Turning to Automated Processes

November 24, 2008
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The most significant benefit of an automated system would be an improvement in the consistency and repeatability of data. Source: Instron


In an effort to become more competitive, increase profitability and improve quality, and meet or exceed a customer’s schedule, companies are turning to automated processes that increase production throughput and profitability, while improving quality and work consistency. Despite the significant initial costs associated with the integration of new technology into existing operations and the modernization of facilities, the long-term benefits of automation include increased profits, shortened lead times and improved quality and customer satisfaction.

Materials testing laboratories across all industries, including metals, plastics, elastomers, biomedical, paper, textiles and films, have the opportunity to automate many of their research and development and quality control testing processes to provide increased throughput and better financial performance of the business. There is a need for testing laboratory managers to reduce overall operating costs, yet still meet the demands of higher testing volumes, timeliness of results, improved reliability and reproducibility of data, and ensured operator safety. Automated materials testing systems are viable solutions that satisfy all of these requirements.

Automated specimen handling systems can be quite expensive. In order to justify the purchase of such equipment one must have a good understanding of the true value that can be obtained from this equipment, especially in today’s economy.

As the economy continues to spiral downward, companies in all industries are beginning to focus their efforts on running leaner to remain competitive and maximize profits. Running leaner does not necessarily mean reducing head count or minimizing production. Companies are investing resources into systems such as automated specimen handling systems when the benefits outweigh the cost.

This is a typical automated specimen handling system-a viable solution to provide increased throughput and better financial performance of the business. Source: Instron

Calculating ROI

Large equipment purchases need to be carefully planned and a return on investment (ROI) analysis needs to be carried out. It is important to understand the benefits and costs associated with automated specimen handling, as well as how to evaluate ROI. The equation for ROI is simple and is most often expressed as:

ROI = Benefit / Cost or Value / Cost

Calculating ROI is necessary and most often mandatory for the majority of businesses because of a substantial upfront cost. Determining the ROI for an automated specimen handling system can be difficult, as it would be for most large complex pieces of machinery.

One of the reasons for this is that the benefit, or the return in value, is not always tangible and it is often difficult to measure or associate a dollar value with it. Certainly there are benefits that are simple to measure; these may include a reduction in training expenses, less manpower and less scrap as a result of faster turnaround time in a quality control environment.

In order to correctly assess a large purchase, manufacturers should understand the true benefits or value obtained from the purchase, as well as the costs associated with it. There are costs for the actual equipment and installation, as well as costs that relate to maintenance, energy and training. The cost of training would be less when compared to a manual system, but some level of training would still be required and should be factored into the ROI.

Automated testing systems offer more throughput and quicker turnaround time, which is important in quality control. Source: Instron

Factoring Extra Costs

An effective approach in evaluating the costs of automating a system is to focus on the additional costs that would not be present in a manual system. If both systems require the same tensile frame, it is not necessary to factor that cost into the analysis. On the other hand if more-or less-training is required, that cost should be factored into the analysis.

Let’s first look at the benefits, or value, that manufacturers can expect after purchasing an automated specimen handling system. The most significant benefit would be an improvement in the consistency and repeatability of data. Technique and precision is critical for obtaining accurate and consistent data. Inconsistencies in how specimens are inserted into a grip or fixture will impact results.

Gage R&R studies have suggested that operator error is the most common source of error when compared to error within a testing system or from the specimen itself. If an operator is conducting high degrees of repetitive testing, it could cause fatigue and boredom, ultimately leading to operator error. The same is true for dimensional measurement.

By manually measuring each specimen, it is virtually impossible to place the measuring device on the specimen at the same location each time, from specimen to specimen. The same is true for the amount of force that is applied when the measuring device is attached to the specimen. Measuring at different points may result in different cross-sectional areas, which impact stress-related calculations.

Slight inconsistencies in these processes may have substantial effects on these results. These measurement inconsistencies exist when individual operators conduct the test, but also are likely to occur when testing is conducted between multiple operators.

Additional Benefits

Additional benefits of an automated testing system include more throughput or quicker turnaround time. This is important in quality control testing. Test results often determine if a product is within spec or not. Additionally, a product is identified as being out of spec in a quicker time frame if running an automated test, which in turn reduces the amount of out-of-spec product that is scrapped. Manufacturing costs are extremely high so the payback for faster testing, and being able to quickly identify a nonconforming product, is beneficial.

There may be cases when throughput will not significantly improve. This can occur when the amount of time it takes for one specimen to test is long enough that an operator can measure and prepare the next specimen during that test time. Although, in this case, if the throughput does not improve, automated specimen handling will improve manpower efficiency.

If it takes five minutes for the specimen to fail and it takes two minutes to measure and insert a specimen into the grips, what does the operator do during the remaining three minutes? Three minutes may not sound like a lot of time, but think about high volumes of testing and multiple shifts-it all adds up quickly.

In real life situations, operators do not function like machines and the amount of time it takes the operator to measure and insert a specimen will vary greatly. By using an automated specimen handling system, the throughput will no longer be operator dependent, while the consistency of test results will improve and the operator now can be available to work on more challenging projects.

One last benefit of using an automated testing system relates to injury costs. Injuries and the costs associated with medical bills will decrease as the operator’s level of repetitive movement and physical interaction with the equipment is minimized. These benefits add value that also should be factored into the ROI.

A rough time line indicates that for every week an operator tests manually, he waits 24 hours for specimens to be tested before he is ready to install the next specimen. This is assuming that testing is conducted nonstop, 40 hours per week. This is typical for an automated specimen handling system. Q

Tech Tips

  • Calculating ROI is necessary and most often mandatory for the majority of businesses because of a substantial upfront cost.

  • Determining the ROI for an automated specimen handling system can be difficult, as it is a large complex piece of machinery.

  • Benefits may include a reduction in training expenses, less manpower and less scrap as a result of faster turnaround time in a quality control environment.
  • Did you enjoy this article? Click here to subscribe to Quality Magazine. 

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