Guest Column | December 15, 2015

Automation 101: Curing Automation Myths

Paul Brake

By Paul Brake, P.Eng., Dynamic Machine Design

Automation 101: Curing Automation Myths

Is Automation for You? 

Automation is a wonder and a dark art to most of the world. Even companies who have large amounts of automation within their own facilities often have misconceptions about how it works. There, for example, is a tendency to lean towards certain brand names, yet those brands are not necessarily better and are possibly more expensive. Below are five big and common myths in the market place about custom factory automation.

  1. Automation is too expensive, it costs millions.

Actually, automation is surprisingly cost effective these days. Today, computer based controllers are effective, efficient and quite reasonably priced. A simple business model for every automation project will demonstrate its quick payback time, reduced operation costs, reduced manpower and skill requirements, and increased productivity. And it is also important to remember that you don’t take and entire process and turn it into a black box solution. First you look at your obvious bottlenecks in your process and mechanize them. As you work your way through the process gradually automating more and more you start integrating them into a complete system.

For a few decades now there has been a move towards off shore manufacturing based on the super low cost of labour in third world countries. The cost of overseas labour is still cheap but the cost of shipping, of waste, of the absence of quality control, of immense orders and long wait times far out ways any up front cost reductions. There is also the issue of the environment. One of the big cost saving in many of these countries is the complete lack of environmental laws or ecological constraints. We are waking up today, finally and thankfully. The solution to pollution is NOT dilution and just because you pollute over there doesn’t mean it won’t come here. Automation is the industry standard of the 21st century.

Most process plants today are economically viable because of automation. You simply could not afford to run an oil refinery or a water treatment plant without it.

  1. Automation costs jobs.

We do not replace people; we automate tasks. The tasks we automate are the ones that are slow, costly, ineffective and inefficient. Automation frees workers to do more interesting and productive tasks. It also improve a company’s competitive position by increasing throughput and quality while reducing or nearly eliminating waste. This improves sales, improves profits and increases your business’s overall performance and shareholder equity. Automating a factory often creates more jobs as it allows the company to gain a greater market share and provide a higher quality product.

Automation, especially in the areas of monitoring, reduce or eliminate environmental compliance issues. Automated sensors and controls allow a plant to discover and mitigate problems at the onset, not after a million gallons have been released to a river or lake.

  1. Automation is only for big companies.

Any task or process can be automated. There is no maximum or minimum size or complexity requirement. The same rules apply to all automation; the difference is merely one of scale. Even if it’s just a single part pick-and-place or a wash-down line that needs to be timed, we can automate it to save you time and money. Sometimes it is just one task within a complex manufacturing process that is slowing down overall production; that would be the place to start automating. Maybe you just need your pumps on timers or hooked up to simple level switches or temperature probes in tanks. Small organizations can benefit from automation just as easily as large ones.

  1. This industry has been around forever so there are lots of off-the-shelf solutions.

Truly there are a lot of standard options for mechanization. And where a standard product exists, and would be an appropriate solution, I recommend its implementation. Forklifts are the prime example. They are designed to lift, move and stack pallets, yet people buy them and use them for everything but. They are only safe and efficient in the specific task they were designed for. If what you are moving isn’t a pallet, get a machine that will work better for you and save yourself time, money and frustration.

The glass industry, for example, has been around for thousands of years and yet I have worked on many custom machines for a glass processing. As each business has its niche, so does it have its individual processes. Only a few mass-produced systems are compatible with every process within an industry, leaving large gaps in every production process. A custom automation product, however, is tailored to your specific needs and designed to meet your exact requirements. And it is the system that is tailored, using economical, time tested and proven, off-the-shelf components. You can use the same PLC for controlling a primary treatment screening of residential sewage as you would for controlling a cake manufacturing line. The difference is in the application and programming.

  1. If our process changes the new machine will be obsolete.

If you look at your entire process consulting with your technicians and operators when designing your solutions, you can build in flexibility for expansion. The machine you will get will not only be based on your current need, but it will also be parametrically designed to accommodate foreseeable changes in your product or process to match market variations and changes. For example, allowing for differences in sizes of product can allow a machine to fulfil its task for decades.

With automation, the machines are always designed modularly. This is true for hard automation, flexible automation (robotics) and process automation such as water treatment or chemical plants. As new needs arise or change, new modules can be developed and integrated into the system.

Automation has so many benefits for 21st Century manufacturing and process industries. It can no longer be ignored. The cost of automating has reduced significantly over the years with the increased performance of the computers, sensors.