Spira International

- Huntington Beach, California

Semi-Automation. A Potentially Wise Choice for Small Companies

When people think of automation, they generally envision complex advanced machinery operating completely autonomous of people, and costing well into the six or seven figure range. While this may be a wise choice for huge high-volume production operations, for the small business, this is usually completely out of the question from an initial investment viewpoint. They often stick to their labor intensive, manual operations not knowing that there is an in-between option that is affordable, yet has the potential to greatly increase their production.

Perhaps the most expensive aspect of automation is the material handling aspect. Loading machines, moving parts through the system and unloading and orienting of parts in a production operation pose the greatest grief to the automation designer and consume many of the dollars of an automated process. Remove this aspect of the problem, and you have a semi-automated system that can perform nearly as well as a fully automated one at a fraction of the cost.

In another example, a ball bearing maker, utilized assembly fixtures being operated by one operator per fixture. By semi automating the process, one operator could load the parts, start the machine, and then unload the finished assembly when the operation was complete. While waiting for the machine to perform its tasks, there was enough time for the operator to unload and reload yet another machine. Production increased from 80 parts per hour to over 200 at a cost payback of less than 1 year.

There has always been the big question in automating, would you rather have four semi-skilled machine operators making $10 per hour, or one highly skilled technician making $40 per hour keeping the sophisticated machine running. The answer usually boils down to, the four $10 per hour people, because if one of their machines goes down, you still have 3/4ths of the production. If one of the machine operators quits, they're usually far easier to replace than an automation specialist, too.

You can have the best of both worlds, though, with simple, easy to maintain equipment, and fewer operators by going the semi-automation route. With modern, inexpensive programmable logic controllers (PLCs) it becomes relatively easy to semi-automate processes, where you only need one $10 per hour operator, and no expensive, highly skilled technicians.

For the small manufacturer in today's highly competitive marketplace, semi-automating processes is often the most efficient, easiest, and lowest cost alternative to the age-old question of whether to automate or to continue using manual methods.

Download a printer friendly version of Semi-Automation. A Potentially Wise Choice for Small Companies PDF file 14K bytes.