3 essential things to know before you purchase an automated material handling system.

Posted on November 5, 2020 by Esoteric Staffing

Business demands rapid solutions to urgent problems. Automated material handling systems require a significant investment of time, talent, and resources to define the problem, develop a solution, and deploy. It is tempting to shortcut the process of defining the problem, vetting the solution and supplier, to proceed rapidly with the more exciting deployment phase of the project.

Before you issue a purchase order to your anxiously waiting supplier, there are 3 essential things you need to know. These things make the difference between a successful project and failure. They are:

  1. Define how system performance will be tested and achieved.
  2. Document what constitutes a quality installation.
  3. Obtain the credentials of the people that will lead and staff your project.

If these 3 things cannot be answered, you’re adding unnecessary risk to the project.

Number 1: Define how system performance will be tested and achieved.

The risk is not that performance metrics aren't included. It is that they are insufficiently defined or impractical in execution. Customers rely on suppliers to provide test procedures that validate equipment and systems meet performance targets, and yet the details of how those tests will be executed is usually left up to the imagination during the sales phase. Performance of equipment does NOT equal the performance of the system. The truth is that performance testing large scale automation systems is difficult.

Read through a typical automation system proposal and you’re likely to see a statement along the lines of: "Acceptance tests are conducted at the completion of installation. The tests will demonstrate the system meets the performance criteria specified in this proposal. Prior to start of testing, an acceptance test plan will be provided." The hard work of formulating a test plan is left to the project team. Frequently, the test plan is an afterthought hastily cobbled together at the last minute, rife with disclaimers that customer production or capability is a constraining factor as to why the system cannot be adequately tested.

Before the order is placed, a test plan must be developed that takes into consideration the system design and real-life operational constraints. If necessary, pay the supplier to provide a detailed description of operation and test plans prior to ordering the system. Yes, it takes time and money. As they say, pay me now or pay me later.

One of the challenges is that automation systems are typically designed to accommodate performance requirements 3, 5, or 7 years into the future. The production capacity with which to test these systems may not exist at go-live. When testing complex systems that utilize autonomous equipment (AMRs, AGVs, Shuttle Systems, etc.), simple time-based measurements cannot be used to extrapolate system performance. More equipment doesn't equate to more system performance. More equipment may lead to more traffic jams.

Simulations are one of the available tools to deploy. However, simulations are most trusted when a baseline can be established, tested against reality (a real-life, working, running system), and then scaled. A simulation without a baseline reference risks simulating scenarios that aren't realistic. Small differences in logic between simulations and actual system controls can lead to large differences in actual system performance vs. simulated expectations.

That is not to say simulations are not useful tools. They most certainly are, and any complex automation system should include a simulation of the entire system (not just robotic cells or sub-systems; it is the interactions of all systems that drives performance). Simulations are an arrow in the quiver. Ideally the simulation is complete before placing an order. However, simulations take time. Complex simulations can take weeks and months to develop, iterate, and test for complex, bespoke solutions. Meanwhile, no progress is being made with respect to building something.

Benchmarking similar solutions be can misleading. There are any number of variables of which changing a single variable can have a large effect on system performance. The length of a single section of conveyor. The position of a process station. SKU mix. Peak flow variability. A system make look similar, but minor differences produce different results. However, benchmarking a few systems to compare "promised results" vs. "actual results" will provide a good indication of whether the proposed system and system provider is capable of delivering results equal to their promises. For companies deploying new technologies, it is caveat emptor.

Plan for contingencies. New technologies (that also offer significant advantages) may require a leap of faith. However, both the customer and supplier should consider how they will address deficiencies in performance. Can additional equipment be added? If yes, who pays for it? Does that equipment need more space? If yes, is there room and who pays for it? If changes need to be made to the software, how long might it take and who pays for it? There may not be good answers to every question, but defining the framework, in writing, as part of the contract is good practice.

At the end of the day, you need a supplier you can trust and a plan you can execute.

Number 2: What constitutes a quality installation?

The automation industry is growing fast. Project schedules are more compressed than ever. Business in the 21st century is a rush to do more with less. The automation industry is not immune. High-quality installation craftsmanship is the foundation of good system operation. Quality is a subjective measure. It is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Many automation systems fall in the trap of, "we do it twice, but we do it nice". Unfortunately, a good fix is never as good as having been done right the first time. Those fixes cost time and money. How do you ensure a good quality installation?

The building construction industry provides a good model to follow. They employ a raft of "exhibits" that illustrate typical construction details and pictures of example projects. For example, an exhibit with pictures of completed shipping docks that show dock doors with guarding, lighting, overhead storage, dock pit edge details, conduit routing, etc. All the details that make for high quality construction and that a list of components and equipment specs fails to capture. A picture is worth a thousand words.

Your industrial automation supplier should provide exhibits that illustrate typical anchoring/leveling methods, high-voltage wiring routing, low-voltage wiring routing, control panels as completed in the field (not in the panel build shop), and pictures of equipment installed at customers site that provide a quality benchmark. Yes, there are still a thousand words. However, pictures provide a visual standard of what constitutes a quality installation. Pictures and exhibits should be included in the contract with your industrial automation supplier.

An independent expert is the best auditor. As the client, you may not have the time, experience, or objective perspective from which to judge installation quality. Supplier interests are complicated by a complex web of factors. Yes, the system needs to work. Yes, they have a reputation to uphold. But, they also have a budget and schedule to meet. They may also have new employees that don’t know the difference.

Auditing when installation is complete is too late. At each step of the installation, craftmanship of installation should be benchmarked with respect to the specifications and exhibits. Don't fall for the trap of "let's get the system running and we'll clean up these details later". Depending on the scope of the project, these audits may need to be completed daily or weekly. The audits should be a walk-through of the system with the supplier and customer. If work is not up to standard, insist that completed work is fixed before proceeding in other areas.

An experienced, independent, 3rd party "automation auditor" is your best bet. They'll be looking not only for craftsmanship, but access, egress, guarding, stops, guides, and all the myriad details that allow systems to run reliably and efficiently. Maybe you'd have gotten there eventually, but an independent 3rd party can expedite the path to success. A 3rd party can be objective. They don't have skin in the game with respect to budget and schedule. Quality is their game.

Number 3: Who are the people that will lead and staff your project?

Suppliers put their best foot forward. The sales phase invariably includes senior level staff. They will be confident about the solutions; both supplier ability to provide and the customer ability to receive. That confidence may be well founded. However, it is the people executing the project that make the difference. The sales staff may set the direction, but the minutiae of design and planning is handled by the project team.

It is a team. That means multiple people, multiple roles, many responsibilities. Learn about who is on the team, their capabilities, their experience on prior similar projects, their involvement in the project. The more you can learn about the team that will execute the work, the greater confidence you'll have that your project will be successful. Where possible, names and biographies are better than "job titles and roles". When you have names, a quick internet search can be revealing.

Customers lack experience. Frequently companies assign an internal resource to manage special projects. All to often, that person has not implemented a similar technology or system in the past or is too busy with their "normal job" to effectively manage the implementation. Unless you happen to work at Amazon, Walmart, or some other major retailer, complex automation systems aren’t something you purchase every day. Projects need to be staffed with sufficient time and expertise allocated to ensure success.

Sufficient time is rarely allocated, but time by itself won't mitigate risk or improve system performance. A fresh-faced college grad with an engineering degree from a top university won't keep your project on track. Experience will be what wins the day. The technology may change, but the types of challenges remain the same. The school of hard knocks is what allows a person to visualize how a system will perform before the first piece of equipment is ordered. Experience is being able to look at a system that has been installed, but not yet working and see the problem areas. It could be that the system supplier has checked every box, considered every aspect of system performance and design – but don't count on it.

You need an Expert. If necessary, bring on an independent 3rd party. Perhaps a single expert or small company. Someone with the experience to know what details are missing. Someone with expert intuition that can look at operations, designs, and proposed solutions and judge likelihood of success. That expert likely has 20+ years of experience. They won’t be cheap, but they'll keep your project on the rails. In the best scenario, you’ll never know your project was at risk of derailment.

Top talent is available at the largest suppliers, midsize suppliers, and the boutique firms. Wherever you find your top talent and best solutions, be sure they'll have the bandwidth to complete your project. It may mean spacing out projects to suit your supplier capabilities. It may mean delaying the start of your project. Open dialogue followed by documenting how and by whom the plan gets accomplished will mitigate risk of failure due to exuberance to get started!

A successful project requires sufficient time to plan with good performance metrics, examples that illustrate and set expectations of quality, and a competent project team on both sides. If any one of these metrics is missing, the project is at risk of failure.