As humans, it is said that we consume between 2,000 and 2,500 calories per day of energy, 1,300 of which are used just to keep the body alive, including about 300 calories for the brain. The numbers vary from different sources and of course are averages. Calorie consumption for the brain is said to range from 0.1 of a calorie per minute, up to around 1.5, probably the difference between watching the X-Factor and manually trying to balance an SMT line with machines from different vendors.
Calculating the cost of human thought in this way shows that a thought is not going to be expensive, fast decisions by experienced manufacturing management costing a sausage a week should do it. Our German friends, who incidentally claim to be the originator of the true sausage, seem ironically to be going to great lengths to eliminate the human factor in manufacturing, bringing automation to all processes. What drives this initiative is their reaction to the market changes, seeing increasing demand for small lot production with greater product variation.
The electricity requirements for automation can be quite huge as compared to the equivalent 15 watts consumed by the human brain. I guess though that the Germans are not thinking in these costing terms. They are probably comparing response times and real cost of ownership, such as salaries and investment. I think it strange though that automation is touted as being the goal. From what I have seen and experienced, the more automation you have, the more manual support it needs, in terms of maintenance and management, due to two very significant factors, change, and variation, the same two things that are at the core of the incentive.
Variation in materials and processes causes defects. In theory, keeping all variables under control should mean that nothing strays outside of operational parameters, but, it does happen. The most predominant example as I recollect was a result of neglected maintenance, at a time when everyone was celebrating the newfound increase in throughput. When things do start going wrong with automated processes, often invisibly at first, it can be spectacular, and a nightmare to resolve.
With changes happening quickly with products these days, as technologies advance, how can anyone be sure that automated processes, designed against a specific expectation, will be appropriate for the period of time expected? Quite often, we see requirements change, compromising excellent automated processes until the massive investment becomes ineffective, and yet no-one is willing to “give up”.
Don’t get me wrong, automation has a long track record of bringing acceleration to processes, and I am not against it at all. What is always needed however is that extra piece of intelligence on top that comes from human beings, since automation is not strictly “intelligent” in the way that human beings are sentient. The term really means that there has been some intelligent thought behind how the automation has been developed, in order to bring opportunity and value. With the focus of automation now moving from the mechanical to the software side of the industry, we need to be prepared. The Valor range of manufacturing software is designed to automate a vast range of complex operations, working together to deliver intelligent data. Valor doesn’t claim however to deliver a completely automated factory operation. The human element, the experienced production, engineering, supply-chain and planning management, on top of automation, need to expend some of their calories on critical issues as they happen, determining and executing resolutions before issues become significant, utilising qualified, detailed and timely data from software and linked devices. This then drives the improvement of the next generation of automation. The fact is, automation left to its own devices cannot do that, it just continues getting things more and more wrong. The “Internet of Things” also works in this way. The original Google search engine delivers information from the internet for people to use, not for the benefit of itself. Refinements are made based on how people interact, as users or business partners.
Thought control, that is, the ability to make quick, accurate and effective decisions based on accurate and timely information, brought visibly to a responsible person’s attention, is the most effective way to manage production. With software automation, the Valor range of software solutions, working continuously and actively on the shop-floor, the human management can focus on the much more complex and uncontrollable variables, maintenance of the operation, and changes needed in response to market demand and product technology.
This month’s SMT Magazine features many articles about automation, including my take on “The Impact of Automation” on page 26. Enjoy, and please do feedback to us your comments and experiences.