Reducing Risk in Automation Systems

Chad Ramsey, Director of Automation for Ehrhardt Automation Systems recently participated in The Robot Industry Podcast to share insights about how to reduce risk in automation.

Minimize Automation project risks
Some of the biggest risks in automation include cost, project delays, time to integration, design time and technology challenges. There are a number of things that can be done to minimize these risks during an automation project.

  1. Comprehensive Specification Document
    One of the most important aspects of an automation project is the specification document. You need to have a good sense of what the project goals are, what components will be needed, and what you want the results of automation to achieve. Involving an integrator early in the process can ensure that your Request for Quote (RFQ) or Request for Proposal (RFP) is comprehensive and will achieve your desired results.
  1. Qualify vendors early
    If you know what type of functions you want to automate, you can qualify 3rd party suppliers early in the process. Automate the functions that make sense in your operation, and are good candidates for automation. One of the biggest risks manufacturers are facing is a labour shortage, and robots can cover some of the shortfalls and labour challenges.

It’s important to remember there is nothing wrong with a manual integration station for components that may not lend themselves easily to automation. Collaborative robots are designed to work in tandem with their human counterparts, and processes can be custom-designed to switch seamlessly from robot to human and back.

  1. Design for Assembly or Manufacturability
    Ehrhardt Automation specializes in 100% custom design integrations, and can work in tandem with manufacturing engineers to ensure the final project meets the needs of each client. It is important the integrator look at both the project as a whole and then at each component, including technical expertise at the client’s company, technological readiness-how open and familiar existing staff is with automation, risk analysis, safety concerns and then create an integration project solution to decrease overall manufacturing risk.
  2. Staff
    Staff may be hesitant to support automation, seeing it as a way of replacing staff with machines. Ramsey said, “The earlier you can get your staff involved the better, really get their perspective and get their understanding. They may have some skills, feedback or perspective that you are not aware of. Getting overall perspective and understanding of the problems from the point of issue or operation is key.”

While initial training is essential and will provide a level of comfort, it is also important to include training in the budget in subsequent years. There is often a concentration on initial training, but retraining may not occur, and it is important to provide refreshers for ongoing success and to keep certifications active. In addition, ensuring more than one person is fully trained on the operation can both provide opportunities for peer training, and avoid situations where the only person who understands every aspect of the machine leaves the company, leaving no one ready to step in.

Finally, identify facility champions who can become subject matter experts, and become the point people for training and questions. Peer acceptance is the easiest way to widespread acceptance, especially if staff see the new potential and opportunities the automation is providing.

Importance of Specification Document
It bears repeating that a comprehensive specification document is the key to a successful automation project. Partnering with an integrator early in the process can ensure that a company new to automation will have all the important sections covered in the specification document.

The basis of any specification document is a clear understanding of what the automation project hopes to achieve. It can then include different sections, depending on the type and scope of automation.

The vendor document is often a standalone document within the specification document. It will often be a general document and then the specification document is equipment specific, and includes information such as run time, cycle time, piece to piece, including an operator. The more definition is the basis for a strong specification document.

Supplemental documents could include engineering drawings, or a call with an integrator to clarify and define all the specifications and requirements.

Engineering Study
Depending on the type of project, either the integrator, the customer, or both can request an engineering study as part of the proposal. This is often completed on projects that have higher elements of risk.

Engineering studies are intended to ensure that all components will work as intended, following safety protocols and tolerance levels. They ensure that all parties will be satisfied with the final project, and can include a physical design, a build and/or an integrated test with or without the customer present. Ramsey advised an engineering study can involve “10-30% of the project cost and that can be carried into the next stage of the project. Generally components and equipment that is acquisitioned as part of the engineering study can be moved into the main project, assuming the engineering study goes well.”

Common automation projects that would include an engineering study include:

Vision Robot automation vision systems can be impacted by light, the environment, shine or reflection, or even the colour of the part, so it is common to request an engineering study. It’s a relatively cheap and easy study, and 3rd party providers will often partner with the integrator to provide the vision engineering study as a value-add.

Robotics Some of the common engineering studies for a robotics project could include whether the robot can deal with non-standard, malleable or non-rigid parts or if a manual integration station will need to be incorporated.

New Technology Integrations that include new technology, such as 3-D printing or vision or IoT compatibility will request an engineering study to ensure the technology performs the way it needs to.

Deliverables from an engineering study can be as simple as tooling, video, reports or test parts. In complex builds, it could include a live demo with the customer onsite or watching via computer link. Since a successful engineering study will reduce risk and increase the probability of a successful installation, it is worth the cost and time to have an engineering study completed.

Non-Disclosure and Intellectual Property (IP)
One of the most important aspects of the specification document may include who owns any intellectual property that comes out of the engineering study and integration build. It is important for the company to obtain a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) and determine who will own the intellectual property (IP) from any engineering study or integration.

Generally, if the client is paying for the engineering study, it will include any parts or technology that is developed in the course of the study, and therefore it will be the property of the client.

In other instances, the integrator may be interested in some aspect of the design that is being created as part of the engineering study (for example, it is a new part or aspect of a vision system that would be beneficial to other clients) and therefore the integrator or supplier could offer a lower cost in exchange for the intellectual property rights of the component.

Health and Safety Risks
An integration install that is halted because no one thought to involve the health and safety engineer is the stuff of nightmares, so it’s always best to involve them early in the project. There are many safety modifications that can be simply and safely added to a design build, such as light curtains, barriers, sensors or rails, but it is easier to incorporate them into the design, rather than to have to hold up the installation while components are modified or moved to accommodate safety concerns after the fact.

Project Management
The last, and most important aspect of reducing risk in automation is good project management from the first day. Clear, frequent, and transparent communication is essential for a successful automation project, and all stakeholders in both the integrator and client sides should have the same understanding of what was sold and promised, and what the expected results are.

It’s easier to have one point of contact for each side, and protocols in place for design changes, issues that arise during design, installation, training and testing. If there is an issue, the project manager should be made aware of it immediately, as well as possible solutions or work-arounds, or potential delays.

A relatively new and serious risk that has emerged since the COVID-19 pandemic has been global supply chain challenges. Parts and components that pre-pandemic would have been available in 4-6 weeks can now require up to a one year lead-time, and if a supplier or integrator does not have a part on their premises, it could take several months to obtain it. Since many integrators offer replacement parts as part of their services, adding spare parts to an initial order has become more important than in the past.

A good integrator will have a plan, supply alternatives, or suggestions for workarounds. They will also be able to identify to the project manager early on if there will be supply chain issues, and how those issues will impact the timeline for the project. Timely communication and transparency can go a long way to a successful automation project.

Ramsey concluded “You want to partner with an integrator who doesn’t stick their heads in the sand but has a plan and alternatives. Every project is specific and communication is the most important aspect. Reducing net risk will increase the chances of a successful automation project. An integrator who is willing to communicate often and on a deeper level is a partner for success.”

If you want to learn more about how Ehrhardt Automation Systems Inc can assist you with your robotic integration needs, you can contact Chad at