Imagine you’ve decided to automate an application. You’ve chosen robotics to be the fulcrum, but you need a robotics integrator to help you reach your goal. Once you have researched
whom to speak with, how do you compare these integrators? There are 4 "Cs” to sizing up any integrator; I define them as concept, cost, capabilities and capacity.
Has the integrator developed a concept similar to yours? The spectrum for concepts ranges from “We, the integrator, will be replicating what we’ve done before,” to “Given ‘X,’ we believe we can achieve what you want.” If your integrator believes something is possible, ask upfront for a feasibility test. A feasibility study may be prudent to prove out some aspect of the concept. Although this extra step may be an additional cost, the lessons learned will reduce the overall risk.
Bottom line: Don't accept claims that can't be supported by evidence.
Ask the integrator what his cost of automation concept will be. And find out what, if any, deliverables you’ll have to pay for above the proposal amount. There may be hidden costs. There may be additional costs such as on-site training, for example. Understand the payment terms. The integrator might charge 25 percent up front and then ask for milestone payments along the way. Figure that out. Negotiate terms favorable to your project. If there’s a change in scope or direction, discuss how the integrator handles engineering change orders.
Bottom line: Be aware that the proposal price might not be your “all-in cost” for automation.
Skills are transferable, yes. But just because someone has completed a highly complex automation for one application – for example, high-speed handling using vision – doesn’t mean they’ll successfully deliver on an inspection cell. Ask the integrator for references that mirror your project. Ok, let’s say they have the skill set. Great. Now, ask what type of support they’ll provide your application after installation.
Regarding support, if you want an integrator to be available for immediate, on-site help should problems arise, make sure they have a support presence in your region.
Bottom line: If they have the capabilities you need, ask how much of their work is sub-contracted. You want to know if they are a net aggregator of pieces or a producer. Work with the latter, not the former.
An integrator’s lead time to deliver fluctuates so make sure they can deliver your project within the time frame you’re looking for. If they say, “yes,” probe further. For example, ask if their engineers (and how many) will be free during the time needed to complete your project; find out what sort of capacity they have for taking on multiple projects.
Bottom line: The other “Cs” can be there. But if the integrator you choose can’t deliver on the fourth C due to a shortage of people power, your project will be derailed.
Ultimately, picking the right robotics integrator is about making the part you want to make at the rate, quality and timing you need. Reduce your risk by evaluating the 4 "Cs" first.
Dean Elkins is a Segment Leader, Material Handling at Yaskawa America, Inc. - Motoman Robotics Division