4 Automation Buying Tips for Small to Medium-Sized Enterprises

Diversifying product lines and aiming for zero production errors are among the reasons small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) choose automated manufacturing. All phases of production, quality control, packaging and palletizing can benefit from the latest robots and machine vision and motion control systems.

Maybe you're considering automation, but you have concerns. Here are buying tips to guide your purchase whether it's for the first time or it's for upgraded equipment.

Know Your Automation

Industrial automation was primarily for the benefit of large manufacturers in the auto industry where robots in a fixed location did one repetitive motion and task over and over. These are called "fixed cell" robots and the costs to implement easily rang up at a quarter of a million dollars or more.

Flexible automation is the trend for SMEs and that can be as diverse as a robotic arm functioning on a desk-top or a quality control system using a small camera with versatile mounting capabilities. Costs may total in the tens of thousands of dollars and return the investment in several months to less than two years.

With so many options on the market, what is automation? Think of industrial automation as using control systems like computers or robots and information technologies to handle a variety of processes. Software applications and the use of sensors are giving robots the ability to adapt to their environment so automation is no longer fixed in one physical space.

Know Your Market

Automated manufacturing can reduce errors and lower the costs for materials and labor. While industrial automation saves money in these and other areas, it also enables small businesses to conquer new markets.  

The article How SMEs in the Know Win with Automation, gives examples of how companies leveraged the power of automation in manufacturing. Baltimore-based Marlin Steel was making wire baskets for bagel shops. Market conditions threatened to shut down the company. The management team automated and now the firm diversified into producing steel wire containers for the aerospace, defense, medical, and automotive industries.

Another company featured in the article is the manufacturer, Etalex, that makes shelving and racking systems for use in retail displays and storage systems for warehouses. The Quebec-based company was facing rising costs and couldn't do business the same way as when it started in 1966.

Wholesale prices had to be cut in half, yet the cost of steel kept rising along with employee salaries. Etalex automated in 2004 and now has 29 robots in 19 robotic cells. Their tasks include palletizing, assembly, press tending, MIG welding, spot welding and machining. There is integrated vision on eight of their robotic cells for quality inspection and robot guidance.

Know Your Costs

Companies in the market to purchase automation should budget with a total cost of ownership in mind. Expenses include the initial purchase cost but also set-up and training. There are maintenance and repair costs over the life of the automation.

The good news is that buying the equipment isn't only about an outflow of money. Technology like sensors integrated into the system allows for a wide range of savings as noted in the article Making the Case for Total Cost of Operations. Analytic software provides benefits like reduced energy usage and safety-enabled components keep operators out of harm's way.

An investment in automated manufacturing can result in more units produced at a higher profit. Equipment life can last for many years and be sustained with routine maintenance so downtime is minimal.

Get a Big Picture view of what's included in the purchase. Are all the components, features and software a buyer needs included or are they add-ons? Are there additional licensing and activation fees?

Another perspective on costs is given in How SMEs in the Know Win with Automation where it's noted that many small to medium-sized companies use a robot for one shift, five days a week. A robot that's only working one shift and handling a weight below its threshold may last 25 years in a small shop.

Spending $100,000 for a new robot system may not be worth the expense but investing $40,000 could be the right price point.

Know what you need. Used equipment may be 40 to 60 percent the cost as something new like a robot that’s capable of holding 100 pounds to hold a little weld gun that’s five pounds.

Know Your Partners

Working with a qualified and reliable robot integrator is the first step in adopting robotic automation. Interview them, learn about their past projects and talk to some of their previous clients is the advice given in the write-up Researching Your First Robotic Purchase? Don't Be Intimidated. Your integrator is the person who will guide you through the process, from choosing a robot to post-sales service, and can make or break that initial experience.

Some robot integrators focus major corporations like the big automakers while others are comfortable working with a small machine shop that just needs a one-time purchase. Ask an integrator if they're certified through the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). The benefits of the certification program are found on RIA's website on the Integrator Certification page.

Use this guide to be confident that you're making the right decision in the purchase of your automated equipment. Learn more about companies using industrial automation with the videos, trainings, and blog posts at A3.