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Are You Willing to Champion an Automation Project?

Thu, 07/06/2006 - 10:11am

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Before an automation project can be fully realized, it takes a champion to lead the charge and rally support in order to ensure success.
As companies look at outsourcing as a way to save on costs associated with the manufacturing process, many are also considering automation solutions as another alternative. However, before any automation project can be successful, it needs one person, a champion, to take charge of the project and devote the necessary time and effort to see it through to completion.

By Ken Lento
AT A GLANCE
  • Definition of a champion
  • Determining success
  • Beneficial tools
  • Real world examples
There have been thousands of articles written on return on investment (ROI) or when and why to automate. But the one thing that makes an automation project come to fruition is very often untold—there is a person willing to be the champion for the cause.

It is not always easy to locate a true "champion for the cause." Finding a person who is willing to put their reputation on the line, spend the extra time it will take to rally enough support for a project, and be a risk-taker is no simple task. There is fear that, even though things may look good on paper, the project may take a person from hero to zero. Everyone likes to win while most fear losing. This is why there are so few champions for the cause and so few people willing to look further into potential projects that could be a winner.

An automation project champion will proclaim the following:
  • I'm willing to take the extra time
    —even if it means losing sleep.
  • I'm interested in automation and strive to be better.
  • I'm not satisfied with the status quo and poor results.
  • I realize there are tools to help increase the odds of a successful project.
  • I know that if done right, the chance for failure is minimized.
  • I have the guts to try.
  • I'm willing to sell my idea and develop the support.

How many times in your life have you witnessed the story of a sports star who was chosen to play or participate even though they were not the best choice. Stories like Dale Earnhardt, Jr. picking a driver for his race team because the kid beat him during an online NASCAR racing game. Earnhardt, Jr. was basically saying "I am taking a chance and putting my reputation on the line." Additionally, we have all heard of Lance Armstrong beating cancer only to become the greatest champion of the Tour De France. Sports champions put in the extra effort and time needed to make themselves and their sport better.

The definition of a champion is "supreme victor in a contest." Although one might disagree that business is not a contest, it has many of the same elements as one. Compare a baseball game to that of an automation project: both have players, winning is the goal, there are winners and (sometimes) losers, both can have a champion, and both have a financial aspect. The person who takes on a difficult automation project, stays the course, and delivers the results is a champion to everyone.
Risk and Reward
Many companies put people out to pasture for a losing project instead of rewarding them for being a champion and trying to make a difference. A champion will pursue a project regardless of this risk or deficiency that the company has for handling the good and the bad. These champions know that something needs to be done and are not willing to settle for complacency. Companies go through so much effort to justify projects—how many of them actually track the investment once it is executed and the project is running? Why not go back one year later and check the original ROI calculation against reality?

In one case at Compaq Computer (prior to the merger with Hewlett Packard), there was a project automating the production flow and burn-in of computers. This project looked to consolidate three existing manual assembly lines into the same space as one line. The project was designed to gain a higher output per square foot and to allow for more efficiency on each individual line. The champion in this case (call him Bob) viewed this project as the right thing to do and was willing to be the champion. There were many people around Bob who were supportive. Bob pursued the project regardless of the negative implications, worked to rally support, and determined the payback. The project ended up costing millions, but the payback was realized in less than one year. Bob was a hero. He did what was required of a champion which was the right thing for his company. Although the project was very close to receiving a "no go," with such a rapid payback, it would be interesting to determine how much additional revenue Compaq realized over the subsequent years.

What was memorable about Bob was that he came to work everyday and decided that there was more to his position than the daily engineering projects to which he was assigned. He realized that automation and efficiency gains, workflow, and software implementation were the right thing to do.
Finding a Champion
Finding champions for automation projects is becoming harder these days. Many people will ask for ideas and solutions from vendors and maybe even go through some payback calculations, but stop short of taking the project further into the organization. How many good ideas and projects never get implemented and die because there isn't a champion to take it far enough? Conversely, there have been times when it was obvious that a project was in the wrong hands and not in the hands of a champion.

An example of this problem comes from a recent effort to assist a customer. A customized package was developed that was required to move a project forward. Everything appeared right for a win—the solution, the projected results, the ROI, the support of the production teams, and the opinion of the person who needed to be the champion. However, the project never went past this person's desk despite the encouragement from many. This person didn't have what it took to be a champion for the cause; the documents are probably still sitting in his desk drawer in a file folder.
Simulation Tools
In today's world, there are methods with which to help convince the potential champion, such as through the use of simulation tools that can quickly analyze an idea to see if it is worth the pursuit. At the time of Bob's project, these tools were not easy to use nor were they as readily available. Had there been a simulation tool at that time, Bob may have used it as a first step. Simulations take actual process and automation values, as well as predicted values, to see what a line layout and process automation project can do. In some cases, the champion may say that doing it a certain way will not work but, by changing it around, will yield more desirable results.

Approaching a Project: A Champion's Viewpoint

Identifying the need - Work on an area assigned for improvement or a problem area.

Select a vendor partner - You can request bids or work with someone you know can deliver a good solution.

Quickly qualify the solution - A good way to accomplish this is to design the automation steps and make a quick simulation to see if it will work (e.g., cycle times, number of steps.)

Create a fast project budget and ROI - Apply the determined costs against the company's format for ROI.

Rally support - Once you are sure that the project is solid, sell it with conviction.

Win on the feedback - Stay the course when you receive questions or issues and work to find answers for these items.

Maintain good documentation - As larger projects develop towards final solutions, it becomes a challenge to document all the changes and communications, but it is a must.

Formalize the funding request - You have done so much and everything is right, so prepare and present like there is no way to lose.

Have alternatives for the funding - If you suspect that the capital spending is tight, go in with alternatives for financing (e.g., 3rd party financing, payment plans, extended terms.)

Post project review - After the project is in operation for at least one year, go back and analyze the results versus your original plan and verify if your assumptions were right.
 
These simulation tools will hopefully encourage some ordinary people to become champions and build confidence in the project. There are also many automation suppliers who are willing to create designs, system layouts, simulations, and even complete the cost justification paperwork for a potential project. All that is needed are more champions of the cause who are willing to sell the idea to gain approval and funding. The predicted outcomes are much better and the chances of being a hero are much more favorable.

A successful example of a champion of automation involves a customer who looked beyond the low cost labor where the company manufactures (Mexico) to what makes better sense for the long term. Automation obviously costs money upfront, but the results of the project have proven to be the right decision. The champion is Clete Culp from Align Technology, where he has taken that important lead role on many automation projects. Starting with a completely manual facility where Invisalign's orthodontics appliances are manufactured for thousands of customers each day, Culp championed a project that resulted in a state-of-the-art automation plant. Recently, Culp and his team designed a solution to automatically sort and sequence many thousands of unique customer products each day (in 21 hours). The final system will be able to automatically handle the product with only three operators to manage it.
Conclusion
Champions in sports surface all the time, providing us with great moments and lasting memories. After you have spent many years in one area of business, you always have the distinct pleasure of working with people who have pursued automation projects to the end. These people are true champions. These people have made a difference in their company's success, their own lives, and in the lives of those around them.

Manufacturers in the United States need more champions who are willing to take risks. Perhaps if there were more champions of automation projects, there would be fewer companies leaving the country and outsourcing work to other parts of the world. Are you willing to be a champion for the automation project that makes sense for your company or will you take the safe passage of employment and get by without taking any risk?
ONLINE
For additional information on the technologies and products discussed in this article, see the following websites:Ken Lento is the healthcare program manager for FlexLink Systems Inc., 6580 Snowdrift Rd., Allentown, PA 18106. He has more than 16 years of experience in the field of manufacturing automation and has worked with many companies to develop complete RFID production, automation, and software solutions. Lento has been a seminar speaker at many trade shows in the United States and Puerto Rico on production efficiency, RFID and higher level compliant software solutions. He can be reached at 610-973-8200 or ken.lento@flexlink.com.

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