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Choosing Between Custom Machines and Standard Automation Solutions


In today's competitive industrial landscape, the choice between standard automation solutions and custom machines is a critical decision. Custom machines offer a tailored approach that meets specific needs and often exceeds the capabilities of standard equipment. This article explores the benefits of custom machines, the process of justifying their investment, specifying requirements, integrating these solutions into your production line, and provides examples from our own experience to illustrate these concepts.


When to Choose Custom Machines Over Standard Automation Solutions

Standard automation solutions, such as robots, are well-suited for many applications and they should be the first choice for most applications. However, there are scenarios where custom machines are the superior choice. Custom machines are ideal for tasks involving unique processes or requiring a high level of precision that standard robots cannot achieve. They also come into play when automation requires specialized features unavailable in off-the-shelf solutions or when integration with existing systems poses significant challenges. Additionally, custom machines offer greater scalability, adapting more easily to future operational changes than standard equipment.

Many companies hesitate to adopt full robotic solutions for various reasons. Some organizations may not have an established culture of automation and feel unprepared to introduce robots into their operations. Others might lack the necessary resources or expertise within their team to effectively implement and manage robotic systems. Cost concerns also play a significant role, as the initial investment for a full robotic cell can be substantial, raising doubts about the return on investment. In such cases, custom machines provide an excellent middle ground, offering tailored automation solutions without the need for a full-scale robotic implementation.


Justifying the Investment and Specifying Requirements

Investing in custom machines can be significant, but the long-term benefits often justify the initial cost. Conducting a thorough cost-benefit analysis can reveal the potential increase in productivity and efficiency. Custom machines are designed to optimize specific tasks, leading to substantial savings in time and resources. Improved quality control and reduced waste are other significant advantages, as custom machines can be fine-tuned to meet exact specifications, resulting in higher-quality outputs. Additionally, custom machines can provide a competitive edge by enabling unique capabilities that standard solutions cannot match.

To ensure your custom machine meets your needs, it's essential to clearly define the requirements and objectives. Start by documenting every detail of the task the machine will perform, including materials, dimensions, tolerances, and any special functions. Setting measurable performance metrics, such as cycle times, output quality, and reliability standards, will help gauge the machine's success. It's also important to consider future needs and specify any requirements for the machine to adapt to different tasks or increased production volumes.


Integration into the Production Line

Integrating a custom machine into your production line requires careful planning. Begin with a compatibility assessment to identify any potential issues with your current setup. Ensuring the custom machine can interface with existing equipment and systems is crucial. Workflow optimization is another key consideration—determine the best placement for the new machine and how it will interact with other processes. Preparing your team for the new equipment through training and establishing a support plan for maintenance and troubleshooting are also vital steps.

For a smooth production flow, custom machines must seamlessly integrate with upstream and downstream processes. Ensure the custom machine can handle inputs from previous stages without interruption, which may involve adjusting upstream processes or adding intermediary steps. Planning how the machine's output will be handled by subsequent processes is equally important. Establishing feedback mechanisms to monitor performance and quickly address any issues that arise will help maintain seamless integration.


Our Experience with Custom Machine Building

Our company has extensive experience in custom machine building, having worked on numerous projects where standard solutions fell short. Here are some examples that illustrate our approach and success in custom machine building:

  1. Material Handling Solution: We developed a custom material handling solution that allowed their system to run for a large family of part geometries without the need to select a different part program for small geometry changes. This innovation streamlined their production process, reduced downtime, and improved overall efficiency. Conducting a cost-benefit analysis for this project revealed substantial savings and justified the investment in a custom machine.

  2. Integrated Conveyor System: For another client, we worked on a complex custom machine with several custom-designed cartesian robots and an integrated conveyor system that carried components through several integrated. This machine performed a series of tasks within a single, fully customized system. All components were precisely placed inside a large machine, making the entire system very efficient. This design also allowed for easy relocation of the machine. The entire setup could be unhooked and reinstalled in a different plant without the need to reprogram all robots or adjust the factory layout. This flexibility and ease of relocation provided significant operational advantages and cost savings.

  3. High-Rate Manual Assembly Line: A client needed to increase the level of automation for a high-rate manual assembly line but was reluctant to bring in robots due to concerns about speed, programming complexity, and potential downtime. To address their needs, we designed small, safe, desktop custom machines that were partially automated and interacted well with operators. These custom solutions increased efficiency and productivity while maintaining a user-friendly interface for the assembly line workers.


Conclusion

Choosing between standard automation solutions and custom machines is a critical decision for any business. Custom machines offer significant benefits for complex, unique tasks but require careful planning and justification. By clearly defining requirements, planning integration, and ensuring seamless interaction with other processes, businesses can maximize the benefits of custom automation.

 

 


 
About Techam: Techam Solutions is an operations and engineering consulting firm working with small to medium-sized manufacturers, private equity firms and their portfolio companies across multiple industries. We provide a wide range of operations management and engineering services to drive operational excellence and implement solutions that deliver reduced cost, increased performance, and enhance the company’s bottom line. We aspire to be a trusted advisor and a reliable partner who brings meaningful and sustainable value to our clients.

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