Last week, I attended Glass Processing Automation Days in San Antonio. Organized by FeneTech and supported by the National Glass Association, the event is focused on the glass side of our world. But there was still a ton of great information about integrating automation that applies directly to our industry.
The 20 presentations throughout the two-day-long conference all focused on automation and Industry 4.0, which encompasses digitalization, automation, connectivity and analytics. Although I’ve spent plenty of time writing about automation in construction in a previous job, the automation on the manufacturing floor was among the most advanced I’ve seen in the construction world.
Most presentations included videos and renderings of shop floor robots, and presenters touted automation’s benefits. Among them: the need for fewer people (some robots could eliminate up to six positions per shift); increased safety (robots can perform dangerous tasks); and the elimination of human error and increased job satisfaction among human workers (robots don’t mind doing boring and repetitive tasks). Robots also don’t require benefits, paid time off, breaks, vacations, insurance premiums or other costs associated with hiring individuals.
Quality control is another important aspect where automation can help, according to Nate Huffman with Softsolution North America Inc. Objective quality control in today’s environment is especially important, he says, because of the pressure to produce high quality product, pressure to keep prices down, a lack of experienced people and demand for flexibility.
But automation doesn’t just happen, says Kimmo Kuusela with Glaston. Rather, it’s a result of systematic development steps that he outlined to achieve total automation. Kuusela also noted that we’re in the fourth phase of full automation now, where automation is a huge player, but can’t do it all quite yet. “The result of full automation can create and change the entire business logic of your company,” he said. “Real-time data already changes the business logic.” Kuusela aims to have a fully automated tempering line by 2020, but acquiesced it is an “ambitious” goal and may not happen until 2021.
Beneficial as robots are, they aren’t a panacea to the productivity and labor problems plaguing the industry. Several people I spoke with mentioned these machines are sometimes cost-prohibitive. Others told me how they can introduce a whole new labor issue. “Automation will help but then you need really good operators,” one attendee told me during lunch. “One bad operator can take you down.”
Nicola Lattuada of Adelio Lattuada also reminded us that only humans can improve processes, which is why they should always remain the focus. Lattuada also quoted Tesla that “automation is good as long as you know where to put the machine.” Even though fewer human workers may be required as automation gains more ground, the skills and analytical abilities of humans will be even more important.
As automation gains more ground on factory floors across the country, the conversation will continue. Want to share perspective of your company’s victories and challenges on the road to automation? Email me with your stories.