5 steps to robot implementation success

In order to ensure success when implementing a robotic system, it is important to get company-wide support, define success, and more.

By John Burg, Acieta December 12, 2017

A plant engineer has decided that robotic automation is the best solution to reduce costs, increase production, and address labor shortages, but what happens next?

Before calling a system integrator to get a price quote, there are five steps to follow to ensure success when implementing a robotic system. Skipping these steps often results in projects that are cut short, drag on too long, or never get off the ground. A robotic system is a big investment, so it deserves special consideration and planning time.

Step 1: Get company-wide support

There are many individuals and departments that would be impacted by a robotic solution. Before doing anything, there needs to be education and discussion among several parties, including senior management, plant managers, senior engineering, manufacturing engineering, maintenance, IT, safety managers, shop floor staff, and HR. Anyone impacted by the purchase, installation, operation, and maintenance of the robotic system needs to be a part of the discussion from the very beginning.

It’s absolutely critical that everyone understand the basic facts about robotic automation—that it has a short return on investment (ROI), can open opportunities for the company, and does not replace shop workers. There always will be jobs that robots can’t do, but robots can take over the monotonous and dangerous activities, enabling staff to have more fulfilling roles that involve quality control and operating the robot.

Step 2: Get consensus on the definition of success

To get agreement from multiple parties and manage expectations, it’s important to have agreement on what criteria make the project successful. The most important measurement is often the ROI, and on average, companies consider two years to be an appropriate payback period. When calculating ROI, there are many factors beyond comparing the hourly labor costs of a human operator versus the capital cost of a robot.

a. Increased production

A robot’s ability to work consistently all day every day allows it the potential to increase production on a line. If a company is in a situation that it can sell everything it makes, and if that company has been limited to what the human operator can produce, then a robot automatically will produce more saleable product and increase profit. More units sold can add up quickly and dramatically reduce payback time.

The ability to increase production may give a company the opportunity to seek new customers and get even higher demand for products, leading to further profit that would justify the purchase of a robot.

b. Reduced cost per part

On average, materials account for 75 percent of a product’s cost, with labor being the other 25 percent. A robot can reduce materials costs by eliminating scrap and the labor costs to rework those mistakes. The speed and consistency of a robot moves parts through the process much faster over an entire shift, which reduces the cost to make each part.

c. Reduced risk of personal injury

Safety is a huge issue in manufacturing plants. Even a relatively minor injury can cost thousands of dollars, and a major injury can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. When a robot handles the most dangerous tasks, it can reduce the risk of human injury and related costs. It’s often hard to put a dollar value on safety, but costs to consider are:

  • What is an average workman’s compensation cost?
  • What is the potential increase in insurance costs?
  • What is the cost to hire and train a temporary replacement worker?

Step 3: Get consensus on the definition of failure

To calculate the viability of installing a robot, it’s necessary to have all parties agree on an acceptable tolerance for failure. If a robot does not meet the agreed-upon criteria for success, what is the level at which the process is deemed a failure?

Often, the potential for negative impact on product quality can prevent a company from changing over to robots. If there are nuances to the job that are best suited to a person who can make split-second judgement or manipulate components, a robot may not produce the same part quality. However, in those cases, the process likely is not consistent enough to be automated.

When a process is not running efficiently and smoothly without some operator interference to correct discrepancies, those problems rarely are solved by automating the process. If an operator makes adjustments to the process parameters using gut-feel and tribal knowledge, these issues must be resolved before automation is introduced.

Step 4: Prepare the budget

It’s essential to figure out potential savings before figuring out what is affordable to invest. Determining a budget requires proper evaluation of costs and sales potential.

a. Reduced costs

It may seem straight-forward to calculate the cost of a human operator with just the hourly wage. However, there are many hidden costs to having human operators that are often overlooked. In fact, those related costs are often higher than the wage itself.

  • Worker benefits, such as medical insurance
  • Time off
  • Supervisory labor
  • Facility costs, such as AC and lighting
  • HR staff to conduct hiring
  • Worker training
  • Risk insurance
b. Higher profit potential
c. If a robot can increase production that is saleable right away, the new volume potential needs to be factored into ROI and be considered in the budgeting process.
d. Added costs
e. On the front end, a robot may require the purchase of some accessories and other related equipment. Those are up-front capital investments that will be recovered many times over in the long-term.

Step 5: Gather information

Having all the right information ready will make robotic installation faster and easier. A robotic integrator will need this data to make a proper recommendation and cost estimate. The data to collect ahead of time includes: 3-D part models; 2-D part prints with tolerances, material specs and notes; work definition; machine and fixture descriptions, machine manuals, models and drawings; and pictures and videos that really tell the story.

Additional non-technical information can be just as useful in streamlining the process of robotic implementation. This other information includes TAKT time, process cycle times, and annual volumes.

Once all success and failure criteria are determined and data is collected, it’s time to bring in a robotic system integrator. A good integrator will ask a lot of questions and dig deep into the process before making any recommendations. An experienced integrator that has seen a lot of automation applications will be best at providing consultation with real-life success examples. Choose an integrator that wants to build a relationship instead of just doing one-off projects, because that background knowledge will make future projects easier.

Working side-by-side with his father, John Burg founded an automation company in 1983 that would eventually grow into Acieta LLC, one of the nation’s leading robotics integrators.

The Robotics Industry Association (robotics.org) evaluates integrators in the United States and provides a list of certified integrators that demonstrate excellence. That list is available at https://www.robotics.org/Meet-The-Certified-Integrators.