Introducing Automation into your factory

It is not uncommon for more industries to explore industrial automation, as the rising labour costs coupled with increasingly attractive grants give companies an enticing alternative to their traditional work processes.

Even if you have already introduced automated processes, the rapidly improving technology gives rise to many faster and better applications. In order to compete with a better edge, constant upgrading is crucial.

Automation makes sense on many levels. To begin with, using properly selected and applied automation, manufacturers need fewer people on the plant floor and can eliminate dangerous and repetitive tasks. Moreover, automation has a successful track record in making companies more competitive.

Making Maximum Use of Government Grants

With the generous monetary support of the government, many local Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) are more willing to invest in automating work processes that would otherwise be too much of a burden to most. The most well-known grant would be the Productivity and Innovation Credit (PIC). Another helpful grant that may not be as commonly utilised is SPRING Singapore’s Capability Development Grant (CDG).

SPRING Singapore’s CDG is a financial assistance programme which helps SMEs defray up to 70 per cent of qualifying project costs, relating to consultancy, manpower, training, certification, upgrading productivity and developing business capabilities for process improvement, product development and market access.

By combining the CDG and PIC grants, companies can claim a portion of their project costs from CDG first, before claiming the rest from the latter grant.

In a haste to tap on the grants and outdo their competitors, many companies tend to be less meticulous with the implementation of automated machineries, and sign on without a thorough evaluation. Since the bulk of the investment is claimable from the government, they do not feel the need to search for the best to justify for the investment to be made. In lieu of this lack of alertness from customers, solution providers that fall under the grants have been widely incorporating these monetary grants into their marketing campaigns. Advertisements on public transportation and taxis are all urging the public to tap on the PIC. What’s there to lose? With the dollar-for-dollar bonus, some can even claim back more than what they paid for. Do you get to benefit? Of course you do. But is it significant? Do you really need that new printer? Don’t allow yourself to be coerced by the salesman to sign on the spot. Salespeople have learnt different ways to close the deal, from guilt-tripping to ego-bruising – anything to get your ink on the dotted line. The take away is: Better be safe than sorry. A little comparison and evaluation won’t hurt.

Most of the time, the one who signs the contracts are not the ones handling the accounts. To them, everything is straightforward because they are not involved in the claim process. However, do remember that the more small amounts claimed on impulse from the grants, the less you can claim for products you really need. Sure, a new printer costs S$7,000 on plan, and it’s nothing compared to the S$100,000 cap for PIC, of which 60 per cent is claimable. But then there comes another company selling software to replace your current versions, followed by many more salesmen each promoting a different item. How much do you have left for automation implementations after that?

Finding the Correct System Integrator to Automate Your Processes

So how ses. So, how would you determine the best indo you start? Evaluate, prioritize. ROI? Health? Work hours? Efficiency?

You want to automate your procestegrator to solve your problems? How do you calculate a suitable budget? System integrators are able to handle anything from leading a large-scale integration effort for a new process, retrofitting obsolete control systems, or developing an innovative automated approach to an old problem. Many system integrators also provide ongoing service, support, and maintenance for your automated systems. When choosing an integrator, know that these are characteristics of a good integrator:

They genuinely want to help you, and listens to your needs.

They ask questions and make sure they study your work process thoroughly. They may request you to provide some videos, or pay your factory a visit personally.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself to help you identify a good integrator:

Do they have recurring customers?

Does their portfolio only consist of one-time customers? This is a tell-tale sign that the integrator is unable to gain enough acknowledgement from their customers, be it machine quality-wise, or after-service support-wise. A good system integrator would have many repeat works for the same customer, as they were able to gain the trust and prove their ability in their first project.

They include you in their brainstorming and pay attention to your ideas as you are most familiar with your current work processes and the rationale behind them.

Does their company go by a rigid structure with many hierarchies?

System integration and industrial automation is one of the industries where a large company might not necessarily be better for you, as the more complicated the hierarchy of the company, the harder it is to get them to listen to you effectively. Miscommunication is bound to happen, and as much as your sales person may want to help you, the amount of paperwork and red-tape set by a well-established firm could limit his actions. If you notice that your point of contact is usually hesitant about delivering promises to you on the spot or takes a long time to get back to you, chances are that he always has to obtain permission from someone else. It will not be good when you need urgent help in the future. Also, large companies have so many projects on their hands that they might not find it worthwhile to divert their support to your site for maintenance at a short notice.

Does the integrator have a competent support team near you?

You need to make sure your integrator is able to offer full support in case of emergencies. Thus, the geographical location of the company is another important factor. You may know the CEO of the system integrator company in charge of your machines, but if they are based more than half a day away from where you are, there is basically little hope for them to be able to support you without taking a few days to book their tickets and accommodation. By the time they make it to your site, the service engineers are probably too jet-lagged to perform their best. It is even worse if you are already out of warranty, as the servicing fee would probably cost a bomb (on top of your downtime losses), due to the last minute flight and accommodation arrangements your integrator has to make.

Customised automation processes, especially, are not standard machines where you can just search for another distributor or agent to replace the original servicing team. System integrators like Precision Laser Solutions are the ones who assemble and link up the control systems and ensure seamless communication. Some system integrators develop their own software to let you run the system with easy steps, otherwise known as ‘turnkey solutions’.

Are you able to maintain friendly terms with someone of high position in their company?

This will be very helpful as they would be the ones that could answer your calls for help in the middle of the night and be able to arrange for support at the earliest time possible. If your only contact from the company is a sales person, it might be difficult for them to promise you anything without waiting for hours and hours for approval from their supervisors, who in turn look to higher management.

Beware of ridiculously low quotes

Understand the market price by comparing between different integrators. You might get anomalies where a company offers you a significantly lower price compared to the others. In the best case scenario, you would have just found a great integrator that could fulfill all your needs at the most inexpensive price you can find. However, that is usually not the case. Undercutting prices may lead to compromised quality, so be sure to check if your supplier is willing to share with you the grade of wires and cables used, etc. These small details may seem negligible now, but will make a difference in the long run.

Being a Cooperative Customer

Calculate out a budget beforehand.

A system integrator needs to know how much you are comfortable with setting aside for the investment before they can suggest appropriate solutions for you. If your company does not have experience in budgeting, you can let your system integrator know your yearly running costs. They would be able to help you calculate an approximate budget in terms of how long you need to wait for it to start reaping return in investments (ROI).

Once the ROI is calculated accurately, you will find yourself to be more accepting to the quotations of your potential integrators.

Benefits of Automation

For example, this project below costs more than S$1 million. However, the company was able to reap returns in less than a year, and subsequently purchased another robot transfer line for their factory. In this case, can you say that the million dollars spent on it is too expensive? The automated transfer line below consists of seven large robots guarded by a safety-interlocked fence and CCTV supervision. On top of replacing a total of 30 operators (who work over two shifts), the cycle time and production output doubled while quality improved. Thus, although the lump sum cost of the automated system may be huge, it ultimately boils down to how effective it is in terms of helping you save costs in the long run. The main concern for investing in automation should be the amount of time it takes to break even and start earning profits, and not so much on the initial cost of investment.

Besides enjoying cost savings, automation usually improves the overall work environment and safety as well. This will help companies abide by more safety guidelines and regulations, and can be marketed as a stand-out factor in comparison to other competitors. With the Ministry of Manpower’s (MOM) tight regulations on workplace safety, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Automation also optimises space allocation, which is extremely important in the land-scarce Singapore. All these factors together reflect well on the company, and they in turn gain more trust from their customers in terms of more purchase orders.

Risks of Automation and How to Prevent Them

Whether you are starting up a new line, or bringing an existing line down to be upgraded, you need to know that the project risks are being managed. Those risks include:

  • Knowing how to limit downtime
  • Having a fallback plan
  • Addressing personnel safety
  • Understanding the level of testing that is required before shutdown

If you are introducing a new system, always start by setting a benchmark. Never fully replace an operation process with machines unless you have total faith in its stability. Ask your integrator to provide a list of consumables for your new system to minimise machine down time due to minor wear and tear. Just a loose nut or worn out bearing could affect your entire process.

Make sure there are internet cables accessible to your machine so that your integrator can make use of screen sharing software to carry out long distance troubleshooting for emergencies.

Always let the supervisors and operation managers attend the machine trainings together. This will ensure that in case of sudden turnover of operators, there is still someone who knows how to operate it. Keep the operation manual and SOP instructions at accessible locations near the machine.

 

This feature is brought to you by Precision Laser Solutions Pte Ltd.

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