October 02, 2017

Steps to Get the Most Out of Your Automation Investment

by Joe Erb

There are plenty of ways to implement automated equipment into today’s plant floor. Let’s say you’ve made that investment. Whether you’ve automated cutting processes, edge deletion, breakout, unit conveying, sorting, racking, or anything else, there’s one critical question that you should be asking.
Have you been getting the results that you’ve expected?
At Quanex, we know that implementing automation on the plant floor is not an end in itself. It takes the right knowledge, procedures and strategy to make the most of it. Let’s take a look at some of the most common challenges I’ve seen our customers run into when it comes to automation, along with how those challenges can be overcome.

The Challenges
Production bottlenecks are one challenge fenestration manufacturers should be on the lookout for, occurring when inputs and outputs aren’t optimized. Consider: Is your machine idle because of a lack of raw materials feeding it (e.g., glass, metal, vinyl, etc.)? Are too many finished products coming off the end of your line with nowhere to go?
Production can grind to a halt as a result of these conundrums. Elsewhere, product trackability can become trickier when volumes are higher. Losing track of products, sometimes forcing remakes to get a completed order out the door, can lead to lost time and dollars that eat into your margins.
Next, you can work hard to optimize plant flows—but sometimes the unexpected can occur at the job site. Whether it’s weather-related delays that slow the pace at the job site, or other trade work that must be performed before windows or glass can be installed, being nimble here is key for today’s fenestration manufacturers. Moreover, these unforeseen contingencies can be magnified with greater production capacity and bigger projects. Communication between customers and installers is critical.
At the job site, there’s no room to store glass/windows that cannot yet be installed. Does your plant have the storage capacity to manage this kind of backflow when it occurs?
Finally, automation can help tap into new revenue streams. Today’s manufacturers can and should be open to new possibilities. But know that it takes due diligence before diving into unfamiliar projects to succeed. Communicating with sales teams to manage expectations is critical here, as well.
The Solutions
With automated equipment, software integration is a must. Automation without a robust, user-friendly ERP system is automation that is likely not meeting its full potential. Software that complements automation is available from a range of vendors, and can help you formalize processes, better track line inputs and outputs, and run things more smoothly overall. Further, manufacturers can track collected data to deepen insight.
Next, approaching automation and how it can change your traditional processes with an open mind is just as critical. Simply put, it’s not your grandfather’s shop floor anymore. One of the most important things you can do after implementing automation is being open to new ideas. To get the most out of your investment, thinking differently is how you’ll get ahead. For example: Stop relying on paper. Automation + software means communication happens digitally. Don’t be stuck looking around for paperwork on orders when you don’t have to.
New ideas flourish when your business has hired and developed the right people. It’s easier said than done, of course, but the plant worker of the future must be capable of much more than simply moving parts down the line. They must be well-rounded, willing to learn and adapt to new processes. For example, we need to be looking for IT fluency in job candidates. WiFi issues aren’t just annoying on today’s connected plant—they can lead to dollars lost due to production downtime.
Finally, today’s plant floor operations depend on a network of stakeholders operating fluidly and seamlessly. That means transparency and good relationships with your vendors are more important than ever. Keep lines of communication open and transparent. When there’s friction between supplier, manufacturer, and customer, efficiency can slow to a crawl. For example: Share inventory with your vendors so you’re not running out of materials before you realize you need them. Likewise, grant visibility into order status to your customers. 
Questions or comments? Contact me directly at Joe.Erb@Quanex.com.

For more information about Quanex visit www.quanex.com
Posted: October 02, 2017 by Joe Erb Filed under: automation, insights, strategies