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October  2004


Don't Automate Automatically
Take Time to Determine the Level that is Right for You
by Jolene Salgren

Many window and door companies come to a time when they have to entertain the idea of automation to achieve higher levels of efficiency and increase profits. During this phase, there are many suggestions and proposals offered by equipment suppliers. It can be easy to lose sight of the main goal in a whirlwind of professional advice. Some companies invest in automated equipment only to discover that the machines are too complicated to run, too expensive to maintain and take up too much floor space. Therefore, it is important to consider your operation carefully from different angles to determine the level of automation that is right for you.

Manual Labor
Scores of companies started with just a hammer, nails, staples, screws, tape or a caulk gun for assembling various window or door components. Some companies that currently have the opportunity to automate from this level, prefer the hands-on process that provides product flexibility in custom design and handcrafted marketability. Others simply do not have the capability or resources to automate their assembly process. 
Manual labor does have its positive aspects. There is little to no maintenance and it generally takes up less floor space than automation. Four people can work in the area one automated machine can consume. There are very few mechanical, electrical or wear parts to replace and no mechanical or electrical trouble-shooting required. Workforce can be redirected to other areas of manufacturing to meet production variation. 

However, manual labor can affect the bottom line drastically and restrict company growth. Companies that rely on manual labor tend to pay out more in hours, worker’s compensation, various benefits and incentives, taxes and accumulated material waste and product rejections. 

Semi-Automated Equipment
This is the cost-effective answer for companies with lower production needs that desire to speed up the process. As a rule, semi-automated machines are favored because of their simplicity. This type of equipment is ideal for companies that wish to increase their profits by producing a quality product at a steady pace, while reducing rejections drastically, material waste and labor costs at the same time. 

Semi-automated systems generally depend on moderate operator input. A typical system assists the operator in applying the desired effect in a manner that strictly reduces errors yet relies heavily on the intention of the operator. Of course, the integration between man and machine surfaces new issues that manual labor does not encounter. 

Once a semi-automated machine is introduced into a company, a few changes must take place. The first area on which companies focus is staffing. They look to reduce or redirect manual labor in respect to the machine’s application. Capable operators must be trained and assigned to the new equipment. Processes prior to and immediately following the equipment may need attention to match the new production levels. Next, and often given less attention, is maintenance. New maintenance procedures need to be implemented or updated while 
most semi-automated equipment requires little attention.

Fully Automated Equipment
The major advantage of fully automated equipment is increased production and a higher level of consistent, high-quality product. Neither manual labor nor semi-automated machines can provide the same production level or quality as precision fully automated equipment. In most cases the production process requires little or no operator input. At most an individual must load the product and enter commands in the touch screen to activate the process. Human error is all but eradicated. Product rejection is limited.

People often argue that the initial investment and increased maintenance is too risky. However, the payback can easily outbalance the risk with the right equipment. And maintenance is a matter of planning. Do you have all the recommended spare parts stocked and ready to go in case of an emergency? Is your maintenance crew familiar with the various vendors, suppliers and distributors in your area? Do you have a purchasing program in place that will minimize downtime by ensuring a speedy order resulting in a quick delivery? Making the right decision regarding automation is imperative; it can mean the difference between an increase in profits or a waste of money and time. 

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