No one wants to spend time making scrap, and automation is one way to avoid or at least minimize quality issues. Rather than spending time making products that aren’t up to specification, operators will make good parts and catch quality issues earlier. Automating your measurement process can solve challenges on the shop floor—not simply in the lab—and streamline the manufacturing process.
While it does offer a range of benefits, automation may require a shift in mindset, according to Brian Johnson, automation product sales manager at ZEISS Industrial Quality Solutions.
“When you’re looking to automate your inspection, you have to think differently,” Johnson says. Rather than thinking about the typical lab type environment, it helps to consider in line inspection. Paying close attention to the inspection part of the manufacturing process at the outset can also help.
Johnson and the automation team have taken on many automation challenges, and the first step is always to dig down into the process: “What’s the job you’re trying to accomplish? How many parts do you manufacture?”
If you have a few products but lots of them, automation might be a good fit. On the other hand, if you’re running a part once a week or once a month, automation may not be in the budget.
The automation team gets involved by putting the simplified task in front of an operator. The idea is that the operator can perform the task without dealing with a complex interface.
Customers may not realize what technology today is capable of, Johnson says. Though the capability has been around for a while, many people still think that inspection equipment has to be in a lab, rather than on the shop floor. “It doesn’t have to be tucked into a corner far away from your process,” Johnson explains. “There are shop floor enclosures around laboratory grade equipment. Just mentioning that opens their eyes.”
Often, a lot of time is lost waiting for someone in a lab to give you a result, he says. “A lot of people don’t think they can move that inspection process to the process equipment.”
When people think of a CMM, they may think it requires a highly specialized engineer in a lab coat and a lot of setup time. “It’s not that anymore,” Johnson says. “We can create those tasks upfront, create that interface, and accomplish the task for the operator.”
The first step is to get customers to consider putting equipment on the shop floor.
When considering where to put inspection equipment, Johnson says customers should think about: “What are your problems currently today? What can we do to minimize that issue? What is the right equipment? Does it make sense to put this offline, with some manual intervention? Or maybe this is critical, putting this in line, automatically load this with robotics or conveyors.”
The automation team will ask the customer: “What is the problem at hand, and what are we trying to solve?
Thinking of the quality budget at the same time as the process budget may be helpful here. This may mean educating the customer that inspection can play a critical role in process control. When designing the manufacturing equipment, don’t forget about the possibilities of automated inspection. By having better access to data, customers will avoid building out of spec products.
In other words, instead of launching a new product and only then considering the quality lab in the corner that has inspection queues with everything else in the factory, it pays to think about it earlier. This can avoid lead times of hours or even days.
Though CMMs are often associated with a temperature-controlled quality lab, shop floor hardened CMMs have been available for years. It’s possible to build a small and tight fitting environment enclosure in order to automate that inspection. In other words, manufacturers can create a microenvironment around the equipment, or a miniature version of the lab right where it is needed.
While speeding up a CMM is part of the process, Johnson suggests looking at the whole value stream. Actual measuring time may not make as much a difference as putting the piece of inspection equipment closer to the process.
The aerospace and medical industries were early adopters to this type of technology because of the 100% inspection requirements in those industries. Other industries have begun adopting this as well, resulting in higher quality consumer type products as well.
Creating a repetitive, user-friendly inspection routine is the goal. Thinking about how someone is going to use the equipment is important. The traceability data should be seamless, and the process should be robust and repeatable even for an operator who’s just had a few minutes of training.
Getting everyone on the shop floor excited about quality may take some work. But as Johnson says, rather than cutting a chip only to find out there was an issue, quality means not wasting time and resources by preventing those issues—or detecting them sooner—in order to build quality products.