Automate!

Why do we automate?  I ask this as a general question and not just about manufacturing or running a facility, but about life in general. Human beings have been automating for thousands of years. Inventions like the wheel, the bucket, the waterwheel are just a few types of automation from antiquity.

You’ve doubtless heard about necessity being the mother of invention.  Paternity not being obvious, I believe laziness is the father. I don’t think the TV remote was invented by some go-getter but by an aspiring couch potato tired of getting up to change the channel.

We automate things to make our lives “easier” or “better”. We automate so we can do other more productive things in our lives (and jobs). Why should we spend time doing something menial and cumbersome when we could be adding real value with ideas and solving difficult problems?

I’ve seen manufacturing plants that still have operators manually writing down information on their processes. A worker then manually enters this information into Excel. Personnel then massage and tweak what’s on the spreadsheet until it fits. A report based on this information gets printed out and displayed on a bulletin board. This requires a lot of steps, opportunities for error, and late information.

Why would you do this manually?  We can easily connect to equipment, pull in the data, create a report and email it out with no one having to touch the process. In fact, why not display the data as it is happening?  You shouldn’t have to wait for the information to be a day old to react to issues. It is too late by then. The data should be displayed real time, visualized so people can easily understand the information and respond. The long term data should be collected and stored to allow you to analyze the information over time and make long term corrective decisions.

If you are looking to automate something in your facility, start with something basic and easily automated. You don’t need to suddenly station a robot on every piece of equipment and have a lights-off factory. Start simple. Let’s first talk about automating data.

Step 1:  Find Manual Processes

Look at manual process like:

  • Data Collection
  • Reporting
  • Data Correction
  • Product/Recipe Changes
  • Data Entry
  • Work Orders
  • Alerts
  • Manual Adjustments

Step 2:  Identify Data Sources

After you have identified the process you want to automate, look for the sources of data that would be needed to automate the processes. These could be data sources like a database, ERP systems, MES/MOM systems, equipment, machinery, etc.

Remember, it doesn’t have to be a single data source; it could be from multiple sources. For example, you can pull data from a piece of machinery and the ERP to normalize and correlate the data.

Step 3:  Create an Aggregate System

The next step is to connect to these systems. More modern equipment and databases have easy ways to access the data. Whether it is a SQL call to a database, or an OPC Server connected to the equipment, it is fairly straightforward to collect the data. Also, after the data has been collected, it needs to be stored. This will allow you to have long term data to help in analyzing the processes long term.

Data then needs to be turned into information. Data on its own is typically worthless, it isn’t until you view it in context that it becomes meaningful. For instance, getting the data for the number of parts made isn’t very valuable. It becomes valuable when you put that data into context with time and calculate the number of parts per hour or minute. Watching this information trend can then tell you how you are doing.

Step 4:  Automate the Process

Define the process flow of what you are trying to automate. Create a flow chart of the process and come up with a flow that will meet the automation needs. This would include mapping out the data sources, the final output and who should receive the information.

These simple steps can result in several benefits:

  • You can now focus on adding value
  • Monotonous and low value tasks can be eliminated
  • You can see increased efficiencies

Start simple, think big, and move fast.

Contact me today to learn how you can easily automate processes.

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