More and Better, with Less: How to Automate for Improved Quality,...

More and Better, with Less: How to Automate for Improved Quality, Uptime, and Profitability

By John Connell, Vice President of SLI Products Group, Crown Battery Manufacturing

John Connell, Vice President of SLI Products Group, Crown Battery Manufacturing

The wrong batteries can cost a fortune in downtime and delays, and even put your business at risk. Likewise with the wrong automation projects. Yet automation is at the core of reliable batteries—and profitable manufacturing. Combined with the right employees and training, it can solve your critical business problems and ratchet up your profitability—all while improving quality, uptime, per-hour labor productivity & output, workplace safety and ergonomics, and customer retention.

I’m betting you already know that. But do you know where to start automating, and which projects are dead-ends? In this article, you’ll discover some of the hard-won best practices we’ve learned from investing decades and millions in automation, including:

● Five questions to ask before you start any automation

● Common automation mistakes to avoid

● Proven strategies to prioritize projects (with real-world examples)

Should you automate it?

Here are five questions to ask before you automate a process:

● Can it be automated? Is automation technically possible?

● How much would automation cost? Be sure to factor in costs for R&D, equipment, software, ongoing maintenance, training, and updates.

● How much does this work currently cost? Include labor, insurance, and other costs. Remember: The goal isn’t eliminating jobs; it’s optimizing productivity to build better products in less time (we’re actually adding jobs as automation helps us grow).

● What benefits (quality, safety, etc.) can automation deliver? Profits aren’t the only goal; for instance, machine safety automation improves worker safety.

● Is this project the best use of resources? Sometimes, you can achieve the same goals–more and better, with less—in other ways (for instance, by enhancing working procedures).

Where should you start?

Some automation projects have an outsized impact on your clients, your operational safety and quality, and your bottom line. For us, it was welding. Many battery companies still weld using a traditional strap process from a bygone era: workers manually attach lead lugs to a strap, then burn them together by hand, one-by-one, using an open flame. In optimal conditions, the best welders can make just 40 adjustments. And weak points, cold or hot spots, and incomplete burns are possible.

"It’s much safer, easier, and cheaper to catch mistakes in real-time, rather than farther down the line"

We wondered, “Could that process be automated?”

It took Crown Battery more than half a decade to develop a new Cast-On-Strap (COS) system (sophisticated machinery that fluxes battery plates and lead lugs together simultaneously at a precise temperature). Candidly, optimizing the process required more money and time than we’d planned—we’ve since learned to budget for this.

The Results Paid for Themselves

This robotic welding allows for 3,960 more adjustments than manual welding. Its low electrical-resistance welds strengthen connections and improve battery life. And it’s safer for workers.

Adopt Automation Best Practices from Other Industries

What’s standard practice in one industry can be a breakthrough in another. For instance, consider automated quality controls like vision systems. Vision systems use image capturing and inspection software to spot defects that humans can miss, and make sure that products are assembled properly.

Cross-pollination: While vision systems are widespread in electronics and automobile production, they’re rare in the battery industry—due to higher up-front costs and installation demands. But you don’t have to build microprocessors to recognize that defects equal downtime and lost profits for end-users in any industry. Our batteries power everything from forklifts and aerial lifts to backup power systems and trains. And since they provide backup power to thousands of hospitals’ surgical suites, the stakes are literally life or death.

It was a no-brainer to invest in vision systems for critical stages of manufacturing. It’s much safer, easier, and cheaper to catch mistakes in real-time, rather than farther down the line. Naturally, your manufacturing process is different. But the question is the same: “What automation practices and strategies can you adopt from other industries?”

R&D Automation=Better Products and Manufacturing in Less Time

Four years ago, our R&D team began developing our new Deep Cycle line from the atomic level up. Fortunately, we’d asked the same questions you learned earlier in this article, and discovered we could accelerate testing and design processes with technologies that didn’t even exist a decade ago. Automation helped us to run more than 5,000 tests; conduct 500 proprietary battery performance simulations; and crunch millions of data points from multi-year battery field tests across the continent.

If we’d done things the way we used to, without these physical and software tools or 3D-printed prototypes, we’d be nowhere near finished with the battery. And we certainly wouldn’t have achieved the same improvements in uptime, charge acceptance, and maintenance. And because we tested concepts on the manufacturing line, our operators offered their feedback before production started. This approach lets you correct problems and identify automation opportunities before scaling up.

“If all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.”

Automation can deliver exceedingly low defect rates and rework while optimizing profitability. That’s why it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement and try to apply automation everywhere. My unorthodox recommendation: We should also deliberately decide when not to automate. For instance, Crown Battery installed many automated quality checks. But Quality technicians still perform more than 250 tests on each battery. This ensures nothing gets missed. And our technical support— in-house at our Fremont, OH, headquarters—includes battery engineers. Why? Because sometimes, automation inconveniences clients or customers. If you’ve ever waited on hold or navigated a tech support hotline’s menus, then you know firsthand: Poor tech support can cost a fortune in downtime and overtime and test your sanity. You can make the same conscious choices, and embrace the best technologies and systems to optimize your business. With the right automation plan, you’ll ensure your company remains competitive, profitable, and a leader in quality, safety, and customer loyalty

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