Is it Time to Automate Your Shop?

cover-02As most of our readers are aware, countertop fabricators come in all sizes and budgets, and the number of customers they serve varies widely. Many fabricators new to the industry start out with the bare minimum equipment and use only manual tools while shops that have been around for some time and have high numbers of customers have spent thousands of dollars upgrading to automated systems.

If you are among the fabricators who still use manual equipment, you may be asking yourself how to determine the right time to automate. This is a difficult question to answer because so many variables are involved, but one equipment manufacturer recently put out a great resource to help machine operators make a decision.

TigerStop, an international company headquartered in Vancouver, Wash., has been in business since 1994 manufacturing automated machines for cutting, punching and boring metal, wood and plastic. Although the company’s equipment is not directly geared toward countertop fabricators, the information in its free, downloadable document, When Is the Right Time to Automate My Shop?, holds true in nearly any industry with machine operators.

Should You Automate?

According to TigerStop, the most important question about automation is whether you should do it all. Specialty craft designers and artisans may have too much pride in their work to leave it all to machines, and this may be exactly the type of work their customers expect and desire.

However, most small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs) may find automation helps them handle workload surges and busy seasons more efficiently – to their own benefit and to the benefit of their customers. In most cases, larger fabrication shops that service wide regions or high numbers of customers will surely benefit from automation and would be wise to implement the equipment to do so as quickly as possible.

The Risk Factor

The question of whether to automate largely breaks down to how much risk you are willing to accept. People make mistakes, and only the most experienced and skilled craftsman can manage all of them. Such risks include miscuts, shop errors, reworking jobs and on the far end, the loss of entire slabs.

Shops that can successfully mitigate the risks associated with human error usually have higher costs, so they must have a clientele that is willing to pay prices higher than that of competitors.

David Pye, author of The Nature and Art of Workmanship, explains that in a manual shop, the quality of the final product is always at risk, and this is known as the Workmanship of Risk. In an automated shop, the result of the process is predetermined by the equipment, and this is called the Workmanship of Certainty.

Taking all of this into consideration, it is possible to determine when you need to automate by identifying when you can no longer tolerate the losses created by human error. These losses, however, are not always monetary. You must also consider your own feelings and how you personally deal with these losses.

Other Factors in the Choice to Automate

Another factor that could help you choose whether to automate your shop is the availability of skilled or easily teachable workers. If you always have a steady stream of talent in your community or region, you may not need to automate, but if you have a difficult time finding good employees, automation can help you keep up with demand.

Approach Automation Slowly

One of the most prevalent myths about shop automation is that it has to be done all at once, but TigerStop explains that it is best to approach the subject slowly and deliberately, testing each application or process before implementing a new one. This helps you minimize risks while maintaining a high level of accuracy. In addition, this slow introduction will help your employees become comfortable with the equipment.

A sound approach to automation is to apply it to the processes that carry the highest amount of risk. In addition, it may be possible to add automation to your existing equipment rather than totally replacing it with each step.

Four Steps to Evaluate Automation

TigerStop believes that evaluating automation in your shop can be broken down into the following four steps:

  1. Look for processes to automate. Great candidates are processes that are repetitive, simple and prone to errors.
  1. Time your processes. Get some metrics on how long your processes take and how many times they are performed each day.
  1. Determine the cost of each process. Multiply the time it takes performing a task by the number of times it is performed, then multiply the result by your labor cost.
  1. Does an automated solution provide any of the following benefits?
  • Saves money
  • Saves time
  • Decreases job reworking
  • Increases yield
  • Reduces waste

Purchasing Automation Equipment

Once you decide automation would be to your benefit, it then becomes necessary to decide which method of equipment acquisition provides the highest additional benefits. This is often a question best left for your accountant, but typical options include leasing, leasing to buy, financing and outright purchase.

For the full report that includes several case studies, you will have to provide your email address to TigerStop, but the information it contains is well worth getting on a mailing list, especially since you can unsubscribe at any time.