Reducing Automation Downtime

Unscheduled downtime wreaks havoc on production schedules and stresses people to make up for lost time while protecting cost objectives.  Strategies for minimizing downtime used to focus on scheduled equipment maintenance and the ability to quickly repair anything that went wrong. Now, with automation, there is software and technology as well as hardware to manage. 

Having good service agreements and skilled repair people are still essential for keeping production running smoothly. However, technology has changed the playing field for preventing downtime by making data more accessible. Knowing exactly what is going on in your production process can completely alter the way problems are managed and mitigated. Data eliminates much of the guesswork about how much maintenance is needed, and what causes downtime. 

A system with built-in intelligence can also start to recognize patterns such as a temperature shift that regularly precedes equipment failure. Knowing the precursors to equipment failure can help preventive maintenance be much more effective. Critical equipment can be set up with monitoring sensors so that you aren’t limited to doing maintenance on a schedule, but rather by what the equipment actually needs.

To minimize downtime, multiple strategies can and should be deployed. We’ll explore some of the most effective strategies in this article. 

Identify root causes

What if downtime isn’t caused by machinery malfunction, but rather by process inefficiency? By monitoring the production line and gathering data, inefficient processes can be identified. For example, does a robotic arm “fail” because there is no part ready for it to pick up? The root cause of that problem lies further downstream, even though it might be the stopped robot that causes a production downtime event.

Streamline setups

Is setup taking much longer than it should? When retooling takes longer than it should, it moves from planned downtime to unplanned. In some cases, downtime costs may outweigh the cost of having extra equipment available to eliminate time lost to setup. It’s a good idea to re-examine setup processes to look for ways to improve efficiency.

Prevent human errors

Humans make errors, but some of them can be prevented. Knowing which errors are made repeatedly can help identify training needs or a procedure that needs optimization to minimize errors. In some cases, a “poka-yoke” may be needed. Poka-yoke is a Japanese term for mistake proofing. An example would be re-designing a component or tray so that it can only be oriented the correct way.  Eliminating the possibility to do things wrong makes training new operators easier, and minimizes mistakes that cause downtime. 

Mitigate supply chain issues

Keeping a minimal inventory works well when you can count on parts arriving just in time. Unfortunately, supply chain issues have compromised inventory predictability. Downtime caused by “waiting for parts” needs to be identified and addressed with procurement personnel. Reliability should be factored in to decisions about sourcing essential parts, and setting minimum inventory levels.

Allow time for equipment care

When setting KPIs, be careful to ensure that machine operators aren’t penalized for taking the time to stop and care for equipment. The old adage “a stitch in time saves nine” applies here. If operators are under pressure to keep production running at maximum speed at all times and not stop except for dire circumstances, they won’t be able to make small adjustments that can prevent a bigger stoppage later. 

Instead, build in time allowances and rewards for operators who do take the time to check, care, and maintain equipment to keep it running optimally even after their shifts are over.

Train operators using digital tools

Having properly trained operators is essential to keep equipment running; however, training people can slow down production. To optimize training, take advantage of simulators and digital options to allow adequate time for explanations and a complete understanding of how all equipment works, without the pressure of training on a running production line.

Multi-faceted strategies, data analysis, and digital tools offer many opportunities to minimize automation downtime.

To learn more about reducing downtime in your next automation project, contact


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


The Cost Benefit of Automation

Automation savings extend beyond labor costs

Decades ago, manufacturers that were considering using automation compared the cost of automating against the direct cost of labor they’d be replacing. Adding the number of people, shifts, and hours provided a benchmark to use for determining ROI.

That same basic calculation can be used as a starting point today; the benchmark ROI of an automation project now is typically under 24 months.

However, that historical capital expenditure calculation excludes many important factors that should also be considerations:

• Is human labor even available?
• What additional strategic advantages does automation offer?
• What is the total cost and value of ownership?

Using automation to solve the labor shortage in manufacturing
With the current labor shortage in many factories, the benefits of automation extend well beyond basic cost justification. When factories cannot fill open labor positions, they can’t meet production requirements. The need to increase production without recruiting will often drive a company to invest in automation. The costs of not being able to fulfill orders and losing customers has long-reaching implications that extend beyond a basic ROI calculation.
In addition to keeping production running, automation also helps companies attract workers. People who are interested in working in manufacturing are more likely to choose a company that is actively investing in automation and robotics and is poised to be competitive now and in the future. As well, for people looking for security, a company that has recently invested in automation will appear more stable and secure than a company that isn’t modernizing its operations.

Instead of replacing workers with robots, manufacturers are adding robotics and automation and retraining their valuable labor force for positions that include working with collaborative robots and using automation solutions.
Benefiting from the strategic advantages of automation
In addition to using automation to help attract and retain labour, automation offers many other strategic advantages.
Elevating health & safety levels by automating dangerous jobs
Using automation and robotics for dull, dirty, dangerous jobs can help factories develop an impressive safety record. Health & safety levels can be a deciding factor for potential employees, investors, and customers.

In addition to reducing dangerous jobs, robots can also be used for repetitive movements, leaving humans with ergonomic jobs that won’t cause repetitive stress injury.
Increasing scalability and flexibility with automation
When companies first started implementing automation, the cost equation was most favorable for industries like automotive manufacturing with low mix, high volume production needs. Now, with the reduced cost of automation and the availability of collaborative robots, automation makes financial sense for factories that have a wide range of higher mix, lower volume production runs.
With an automated line or automated production cells, manufacturers can be better equipped to take on bigger orders, or to offer a wider range of options.
Raising quality levels using the repeatability and reliability of automation

A properly programmed robot can perform the same movement the same way with a higher degree of accuracy than a human. New vision capabilities give robotics an even higher capacity for quality control and repeatability. Depending on the type of production being done, this high repeatability and quality potential can be exploited to a manufacturer’s advantage. As well, with data collection and management, traceability can also be incorporated into the manufacturing process.

Winning contracts with automation as a competitive edge
If a customer is comparing several manufacturers, and you’re able to offer the quality, reliability and efficiency benefits of using an automated solution, you’ll have an edge over the other factories using older, less reliable systems. The better-equipped factory will seem more likely to be able to deliver in-spec goods on time.
Understanding the total cost and value of ownership

When evaluating the cost of automation, it’s important to consider the manufacturer’s situation: are they in a survive-or-die scenario or are they in a position to invest in longer-term growth? Automation can provide the solution to both of these issues, and both must be considered in order to budget properly.

With too much focus on immediate needs, future growth won’t be supported; but, with too much emphasis on the future, the current financial position of a company can be compromised. It’s important to discuss potential growth plans with an implementer so that the foundation for a future phase of automation can be accommodated while respecting immediate needs and budget constraints.

The planning and implementation process are also important factors to consider. Having an experienced implementation team that can design a robust system, provide the integration needed with other systems, and deliver the system on time is invaluable.
As far as tangible goods that must be accounted for, there is the cost of the new machinery, plus spare parts and maintenance. For tangible value, the decreased cost of rework and rejects should be factored in.
Although it can be tempting to simplify the ROI calculation, to maximize your investment in automation, it’s essential to consider all costs and all value gained over the productive life of an automated solution.

If you are looking to integrate automation in your factory and need some advice, Ehrhardt Automation Systems would like to help. Reach out to one of our talented applications engineers at


Press Release: Ehrhardt Automation Systems

Press Release: Ehrhardt Automation Systems

Granite City, Illinois July 22, 2019

Ehrhardt Engineered Solutions Rebrands to Ehrhardt Automation Systems adds Industry Expert to Sales Organization.

“I am pleased to announce that as of today Ehrhardt Engineered Solutions has changed its name to Ehrhardt Automation Systems. Our decision to re-brand is driven by the change in our market focus and reflects where we are today as a company” says Jason P. Beatty, President. “The new name honors our founders of this respected 80 year old machine builder while reflecting our current offering as a world-class automation and robot systems integrator.

Rebranding the company is important for our customers and other stakeholders and especially for talent attraction”, said Beatty. “Assembly automation, flexibility and robot integration have become key value drivers for our customers and partners and is one of the reasons that we have also added new bench strength to our sales team. I am also announcing today that we have hired industry veteran Craig Witt to our management team to drive sales and growth within Ehrhardt Automation Systems.

“Craig will join us as our Vice President of Sales. We welcome Craig’s past clients to reach out to him for automation inquiries, sales, service and support needs”, concluded Beatty.

“As a career champion of advanced automation solutions and complex systems sales, I am excited to join Jason Beatty and the management team at Ehrhardt Automation Systems. The automation systems industry is experiencing significant growth and robotic integration is helping our customers increase quality, retain skilled workers and reduce manufacturing costs. I look forward to working with manufacturers and exploring new opportunities in diverse markets for Ehrhardt” said Mr. Witt.

About Ehrhardt Automation Systems:
Ehrhardt Automation Systems is an automation system and robot integrator based in Granite City, Illinois. The company has been building precision automation, custom machines, assembly automation and factory automation systems for over 80 years serving automotive, HVAC, consumer, electronics, medical and nuclear markets.


Company contact: Craig Witt at 877-386-7856 | email at

Press contact: Jim Beretta | Customer Attraction