Fundamentally, Automation Is About People


Fundamentally, Automation Is About People

It’s not about the technology, it’s about the team
you have to support that technology.

Talking about manufacturing automation often leads to discussions about new equipment, software or other technology. But Buddy Raney of Raney Construction and Dana Rector of Universal Forest Products are quick to point out that what’s critical is workflow planning and people.

Evolve Slowly

Adding new, more advanced equipment and software can drastically change the dynamics of the manufacturing process, but it doesn’t have to happen all at once. “This ain’t your grandpa’s equipment anymore. There’s new stuff emerging every day,” Raney pointed out. “But if you take small steps, like replacing carts with a conveyor, it’s doable for any facility, big or small.” As you and your team prepare for the impending changes, remember to think about plant-wide material flow, even if you’re only making changes to one aspect of your operation.

Evolution is manageable when you take the time to outline your motivation for upgrading and define the probable outcomes. This can range from improving just-in-time (JIT) techniques to lowering labor costs. “You need to examine your equipment, plant—everything—to make changes,” said Raney. Keeping everything in mind is especially important when you start thinking about maintenance.

Invest in Your Staff

As the level of automation increases, finding the staff with the knowledge and experience necessary to maintain it can be difficult. And since the technology will likely be new to your current employees, they’ll need to get up to speed. “Taking your maintenance [staff] and operators to the next level is so important,” said Raney.

Rector wholeheartedly agreed. “Today’s automated equipment is more challenging to operate,” Rector said, pointing out that advances in electronic and programmable logic controller (PLC) technology have a profound effect on the maintenance game. The maintenance teams at many component manufacturing facilities are more mechanically minded and, therefore, ill-equipped to prevent or correct maintenance issues that revolve around complicated automation, programming and software.

Getting the right people in the right positions is a huge part of the automation investment. “Better uptime, less downtime: your [maintenance] department is a savings,” Rector emphasized. And at the crux of the matter? Training. “Our goal is to take the people we have and make them more knowledgeable and purposeful,” he said. “If someone ever tells you they don’t want to train their people,” what that person is ignoring is that those same people “are still going to be there, but they will not have the skill set to help.”

Rector’s strategies include training from a variety of resources, including vendors, third-party workshops and community college courses. “For any new purchase, we write into the contract that the vendor will provide us with in-plant training, following the installation, at 30-, 60-, and 90-day increments,” he said, “that way the training stays fresh in the minds of our staff.” However, he also likes to get his maintenance teams out of the manufacturing environment and into off-site classes so they can have focused learning time without the interruption of service calls.

Ensure Management Commitment

All of this requires a commitment from your team, and not just the operators, maintenance staff and middle management. “You need a top-level management commitment,” said Rector. He further explained that there needs to be buy-in at every level to ensure you have the manufacturing, maintenance and administrative staff in place to get the various jobs done. These changes, big or small, require additional time, training and, probably, a little patience.

The message must be clear: your people are the most critical part of your automation investment. “If I could give one piece of advice to everyone, it would be this: all of you need to go back and evaluate your current maintenance staff. You need to make sure you have the right manager, the right amount of maintenance staff and that they have the skill set to succeed with your desire to add more automation to your plant,” said Rector. “It’s not about the technology, it’s about the team you have to support that technology.”

Plan Your Future

So, what’s the bottom line? If you’re thinking about upping the automation at your component manufacturing location, you’ll certainly be investing in new equipment, software and technology. But it’s less about complex saws, sophisticated software and LED laser systems than it is about planning your workflow and getting the right team in place to manage and care for your investments. Planning to automate means planning to evaluate, train and invest…in your people. 

This article was based on the 2015 BCMC Educational Session Fundamentals of Successful Automation. Many thanks to Buddy Raney (Raney Construction) and Dana Rector (Universal Forest Products).