What benefits does machinery automation bring to manufacturing?

Machinery automation forms part of a bigger vision of lean manufacturing which focuses on reducing waste, improving efficiency and ultimately reducing cost for the customer. Waste in manufacturing occurs in the 8 main forms:

1. Defects causing re-processing or re-making of parts

2. Over processing caused by poorly designed products

3. Overproduction which causes disruption in the production process

4. Waiting for material, WIP, people, processes to be complete or machine downtime

5. Inventory where purchasing, planning or stock management is inaccurate

6. Transportation of raw material or parts which is a non-value-added task

7. Motion where poor ergonomics cause unnecessary movement, reaching, stretching or lifting

8. Non-utilised talent whereby talent is not maximised or poorly deployed

Automation in manufacturing addresses many of these wastes, especially in process accuracy and quality, transportation, waiting, inventory and motion. Alpha have a clear vision of lean manufacturing which has factory automation at its core.

How can sheet metal processing be automated?

There are many different automated features of modern-day sheet metal fabrication machinery, which when combined, create a more efficient overall process:

Automated machine loading and unloading 

Many of Alpha’s current processing machines feature automated systems for loading and unloading of raw materials and parts. This reduces both times used for manual loading by an operator and minimises any risk of injury. These automated loading/ unloading systems are also linked to automated storage systems such as the STOPA which feeds raw material as required and removes processed parts, placing them back into storage ahead of the next process.

Automated storage
Traditional manual storage of stock depends on pre-defined allocated spaces for different types of items, relying on manual records of each stock location to find required items. Automated systems such as the STOPA use a system called “chaotic storage” which doesn’t require a pre-defined space for each item. Instead, it records each item as it passes into or out of storage and knows its exact location at any given moment. This removes the need for manual records to be kept. It also dramatically reduces manual handling and transport of material by operators.

Lights-out operation
This means that machines are able to be programmed and left un-manned to continuously process raw material and parts. This has obvious positive impact on overall impact on productivity and allows for large volumes of parts to be processed in a shorter time where needed.

Will automation completely eliminate manual input in manufacturing?

Automating the manufacturing process is all about optimising, removing waste and improving efficiency. By automating the traditionally non-value added tasks performed by a human (such as lifting, transporting, data processing)

Those people become free to perform more value added tasks such as performing manufacturing processes (manual folding, welding, machine programming) There will always be a need for human input in manufacturing but the aim of automation is to ensure that this resource is best deployed for maximum productivity.

Is factory automation expensive?

Yes. The most advanced manufacturing machinery, which includes high levels of automation does come at a premium for the manufacturer. Back in 2015, Alpha set out an ambitious investment programme with the goal of achieving high levels of factory automation. This plan was concluded during 2020 with the most recent installation of the STOPA automated system, overall investment in automation to nearly £4 million over 5 years.

However, the pay back for this investment is in the dramatically improved service Alpha can offer the customer, with increased capacity and efficiency. Customers benefit from a more cost effective, reliable and efficient service.

Does the end customer benefit from manufacturing automation?

Yes. By optimising the manufacturing process and reducing waste whilst improving reliability and accuracy, Alpha are able to offer a much more efficient and cost-effective service as a whole. The leaner the manufacturing process, the more value the customer gets, combined with more reliable and consistent levels of service.