Volume 34, Number 2, February 1999


USGOpenings Column

Fenestration Focus

Selecting an Automation System for Production

by Clark Halladay

Many manufacturers in the window, door and insulating glass industry, driven to save time and money, are investigating ways to automate as much of their production as possible. With unemployment numbers at an all time low, and employee turn-over and training expenses on the rise, it makes sense to seek ways to streamline operations through automation. But is the significant capital investment often incurred delivering true automation?

Many manufacturers purchase what they believe is an automated manufacturing system intended to reduce labor, increase throughput and quality, save space and reduce costs. However, in reality, they often end up with a semi-automated, vertically-integrated or operator-assisted system, with limited manufacturing flexibility or capability.

Many times manufacturers purchase equipment that does not automate a process or system. Instead the equipment optimizes a material or, in an effort to drive down material costs, integrates more steps into the manufacturing process, which actually increases manufacturing steps, labor requirements and costs.

Some high-cost, high-maintenance systems often produce the same volume of output—and sometimes less—than a traditional manufacturing process produces, but at a lower overall quality level. In addition, more workers with higher skill levels are often required to operate and maintain the new automated machinery.

You can determine whether the increased size, complexity, maintenance, and staffing levels required to support and operate such automated systems justify the cost of the equipment. Before committing to any new automation equipment, apply a set of simple criteria to the system to help you evaluate your decision.

Take a close look at the new system’s labor efficiency. The labor efficiency is calculated by dividing the volume of output by man hours of labor. The more human operators on a line, the greater the opportunity for breaks in what should be a continuous serial operation. The use of progressive automation—from entry level systems, to semi-automatic systems, to fully automated systems—provides labor leverage. By minimizing the labor component or the number of human operators, a fully automated system minimizes labor cost and dependence; reduces downtime; and results in a high, value-added component of labor.

Scrutinize the system’s space efficiency. Does the automated system make the best use of factory floor space? Often, these automated systems have a fairly large footprint, which is a serious consideration if space comes at a premium in your company. You have to determine how many units per shift you need to manufacture; what’s your available square footage of floor space; and the total square footage necessary to include both raw material and finished product staging areas.

Determine the system’s capital efficiency. This can be calculated by figuring out how many units are manufactured for every dollar spent on the system. The more expensive the equipment, the less you can afford for it to be idle. Obviously, with automation, the more it runs, the greater the pay back.

Also, consider whether the excess capacity is worth the size of the investment. Would it be better to spend money to automate existing systems or processes and reduce people in existing lines, or would you be better off to invest in new product lines that create new profit centers built around a more automated system?

Take the time to make a point-by-point comparison of the automated system and your existing manufacturing process. The manufacturing world is too competitive and unforgiving for you to make the mistake of thinking you are buying automation with all its benefits, only to be shortchanged on your investment once the system is in place.

Clark Halladay is the sales and new business development manager for TruSeal Technologies, Inc. of Beachwood, OH.


Copyright 1999 Key Communications, Inc. All rights reserved. No reproduction of any type without expressed written permission.