Two hundred forty minutes could save you $240,000 or more on your manufacturing process, but unlike those GEICO® commercials, not everybody knows that. Some of the companies that are in the know, however, say it’s because they agreed to a plant audit. A plant audit is a when a perceptive supplier visits your factory to meet with your production team, listen to your production supervisors and study how you are manufacturing piece parts. The process takes about four hours or roughly half a day, but the payoff can be more than worth it.
By identifying a manufacturer’s challenges and bottlenecks through a plant audit, a perceptive supplier can determine if robotic automation will help the overall manufacturing operation. These days, for example, a lot of manufacturers are struggling to hire qualified welders. There are more job openings than there are trained welders to fill them, and when plants need to boost production due to demand for products, managers don’t always approach the challenge in the most efficient way.
I recently visited a facility where welders were climbing all over a large part to complete various welds. The factory workers had to hoist this part high into the air to give additional welders access to weld the underside of the piece. The part required hundreds of inches of welds, all being done manually. Not only were there safety concerns for the welders, but the manufacturing process also slowed until the welders could complete this part.
After auditing the plant’s operation, we concluded that a $250,000 robotic automation system could tackle the challenge and redeploy six welders to other areas of the factory where they would be safer and could remove other bottlenecks in the production process. In an economy where it could take more than a year to find, hire and retain six skilled welders, the robotic automation system may well pay for itself in less than twelve months. None of this would have been apparent to the production team without a plant audit.
For years, the automotive industry has understood the benefits of robots, but automotive applications tend to require welding a high volume of consistent part pieces. In other manufacturing operations with more variety in the products they produce, the prevailing thinking has been that robots can’t take on the diversity of jobs. That thinking may have been accurate, say, ten years ago, but technology has changed. Today, there are laser sensing and tracking technologies that can guide a robotic welding torch in ways that exactly mirror (and repeat) what an expert welder programs a robot to do. Even programming robots is now something that can be done quite easily. With a few days of training, welders can teach robots to tackle the most dangerous and repetitive tasks, while freeing up a limited supply of expert human welders to undertake higher value tasks that can't be automated.
That’s the essence of a good plant audit. The supplier, who knows the latest technology, can come into your environment, look critically at how you are approaching production and educate your team about what’s possible. At Yaskawa, we have hosted free technology days where we show a potential customer all our technologies and capabilities, so that they can see the options for themselves.
A quality plant audit will also carefully catalogue what you’re doing and help you test assumptions you might have about efficiency and productivity. Examining your production environment will help you and your supplier determine if there is a justification technically and financially for automation.
Whether you’re a plant with ten employees or ten thousand employees, there’s benefit in having a skilled supplier audit your operation in order to uncover costs, reduce the use of floor space, improve quality and increase efficiencies. What you learn may just save you on manufacturing.
Zane Michael is a Director, Thermal Business Development at Yaskawa America, Inc. - Motoman Robotics Division