What Affects The Cost Of Automation in Manufacturing?


August 2020

What Affects the Cost of Automation in Manufacturing?

With the growing demand for almost everything that is manufactured today, the need for capital investment in automated machines is only going to increase year on year. The long term success of manufacturing companies is not just reliant on how good their products are in terms of quality, but also the cost of the goods, and regardless of the type of industry you are in, the cost will always be a factor when dealing with customers.


Influencers of Cost in Automation

There is an endless list of topics that can be discussed, but a few key influencers are as follows:


Economies of scale

So, let’s say you have a new niche product or offer a service that is quite unique and there is nothing like it on the current market. This would presumably mean you could charge a premium. You would also more than likely be looking at selling as many as possible and as quickly as possible. The reason being is that you want to prove and show how good and unique your offering is. With any “niche” product there would have been a new product development cycle, that led up to the final product and therefore you will also want recoup these costs as quickly as possible.

However as soon the products reach the market, someone somewhere will be chasing after your market and be developing something similar or better, so consideration for automating your production, needs to take place as early on as possible.

To put this into reality, if you consider things such as high-performance laptops that you can perhaps buy for a few hundred pounds today, the same machines will have cost £1000’s a couple of years ago. What is the reason for the drop in cost? It is simple, larger demand but also the realisation that technology is advancing so quickly, meaning if you don’t reduce the cost and offer something new, then your competition will. To reduce the end cost of your product, you need to make more, make them faster, reduce manual labour and introduce automated technology, which may include robotic automation.


Do Product Volumes Affect Automation Costs?

The cost of automation will certainly be affected by the scale of production, output requirements and by the complexity of the product itself. It is quite obvious that the more you have to do to a product, the more it will cost.


High Volume Manufacturing

In large volume manufacturing, where high output is required, the cost of automation can be higher. Manufacturers require automation machines to perform to very high efficiencies, to give them an overall high OEE. With high volume manufacturing, there is the chance that quality could reduce if good quality control systems are not put in place.  With today’s quickly advancing technologies, inline high-speed inspection systems can easily overcome these hurdles. With high speed and high resolution cameras such as those supplied by companies such as Omron, Keyence and Cognex, products defects can be identified easily inline, and include surface finishing, pattern recognitions for assembly build ups, measurement etc, quality control issues can be realised. SEE ARTICLE ON HOW MUCH DOES IT COST TO INTEGRATE VISION SYSTEMS INTO AUTOMATED MACHINES

Machine monitoring also comes into play, allowing the machine to self-check throughput and data gathering to ensure the process and machine are operating within specified limits. These advancements also allow for the machine to establish predictive maintenance criteria as opposed to traditional preventative maintenance, thus reducing the amount of unnecessary downtime. This brings in Ind 4.0 methodology, with technology such as machine learning to improve and adjust processes within automated machines in real time.



Low Volume Manufacturing

Automation does not only have to be for high volume manufacturing. Even in low volume manufacturing where traditionally there would be higher labour costs, automation can still be considered. Low cost automation solutions can be realised by streamlining your manufacturing by utilising simple jigs and fixtures to the next stage of semi-automatic assembly cells. Even the manufacturing of machined parts can be automated, by introducing collaborative robots, to allow batches of machined components to be loaded automatically into machines without the need for human interventions. Read more here: https://sp-automation.co.uk/can-labour-shortages-be-solved-by-cobots-collaborative-robots/


Does the Production Environment Affect the Cost of Automation?

Depending on the environment that the automation is to be located in, this may have an impact on the overall cost of the final machine. As an example, if it’s to be located in an ATEX manufacturing area, then the costs can spiral due to intrinsically safe devices having to be used. Likewise, a machine destined for a cleanroom will have its own unique requirements, to ensure airborne particles are kept to a minimum, and this would dictate by the class of cleanroom that it is to be situated in. Material selection for those areas would also mean most parts would have to be made from high-grade stainless steel which in itself will add a lot of costs.



What about Hardware Costs?

By hardware costs, we are effectively talking about the bought in parts. This relates to PLC’s, Robots, pneumatics, HMI’s and so on. The costs of these devices can vary enormously between the OEM’s and needs to be considered when contemplating automation. Many machine builders have their own preferences, but companies such as SP Automation and Robotics can work across multiple platforms, which will allow them to adapt to different customer requirements and needs.


Software Costs

Just as the hardware costs vary between suppliers, the software used to program these hardware components also changes. With more and more suppliers of control hardware moving to licensed based software, these costs can also be an influencer on final costs. Software development is a major time-consuming factor in the cost of the final automation machine, not only in the terms of the licenses and hardware but also the highly skilled and sometimes expensive cost of software engineers.


In addition to software development costs, within industries such as medical device manufacturing, the control of software validation can also have major cost implications. From machine validation to compliance of 21 CFR part 11, to ensure open computer systems control to ensure that all records are authentic, incorruptible, and (where applicable) confidential.


To conclude, it’s quite clear to see that there is almost an infinite number of areas that can affect the cost of automation and the overall capital investment. To ensure that costs don’t spiral, it is of paramount importance that any automation project has to be well defined, planned, and managed.




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