Providers of automation equipment regularly talk around how their machines deliver optimum performance, boost workplace efficiency and increase output. All good stuff. However, for most, if not all customers, the return on investment (ROI) figures can be a real deal breaker. Richard Gladwin, technical director at system integrator Pacepacker Services offers 10 powerful tips that can help improve your business’ bottom line inside a year.

“The fact is ROI is about the whole picture. When done right, pick and place automation and robotics on a bagging, packing or palletising line can turn an inefficient and labour-intensive operation into a smooth, uninterrupted, cost-efficient performance. What’s more, a well thought out turnkey line or robotics solution can often start paying its own way in as little as 12 months,” highlighted Richard

Whether you have a fully-automated line that needs modifying or are about to take the plunge for the first time in 2015, these insightful tips from Pacepacker Services demonstrate how manufacturers in every sector can derive real value from an automation investment, whatever your budget.

1. Consider in depth the process you want to automate.

Automated solutions are consistent and predictable. However, the more flexibility you look to introduce, the more costly they can become. Always question if the add on features, extra tools and auto-adjustment capabilities are a business priority. If not now, will they be utilised in the future? Look at ways of simplifying the process, so that the operations can be reproduced easily and within budget.

2. Can the solution be adapted and modified in the future?

There’s a misconception that automated solutions fast become obsolete. Any supplier should do the utmost to future-proof your investment, providing support with tooling and programming. Many solutions can be adapted, or upgraded to suit future requirements; many of our systems are still being used in excess of 20 years after installation. Work with your integrator to scope out ‘user requirement specifications’ as this will focus your mind on products being handled, packaging sizes and variants, speeds, etc.

3. Plan out your space and test automation concepts.

Designs need to be practical and workable. A simulated drawing, such as CAD, will identify space restrictions and also enable you to optimise floor space. There are also programmes to model the different robotic movements and variables before actual build. At Pacepacker, we offer a Try Before You Buy service, giving customers the opportunity to test systems using their own products. This assists everyone to scope out and refine the design before an actual order is placed and installed.

4. Do the maths.

Total cost of ownership (TCO) and ROI are frequently confused. However, both can be used together to analyse the long-term value to your business. TCO denotes more than the direct cost of purchasing and implementing a system. It also includes services, maintenance, and other indirect costs and takes into account the full cost of an asset over its useful life. A well-engineered solution will provide a low cost of ownership and provide many years of service at a fraction of the cost of manual labour. But a cheaply made, under-engineered solution may cost you dearly in the long run.

5. Pay attention to the benefits of automation.

Answering lots of questions at the outset will help to illuminate the benefits. What are your existing costs for performing the tasks you want to automate? How long does each task take? How many operators do you currently employ to complete the tasks? How much do they cost your business in salary, sick pay, overtime, lunch breaks etc.? How many shifts do you run? Is the work seasonal? These valid questions must all be factored in when calculating TCO and ROI.

6. Look beyond the people.

Other benefits of automation are lower product and packaging wastage and enhanced quality, which can significantly affect your business and brand reputation. Also, examine any potential production bottlenecks. If some of your new equipment, such as your weighing system, is working faster than the bagging or palletising parts of your line, the benefits may be negated.

7. Protect your investment. 

Machine downtime can significantly impact the production flow, especially where there are interdependencies. Today’s systems are robust and reliable, running smoothly 99% of the time. Nevertheless, much like fine-tuning a car, preventative maintenance plans are proven to decrease breakdowns and prevent costly business interruptions. Remote diagnostics are becoming widely available and can be a value added service.  For instance many Pacepacker systems are built to enable them to be fitted with remote diagnostics.

8. Develop your in-house engineering skills

It’s worth investing in some training, ensuring your engineers have the on-site skills to provide quick fixes. They will also be able to observe when the machinery may not be performing as efficiently as normal and take action before the issue becomes serious.

9. Research your partner well.

Investing in end of line automation is one of the biggest decisions your business can make, and should also be the best. Look for a solution provider that understands your sector, offers a wide variety of options, with a proven track record in automation. It’s not purely about the machine, but having access to a customised solution, including ongoing service, support, training and upgrade routes. Those offering purely standard products may result in you overpaying for a faster system with add-ons you may never use.

10. Stay ahead of your competition.

The next decade looks set to be a challenging one for manufacturers. Avoid falling behind your competitors, missing critical business opportunities or losing industry influence. Shorter time to market, quality, efficiency, retail squeeze on profit margins and sustainability are all key trends. Like Europe, emerging markets and Asia are swiftly recognising the benefits of automation and investing now. UK-based machine manufacturers continue to lead the way in creating world-class automation solutions to boost our economy, as well as maintaining our British engineering skills and manufacturing heritage. With careful planning, a 12-month ROI is attainable, making now the ideal time to explore your automation options.