Webinar: Can Robots Fix the Labor Crisis in Gear Manufacturing?
With unprecedented labor shortages facing the gear industry, manufacturers are looking towards robots and automation as a solution.
Addressing these challenges and potential solutions, Chief Strategy Officer of HowToRobot, Stuart Shepherd, were presenting his insights at a webinar held by the American Gear Manufacturers Association (AGMA).
This article sums up Stuart Shepherd’s webinar presentation and provides a quick guide to getting started with automation for gear manufacturers. The full webinar recording can be accessed at AGMA’s website here.
Benefits of automation for gear manufacturers
The most common benefits of robots and automation for gear manufacturers include:
- Alleviate staff costs & shortages
By reducing the need for manual labor, automation can reduce operator costs and make gear manufacturers less vulnerable to personnel shortages. This is particularly important if the shortages are hampering production capacity and impacting the businesses’ ability to deliver to their clients.
- Better working environment
Automation can improve the working environment for operators exposed to undesirable tasks such as heavy lifting and highly repetitive motion or dangerous environments with for example heat exposure from furnaces.
- Redeploy staff to higher value jobs
When automation takes over the most menial tasks, employees may get be able to take tasks and jobs that are more attractive to them. This both helps on employee retention and optimizing labor costs for the business.
- Consistent quality
Most machines operate better if they operate consistently. Automation and robotics are very consistent in their output and can thus help improve the overall production quality and reduce the number of errors and discarded items, etc.
- Increase throughput and CapEx utilization
Gear manufacturers often run a tight operation at maximum throughput over many hours of the day to get full utilization of their often-expensive machinery. By being reliable and consistent, automation and robotics can help manufacturers maintain – and even increase – throughput and thereby optimize the utilization of their capital expenditures.
- Energy conservation
It is important for gear manufacturers to optimize energy consumption as the costs associated with their production processes are often high, for example from furnaces. Automation helps conserve energy and keeps costs minimal by making sure production throughput is maintained consistently and little energy is wasted on idle time.
Top 11 applications for automation in the gear industry
There are a wide range of promising automation applications for gear manufacturers today. The technology has advanced rapidly in recent years to allow for automation in new and previously unheard-of areas – including in a high-mix low-volume type of production often seen in gear manufacturing.
The top 11 list of robotic automation applications in gear manufacturing today are (in no particular order):
- CNC Machine, Broach & Gear Hob Tending: Robots tending existing machines is an application that is often relatively simple to execute and provides a good return on investment (ROI). Learn more about machine tending or get machine tending solution proposals from suppliers free of charge.
- Powdered Metal Compacting Press Unloading: Automating this application often requires some adapting of the solution to the specific needs of the manufacturer. It is recommended to engage with integrators that are experienced in this application. Get solution proposals for press unloading from suppliers.
- Sintering or Pre-Heat Furnace Load/Unload: Automating the loading and unloading of these types of furnaces both minimizes human exposure to heat and reduces associated labor costs. As the heat can also prove tricky for the robots, some custom adaptation and development may be needed, and it is advisable to engage with experienced integrators for this application. Get proposals on furnace loading solutions from suppliers.
- Forging Press Load/Unload: The benefits of automating this application are similar to the previous example both minimizing heat exposure and associated labor costs. It may, however, be more difficult to automate and custom development is to be expected. Engage with experienced integrators on this one.
Get proposals for forging press loading solutions from suppliers.
- Heat Treating Furnace Load/Unload: Similar to the previous examples there are numerous benefits to automating this application, but it can also be a semi-complex task to undertake requiring experienced integrators to do the job. Get proposals on treating furnace loading solutions from suppliers.
- Grinder Load/Unload: The complexity of automating this task depends on the specific situation but some custom adaption from an experienced integrator is expected. Get proposals on grinder loading solutions from suppliers.
- Deburring & Finishing: A growing number of robotic systems are able to reliably handle deburring and finishing tasks. It may require some custom development from experienced integrators to get the automation working properly. Learn more about deburring robots or get finishing solution proposals from suppliers.
- Metrology: Automation gear metrology entails lower risk as many off-the-self solutions exist that only require minor adaptations. Get metrology solution proposals from suppliers.
- Dot Peen & Laser Marking: Using robots and automation for marking applications is tried and tested and numerous off-the-shelf solutions exist that may only need small adjustments to work effectively. Get marking solution proposals from suppliers.
- Assembly/Inspection/Kitting: It is common to see robots used for assembly tasks, and – depending on the specific application – there are often off-the-shelf solutions available with minimal adjustments required. Learn more about assembly robots or get assembly solution proposals from suppliers.
- Racking/Packing/Cartoning/Palletizing: End-of-line applications are often overlooked in an automation context, although a large number of solutions are able to reliably take on these tasks today. Some tailoring of the solution will often be required, and it is therefore recommended to go with integrators that have proven experience with the specific application. Learn more about packaging robots and palletizing robots or get solution proposals from suppliers.
Key challenges with automation
Applying robot automation without being aware of the potential challenges can backfire.
Understanding the businesses’ needs and where to apply the technology is one of the challenges most commonly seen. Mis-applying automation may lead to reduced productivity, downtime, wasted costs and ultimately failure if the system does not get properly in place. Past negative experiences are holding some companies back from automation – even though the business case may have improved substantially as prices have come down drastically. Some systems costing $200,000 only 10 years ago are now sold for as little as $30,000, making automation a much more attractive investment. But it all starts with understanding the needs of the business.
A related challenge is to understand the limitations of available solutions. What may work in one scenario can be much more difficult when applied to another, seemingly similar, task where important parameters have changed (for example: furnace heat that may damage the robot). It is important to get help from experts that understands these limitations and are able to give unbiased advice on what specific tasks are most viable for automation for each gear manufacturer.
When investing in automation it is also important to look at the total cost of ownership (TCO) when doing the ROI calculation. There are many costs that are easy to oversee – and the TCO includes much more than just the cost of the solution provided by the vendor. Examples of costs to be considered are implementation, maintenance, getting existing machines and processes “robot ready”, and upskilling employees to operate the solution.
There are other challenges, too. Getting help from experienced and impartial advisors can help gear manufacturers overcome these challenges.
Some questions to ask before automating
A good way for gear manufacturers to avoid the most common pitfalls is to ask some of the following key questions before investing in any robot automation.
- Are each machine’s processes under control?
This means having a process capability index (Cpk) above 1.33 and no intervention. If this is not met, automation will only introduce further problems.
- What is the current schedule loading and OEE for each machine?
Sometimes OEE may be perceived to be high when it can still be improved. If the machine is only used in one shift and automation can get it to working in a 24/7 operation, productivity can be increased substantially.
- Are the machines “robot ready”?
It is hugely important to assess if the existing machines are compatible with robots, otherwise the automation may end up as a failure. Some machine tools may not have automatic door openers, for example. And there may be other features that make robot automation unadvisable or difficult. Some may be simple to fix but need to be considered in advance.
- What are the shop space and conditions around the machine?
Some shop floors are very small with limited space for introducing a large industrial robot including safety fencing, etc. Depending on the requirements, solutions with a smaller footprint can be available such as collaborative robots that may not require fencing.
- Which automation solution provides the most value for money?
It is possible to spend a lot of money on automation. But finding the right balance first between performance, OEE, speed of changeover, and other needs can help inform the ideal solution that will provide the most value for money. People used to say that automation was only feasible when applied to really large batches. Today, automation may be able to work in smaller batches, as some solutions can change automatically as fast as the machine tool.
There are, of course, many other important questions to ask. To get a more comprehensive overview, watch the full webinar for free at AGMA’s website.
5 steps to automation success for gear manufacturers
A good way of getting started with automation is to follow these five steps to automation success. This process helps gear manufacturers realize the full potential of automation and avoid some of the pitfalls already discussed.
- Get an overview – and create an Automation Roadmap
Having an overview and a roadmap helps prioritize what to automate. A roadmap shows the steps to take and where to begin, i.e. what tasks are the most valuable to automate for the businesses and entails the lowest level of risk. Often, the most obvious place to start may not be clear before a roadmap is in place. It is recommended to use an independent advisor for creating the roadmap to avoid vendor bias.
- Confirm the current financial performance and realistic potential
Get a clear understanding of current performance and compare with the (realistic) potential from automating. Examples of things to ask: how fast/efficient is the process currently? What increase/decrease will automation incur? Can you run more shifts, during holidays, etc.? Getting this step covered sufficiently may require assistance.
- Make sure specifications are complete and follow the project plan
A clear and complete set of specifications reduces the number of “surprises” at a later stage. This includes having a safety risk assessment plan for all content with clear responsibilities. It also includes the cost to make machines “robot ready”, for the automation purchase (including scope for readiness & safety), and for installation, commissioning, part programming, warranty, and training.
- Source the best-fit automation solution at the right cost
It is recommended to seek several, comparable offers from suppliers to find the right match. With clear specifications, it is easier to get comparable solution proposals from suppliers, and, ultimately, source the best-fit solution at the right cost. On HowToRobot.com, gear manufacturers can post their project specifications and get expert assistance on finding qualified suppliers and receiving best-fit solution proposals – free of charge.
- Test/Validate, review, and optimize
This step is often skipped, but is equally as important as the others. Testing and validating that the solution is able to do what has been agreed upon is vital to ensure a robust and reliable performance afterwards.
Stuart Shepherd has spent more than 40 years on transforming U.S. manufacturing with automation, currently serving as the Chief Strategy Officer for robotics marketplace HowToRobot.com and independent advisors Gain & Co. Past roles include General Motors, FANUC Robotics, Shepherd Solutions, KUKA Robotics, Güdel AG, and Universal Robots. He is also a Past Chairperson and Board Member of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), and a Past Chairperson of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3).
Gain & Co are vendor independent advisors on robots and automation – working with manufacturers worldwide on creating their automation roadmaps, planning investments, and sourcing, implementing, and optimizing solutions.
HowToRobot.com is a global market platform helping manufacturers broadcast their automation needs worldwide and get custom proposals from suppliers, including leasing options.