t know.  They often select the first or second vendor they talk to, and end up disappointed.  I was reminded of this this week when a new client was introduced to us with the hopes we could fix a number of their outstanding issues that another integrator didn’t/couldn’t finish.  From an integration side, it’s frustrating to compete with integrators that over promise and under deliver.  They often over-simplify and underestimate complexities and risks.

I thought I’d put together my Letterman-style Top 10 List of criteria to select an integrator.  These can be used as a checklist to make sure you’ve got someone who’s the real-deal.  Here’s #10…

#10.  They Know Their Value Proposition

Another way of saying this is What are they better at than anyone else?  Every company has strengths and weaknesses. If an integrator can’t articulate their value proposition to you – they don’t understand themselves.  Average companies claim to be good at everything.  Great companies are focussed and know where they fit and where they don’t.   You don’t want average.

…more to come.

How to Automate a Complex Manual Process: Don’t Make It Complex

The natural thinking, when you automate something, is to take a robot and try to have it mimick the tasks a person does when they do the process.  The challenge is, a person has a pretty complex controls system. A robot doesn’t. 

Think about the tools and processes a person uses unconsciously when they perform a task:

  • As a person moves to pickup a part, they adjust the speed and position of their hands using their eyesight based on where the part is and where their hands are  (think of catching a baseball).  This is light-years beyond what a robot can do.
  • A person has thousands of nerve-endings (sensors) and two hands that serve as phenomonal grippers.
  • A person uses force-feedback to ‘feel’ what they are doing.  A person can sense where an object’s centre of mass is and if they’ve grabbed it correctly.
  • Finally, a person has intuition.  A person unconsciously processes all this data and gets a gut feel that something is wrong when something doesn’t feel, look, or sound right.


All these abilities, that a person inherently has, make it easy for a person and very challenging for automation to handle complex processes (think of parts that are floppy (i.e. plastic bags, or bags of chips), or parts that are complex shapes and can get tangled together/interlocked, or food products that are soft or jelly-like, etc.)

With robotics, the secret is:  Don’t try to do it all at once like a person does.  Break it down.

Take bin-picking as an example.  A lot of people try to solve it straight-up, the same way a person does.  Sometimes you can, with basic parts.  But sometimes you can’t because of the complexity of the parts. 

A person looks at the bin and, in a split second, decides which part makes most sense to pickup.  An automation system can solve the same problem by breaking the process down into a series of manageable steps.

Step #1:  Get part out of bin – Keep it simple, use brute-force when you can!

  • Dump the bin of parts?
  • If they’re metal, use a magnet to grab a bunch at a time?
  • Use a bowlfeeder to feed them?


Step #2:  Get part singulated – How can I get them separated so I can grab just one?

  • Drop them onto a table where they’ll sit flat?
  • Set them on a vibratory table where you can get some separation?
  • Use a series of belts of increasing speed to create gaps between parts?


Step #3:  Get part located – Accurately locate the one I want

  • Use hard tooling to get individual parts into a known location?
  • Use simple vision to locate the part in 2D space and pick it up?


You’ve now solved the application with simple technology.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s a place for 3D vision-guided robots and force-feedback systems and sometimes they make the most sense.  BUT, sometimes a series of brute force, simple steps is a beautiful thing!

Why Most First Attempts at Robotics Fail: People Are Afraid

As engineers, we are technically driven.  We put a strong emphasis on the technical aspects of a solution and often neglect the softer, political and people issues that come with change.

Humans don’t like change.  People are afraid of new technology.   These paradigms are all built on people’s beliefs about their own skills and abilities (or lack thereof), the complexity of technology, and the perceptions of the company’s underlying motives.  It doesn’t matter how well an automation  system is designed and built – it will fail if you don’t address these beliefs and win over the hearts and minds of the people.

Here’s how.

Step #1:  Paint the Vision

Why are you putting robotics?  People need to know.  If they don’t know, they’ll make-up a reason and it’s usually not favorable.

Be up front and explain the reasoning straight-up.  They watch CNN and know the realities of today’s global economy and the need for North America to be innovative to compete.   What is the vision for your company?  Where do you need to be in 5, 10 years?  If you paint a clear vision of where you are going, people will be much more tolerant of change if they believe it is as a logical step to get there.

Step #2:  Identify 3 Champions (a person per shift)

You know who these people are.  They are the guys (and girls) on the floor that are the early adopters of change and ring-leaders amongst the troops.  They are the most respected people on the floor and the most capable.  If they’re involved and engaged early – their ownership is much higher.  Most importantly, it means you respect them.

Step #3:  Collaboration – Engage the Champions

Engage your champions into the design team.  Make it a priority to have them part of the planning from the initial concept, all the way through design, build and runoff of the equipment.  The more they are involved, the more it becomes the group’s solution and everyone has a stake in its success.  This isn’t just lip-service either.   These guys (and girls) know the process better than anyone.  Some of the most discerning process observations and innovative ideas I’ve seen, have come from the people on the floor.

Step #4:  Education

The people on-the-floor that are new to robotics often have the paradigm that robotics/automation will be beyond their skill level , it will highlight their weaknesses and skill gaps and they’ll be embarrassed or found out.

Education is about breaking down this paradigm.  When done right, automation is not complicated.  It’s intuitive, robust and simple to operate.  In this day and age of X-Boxes, Ipod’s and Facebook, people are generally capable of operating a robotic cell.  The sooner they realize it’s simpler than they thought, the sooner the fear and resistance goes away.

Good education or training needs to come in chunks.  Don’t dump it on people all at once – they’ll never retain it.  Build a training and education program that gives people bite-sized chunks and touchpoints throughout the course of the project.  Each touchpoint reinforces the last and helps make the training stick.

Step #5:  Follow-Through, Follow-Up

Just like forming a good habit takes time, you need to keep the champions and the people floor engaged after the equipment is installed.  They appreciate the follow-up and they’ll also help you diagnose any problems or intermittent issues that come up.  You’ve now also got your best people on the lookout for the next process improvement or project that can further improve productivity.  It’s a win-win!

Until a Robot Can Really Think, It Needs To Be More Interactive

Industrial automation systems are a lot like coin sorting machines.  You dump your coins into the sorting machine and it uses simple rules (tooling) to separate and organize your coins into quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies.  Automation is the same.  Bowlfeeders, part crowding, sieves, robotic vision-guidance, etc. are all really just fancy ways of doing the same thing as a coin sorting machine.  They take random widgets and organize them using tools (hardware or software).  The key is they do it without thinking.

That’s really the question you need to ask yourself when looking at completely automating a process – “Can this process be broken down into a series of steps such that a set of rules can complete it without thinking?

As much as we think automation and robots are “smart”,  they’re really not.  A robot can’t improvise or handle a new situation it was never designed or programmed to handle.  As technology marches forward, it continues to raise the bar higher and higher by providing more powerful tools, but the overall strategy remains the same.

This strategy means some processes can’t be automated, since they require a person to figure out the anomalies that inevitably come up.  But what if you could semi-automate them?  What if you could remove the laborious, time consuming, non-value added tasks and leave the people to do what they do best, the thinking part?

I’d like to see a new generation of safe, interactive robots that can work with people to perform these tasks. 

A good example where this could fit is putting a gas tank into a car on an automotive assembly line.  The majority of the process, moving the tank from the rack beside the line to the car, is time-consuming, simple and adds no-value to the car itself.  It’s the very final part, where the tank is actually mated with the car, that the person’s brain starts to get used.  That part, is always slightly different and requires thinking. The operator moves fuel lines and wire harnesses out of the way, jiggles the tank into place in order to get the bolts through the holes and threads started, and connects connectors and plugs by wiggling them into place.  It’s this part that makes the process too difficult to completely automated.

If you could introduce a safe, interactive robot into this scenario, the non-value added labor could be eliminated from the process.   A robot could automatically get the tank from the rack, bring it to the car, raise it close to the insertion point, and then track along with the moving car waiting for the operator to help it with the next steps.  An operator, who was working on another value-added task on the car, could then grab a hold of the gripper or the robot arm itself and move the robot and gas tank into place.  Just like two people who work together to lift a heavy object, the robot and person would work together to insert the gas tank.  The difference would be, in this case the robot does most of the lifting and the operator provides enough force to direct and guide it.  Safety scanners or safety mats could be used to determine when the robot and operator are in the same area, and would put the robot into “interactive-safe-mode”.  In this mode, the robot’s torque would be limited such that at the robot could not exert enough force to hurt someone.  The servo motors would provide just enough torque to hold the robot itself up, along with its load.  Any additional force input (from the operator) would be used to guide the robot.

There are other possibilities as well.  In traditional robotic cells, instead of teaching the robot with a pendant, the robot could moved into desired positions by manipulating the arm itself.  This would be easier and more intuitive for people with little robotic experience to work with.  Paths could be taught this way, allowing the operator to move the robot through its the sequence of operations and teach the path points along the way.  Even fault recovery could be easier.  Instead of having to jog a faulted robot out of a tight spot using the pendant (i.e. inside a CNC), the the operator could physically guide the robot arm out.

Currently, in the medical field robots are used to interact with and touch people.  They augment human performance making the doctor’s hand steady or more precise.  They do this in a safe manner such that the patient, doctor and nurses are not endangered.  If this technology exists today in the medical field, then why not apply it in an industrial setting?

How To Hold An Integrator Accountable To Deliver

I’m often surprised how much time up front is spent talking about the nuts and bolts and specifications of the equipment being purchased, and how little time is spent really defining what success looks like.  The equipment (automation, robots, PLC’s, conveyors, whatever) are all just means to achieve a business outcome.  At the end of the day, what you really care about are reduced production costs, higher product quality, or greater production capacity.

That is what should be measured, that is what an integrator should be held accountable to.  Define the contract such that the integrator needs to deliver this – regardless of the bits and bytes of what they put into it.  If they missed or under estimated something – it’s their responsibility to do what needs to be done to achieve the business outcome that was agreed upon – period.

OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) is a quantitative method used measure performance and takes into account the three major things in an automation system #1 How fast does it run, #2 The system uptime, and #3 The product quality coming out of it.

Here’s how you calculate it.

OEE = Performance Efficiency * Availability * Yield

Performance Efficiency = How fast does it run

Example – the system is designed to run 100 pieces per minute, the final system as it is installed runs 98 pieces per minute.

PE = 98 ppm/100 ppm * 100% = 98%

Availability = How much time the system runs of the total available time (uptime)

Example – In a week’s worth of production, over 2 shifts (4800 available minutes), the system has 5 minutes of downtime and 20 minutes of changeover.

Availability = (4800 minutes – 5 minutes – 40 minutes) /4800 minutes * 100 % = 99.06%

Yield = Percentage of good widgets made (quality)

Example – 2 defective pieces out of 1000 pieces made

Yield = (1000 pieces – 2 pieces)/1000 pieces * 100% = 99.8%

OEE = PE * Availability * Yield

OEE = 98% * 99.06% * 99.8% = 96.9%

Figure this out up front.  Work with the integrator to agree on what this number needs to be.  Agree on the inputs that are required to achieve this (i.e. the system needs to have good product going into it, if it is going to have good product coming out).   Spending the extra time up front to define and agree on this metric will ensure you get what you really want at the end of the project.

In some upcoming blog posts, I’ll walk through some examples of how to put this together.

How Much Does a Robotic Cell Cost? What Is The ROI?

I get asked this all the time.  Rough numbers, what does a robot cell cost?  What’s the total cost of ownership?  How do you justify it?  What is the return-on-investment (ROI)?  What is the internal-rate-of-return (IRR)?

Here’s my rules-of-thumb.

Companies automate for a combination of the following 3 reasons:

Reason #1:  To Save Money:

Labor savings is the most obvious reason.  Labor costs range greatly depending on the industry, geography, if it’s a unionized environment, etc.

Typically, labor costs per operator range from a low-end of $20k per year to a high-end of $80k (all-in costs including wages and benefits).  Besides direct labor savings, other benefits of automating often include improved quality, and reduced scrap and re-work.  These costs are often tougher to quantify, but can play a big role in certain applications.

Reason #2:  To Make More Money:

Often I see the existing production equipment either starved or bottle-necked because people aren’t fast enough to load or unload it.  In some cases, a manufacturer could sell more product if they had the capacity to make it.  By using robotics, you can run faster.  This increase in throughput (and revenue) comes at a low cost in relation to new production equipment.  In other instances, manufacturers are outsourcing the overflow production to meet demands.  By automating the loading and unloading, they reduce or eliminate the need to outsource (really back to reason #1).

Reason #3:  Health and Safety of Employees:

In most cases these are ergonomic issues – stresses and strains from high-speed, repetitive tasks or lifting of heavy objects.  They result in worksman’s compensation, lost time injuries, added rotations through strenuous jobs, etc.  Usually ergonomics doesn’t make or break the business decision to automate, but it can be an important factor.  From my experience, ergonomic costs can range from 5% and 20% of the direct labor costs.

Other times, the risks are more serious than stresses or strains.  Sometimes, the sole motivation is to get people out of hazardous jobs.  A robot is a lot easier to replace than a human life.

What Does a Robot Cell Cost?

A typical, single robot cell is $300k +/-50%.  Obviously, this is an order of magnitude estimate and will vary depending on the complexity of the process, but generally most single-robot systems will fall into this cost range.

This will include:

  • Mid-sized Robot
  • Robot End-Of-Arm-Tooling or Gripper
  • Control panel including PLC, Operator Interface Screen (HMI), safety circuits, motor starters, etc.
  • Cell guarding
  • Customized engineering for your system to complete the desired process
  • Some auxillary equipment – such as conveyors, deburring equipment, etc.
  • Fabrication, assembly, setup, runoff at the integrator’s facility
  • Shipping to your facility
  • Rigging and installation
  • Integratation with your existing equipment
  • System specific operator and maintenance training


What About On-Going Costs?

Typical costs outside of the main purchase will include – spare parts, yearly service and maintenance, yearly replacement/wear items.

Description Cost Frequency
Initial Spare Parts $5k to $20k One time purchase with system
Yearly service and maintenance $2k to $5k Yearly
Yearly replacement and wear items $2k to $5k Yearly

What is the Return-On-Investment (ROI)?

Anything between 12 months and 36 months is a no-brainer.  At a minimum, if you have 2+ shifts of operation and all-in labor costs of $35k per person, you’ve got a strong business case to look at automation.

Below is a link to a spreadsheet that outlines the typical business drivers and system costs.  You can use it as a tool to get a high-level understanding if robotic automation is a fit for you.  Enjoy!!