A Cinderella of an ROI story:

How one small operation
used ingenuity to overcome
its automation hurdles

While automotive parts suppliers and electrical/electronics manufacturers lead the brigade in industrial robot sales, the value of automation remains a murky issue for millions of other small manufacturers.

Low volume, high quality product manufacturers in particular see no ROI for moving beyond manual assembly. Industrial robots carry hefty price tags, often with formidable installation costs attached.

These smaller operations remain the Cinderellas of the industrial manufacturing world, watching bigger-budgeted players move into a much-heralded glory land of leaner, time-efficient production via unprecedented reliability and repeatability.

Processes such as laser cutting and injection molding have evolved to a point where the need for human intervention is almost fully eliminated. “Lights out” manufacturing — the term for robotics-only production — already allows some shops to run completely unattended by humans on nights and weekends, and for stretches of up to 30 days at a time in at least one FANUC facility in Japan.

This level of automation seems as out of reach to most low volume manufacturers as the fabled ball to which Cinderella had nothing to wear; for small-scale operations it’s often hard to see beyond rudimentary mechanizations.


The ROBOT Factory has a capacity to produce 5,000 robots a month. The automated assembly systems with a large number of FANUC intelligent ROBOTs, which go through a continuous running test and inspection in the testing area.



But just lately the story could be taking a new turn, with innovation in the driver’s seat. Some smaller operations are recycling previously used equipment to at least get out of the starting gate without prohibitive costs, and explore what automation can do for them.

Here’s a Cinderella story of how one small manufacturing company discovered an innovative, cost-effective application of used Computer Numeric Control lathes, and created a new market in the process.


A Cinderella story

In 1999, a small manufacturing facility in south Alabama was still fully manual in all three aspects of its operation: machining, welding and final product assembly.

Company leaders were uncertain about how they might apply automation to their production, but willing to try some low-cost experimentation, so they purchased a used Computer Numeric Control (CNC) lathe.

The CNC was used to create parts that had previously been machined by hand. It worked far better than company leaders had imagined –so much faster, and so much more efficiently, in fact, that they wound up with additional machine parts on hand. The quality was excellent, and they had more than they could use. They decided to sell the excess.Image result for hurdle images

A new market had just opened up, and it was a lucrative one. The market demand for parts was so great that it was difficult to keep up, so the company purchased three more used CNC lathes and four mills.

Automation of this one aspect of operation had not only created a new market line; sales associated with that line had quintupled within the first few years of operation.

Buoyed by the success of that initial foray into automation, the company is now turning its attention to the other two aspects of its operation, reconfiguring a used robot cell for welding and looking at innovative robotics uses for assembly, as well.


What your plant can do


Finding the right automation process for your operation can reduce time and error, increase throughput due to increased repeatability and reliability, minimize downtime, correct inefficiencies and streamline your production.

letstalk.jpgDetermining the right project, however, may require a bit of ingenuity and some strategic consideration of your goals, budget and existing equipment — and your company leaders may not be the best eyes for that task.

A concept consultant with experience in the field may see solutions you don’t, and bring to the table innovative strategies based on unique knowledge of how other plants have handled similar situations.

As a consultant, I work with plants to analyze and evaluate the materials flow, plant layout, existing equipment, production goals and cost considerations to make practical, achievable recommendations for performance improvements.

Innovation is the key to automating smaller manufacturing operations, allowing them to get into the game, and become more competitive. Give me a call — and with a little coaching, we can turn your plant’s initial automation efforts into a success story, too.




Long time auto enthusiast and car builder.

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