Investing in custom automation equipment is an intimidating process. As part of the engineering team, there are several things you need to consider before automating. Custom automation projects are a team effort between your company and the integrator. Choosing a good integrator as a partner is an obvious step. This list includes some of the other important things to address before you kick off the project.

  1. Start with a simple scope of work.
    It’s your duty as part of the technical team to start simple and demonstrate a quick win. It’s not like buying a product off the shelf. You dictate where the project starts and how far it goes. Start with just one part number or one assembly process, to get people comfortable and demonstrate ROI.
  2. Design for expansion.
    Look down the road and consider what other part numbers you would like to add to the system. If not part numbers, what other secondary operations could you add? All these factors must be considered before the initial stage.
  3. Gather competitive quotes.
    Now it is time to go through a formal procurement process. You should strive to get three quotes from interested companies. Make sure the three quotes come from companies that are actually interested in your project. Integrators that are too busy or not a great fit may just send you a high price out of courtesy.
  4. Check references and experience.
    This step is critical to the purchasing process. Have potential integrators provide you with a couple of customer references that have similar systems. Then make sure you also call former customers of theirs that they don’t give you. It is no different than when you are hiring an employee.
  5. Be specific with components.
    You need to be specific about the parts and components you want to have quoted in your machine. This includes PLCs, vision cameras, robots, sensors, servo motors and drives, HMIs, and more. If you don’t say anything, integrators will select the cheapest option or the brand that they have experience with.
  6. Who owns the intellectual property?
    The majority of integrators bury their right to retain the intellectual property in the terms and conditions. Computer developers will retain the IP so that they can use some of the code they developed for you on other projects. Integrators do the same thing. This may be okay depending on how much input your team gave during the design process. But be sure to have the discussion before the purchase order.
  7. Clear runoff expectations.
    What dictates a finished machine? You need to have a conversation about this before you start the project. For example, we will accept the machine if the cycle time to assemble one part is under 10 seconds, and only one system fault per four-hour shift. Make sure these expectations are clear.
  8. Clear documentation deliverables.
    Automation companies hate putting together documentation. These include: electrical schematics, CAD files, bill of materials, and other supporting documents. You will need these to support or upgrade the system in the future. Make it clear before the project starts what files you want and how you want to receive them.
  9. Do a midway point design review.
    Make it a point to have a midway point meeting to review.  You’ll sleep easier knowing the design is on the right track.
  10. Can you support it?
    It is important that you have a plan for service and maintenance. Machines break, so make sure you know what to do when this happens.

>> Read more by Patrick O’Rahilly, Machine Design, Jan. 12, 2017



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