Enabling Automation Podcast: Episode Nine

We’re excited to bring you our first-ever podcast series, Enabling Automation. This monthly podcast series will bring together industry leaders from across ATS Automation to discuss the latest industry trends, new innovations and more!

In our seventh episode, host Simon Drexler is joined by Adam Pringle to discuss how to select an automation partner.

What we discuss:

  • What makes a good automation partner
  • Questions you should ask a potential automation partner
  • How a good partner enables you

Host: Simon Drexler, ATS Corporation (ATS Products Group)

Simon has been in the automation industry for approximately 15 years in a variety of roles, ranging from application engineering to business leadership, as well as serving several different industries and phases of the automation lifecycle.

Guest: Scott Cooper, ATS Corporation (Life Sciences)

Scott Cooper is the Director of Applications at ATS Cambridge Life Sciences. Scott has been a part of ATS for approximately 22 years. He started in the integration controls department and then transitioned into the applications department.

——Full Transcript of Enabling Automation: Episode 9——

SD: Welcome to the monthly installment of the Enabling Automation Podcast, where we bring industry experts from across the ATS Group of Companies to talk about topics relevant to the automation industry. My name is Simon Drexler. I’ll be your host. I’ve been in the automation industry for about 15 years in a variety of different roles project management through product development. And I’m currently the general manager of the Products Group inside of ATS Automation. So welcome to Episode Nine, which is how to select an automation partner. And we’re so fortunate today to be joined by an expert in this field. You know, as a leader of an applications engineering team. Mr. Scott Cooper. Scott, would you introduce yourself to the listeners, please?

SC: Hi there. My name is Scott Cooper. I am the Director of Applications at ATS Cambridge Life Science. I’ve joined ATS in the year 2000. Back when Y2K was our biggest worry. I joined in the Integration Controls Department, where I’ve delivered equipment all around the world. And then transitioned into applications where my Team supports the sales team on front end of the business proposals.

SD: That’s great. And Scott, before we kind of jump into our topic for today, I have a question for you. A lot of people who work in the automation industry have been in this world in sort of varying roles for a long time. Like, once you get into the automation industry, you don’t leave and you know yourself. You’ve been in progressive roles since 2000. Why do you think that is?

SC: Well, I like it because every morning I get up and I don’t wonder what am I going to do today? I get to go in to work and solve unique customer problems. That’s what we do is we do automation for new devices that we haven’t seen before. Solving their problems just it’s like an engineering dream. So that’s why I get up every day.

SD: It’s funny that you touch on that. So anytime I’m kind of walking around, it can be an engineer’s paradise. You know, you’re looking at all this different technology and you’re solving a new problem every day. So it’s that. And anytime I get asked that in an interview or I ask somebody, there’s no better feeling than turning a piece of equipment on for the first time. And it’s just so cool when it goes from, you know, blank page to live.

SC: When we quote automation, it’s amazing to go out and see on the floor, you know, what we quoted versus what is being delivered. And to see, you know, the team gather around and to finalize an acceptance test run is just great. I don’t know. There’s something to that because there you know, once you get the itch, once you get the automation bug, it’s not often that you leave the industry. Thanks for indulging me. Thank you.

SD: So on to the topic of how to select an automation partner. And, you know, part of this podcast, part of the transition of the industry right now is more and more people are looking to automate process. More and more people are looking to technology and automation to solve operational challenges or capacity shortages or, you know, products are getting more complex, which are sometimes outside of human capability these days. You know, there’s a whole bunch of reasons that are driving more people, new people, new industries, new applications towards automation. So the selection of partner becomes, you know, really, really important because it’s not a small change. It’s not a small endeavor for an organization to look for an automation partner. Scott, let’s start our conversation as broad as it gets. What makes a good automation partner?

SC: Good question. A good automation partner listens to the customer. They listen to their needs. And they solve customer problems. In a unique way, either through innovation or by the capabilities that they can bring either capacity or through Unique solutions that they offer. An automation partner will also provide data or facts to back up any performance claims that they may make, including delivery and equipment. And when you’re talking about data and facts, are you looking for somebody that’s experienced? You know, you’ve delivered a lot of automation.

SD: Are you looking for somebody that has industry relevant knowledge?

SC: No, absolutely. You’re looking for a partner who has proven excellence in the equipment that they’ve delivered. So if they can show you examples of previous processes or performance or machines that have a high throughput or high OEE, low reject rates, that’s what you’re looking for.

SD: And I think so as somebody who’s bought lots of automation before as well, I think that’s one of the items that always struck me is we’ve seen this before, you know, when, when we approached this previously or something similar, this is what we did. This is what went well. This is what didn’t go well. Is that generally your approach as well as you kind of can open up the catalog or when you’re talking about listening, is it more unique than that?

SC: So it’s almost both. So we’ll obviously look at previous experience and expand on that. We obviously have overcome a lot of challenges over the years. We’ve learned from any mistakes that we’ve made. We want to draw on that experience. But also through innovation. We want to come up with unique ideas as well. As technology expands and grows, we want to leverage new technologies to solve customer problems.

SD: And so we’ve got a lot of listeners that are new to this world. You know, these are that’s we kind of talked about at the start. It’s new applications, new companies. There’s more demand for automation than I would say historically, because a lot of labor shortages and a whole bunch of other reasons. So when a new person is approaching that automation partner and they’re looking for somebody who can kind of pull that catalog, is there a couple of questions that they should ask?

SC: The first question they should ask is, can you do the job? And so that’s where the data and the facts come in. And, you know, we would an automation partner would have to provide you with supporting examples that, yes, we can do the job. Well, the way I’d put it is an automation partner should look for what we dub the lowest cost compliant solution. So what is the most economical way to get the job done? That’s what I would say is kind of a key question. You know, there’s engineers out there who they’ll write specifications but they’re always they’re always thinking, how can I make my job easier? Well, an automation company or an automation partner’s job is to find ways to not only do the job, but to do it economically.

SD: And I think that comes back to, you know, any company that’s looking towards technology, they want a return on investment. And so when we talk about the, you know, lowest cost compliant or we talk about innovative alternatives, we’re looking to drive maximum ROI as a partner. Is that a fair summary of or a fair alternate way of wording what you just said?

SC: Absolutely, yes. We’re always thinking what the customers ROI. They you know, they haven’t asked, but they also have budget constraints as well. So we have to make sure that we can enable that customer to pick a solution that gets the job done, but also enables them to be profitable and successful and meet an overall return on investment.

SD: So Scott, you touched on something that I’m really passionate about and I think encompasses this podcast and what we’re trying to do. You know, we want to enable our listeners, we want to enable our partners to effectively implement automation. You have a ton of experience in the applications world in concepting unique solutions to problems. You know, what does a good partner do to enable somebody who’s new to the automation world? Right at the concept phase, right at the very beginning. How do we make sure we get off on the right foot?

SC: So I would answer with requirements are the most fundamental thing to get right at the beginning stages. So understanding those requirements to make sure we’re headed in the right direction in the first place is key. Once the requirements are known and or better understood we can then offer alternate solutions to our customers. So typically that that involves offering solutions that can do the job. One way they can have different options that either have schedule impacts or different technology risks. And we can enable our customers with evaluation criteria to help them make the best decision on picking automation.

SD: And I think evaluation criteria is such an important thing as well. And anytime you’re doing something new, you’re trying to evaluate different options. You’re looking to a trusted partner, somebody who’s been there, done that to tell you about the trade offs. And so one, I think for our listeners, what’s so important is if you’re working with an automation partner who says there’s one way to do something that’s probably a red flag because there’s always multiple ways and different pieces of technology or different combinations of people and robotics to accomplish most things. It’s rare that there’s one path. Is that a fair statement?

SC: There’s definitely many ways to skin a cat, for sure. We have multiple tools in our toolbox. Everything from SuperTrak, SuperTrak Micro to dial automation to conveyor automation, semi-Automated automation, cam systems, Symphoni platforms, high throughput. Automation is, you know, something that we can offer customers many different solutions.

SD: And I think the reason why I would say it’s a red flag if there aren’t multiple options, is because I think a good partner walks their customer or walks a potential client through different ways of doing things. And the pros and cons, I think we you want to see someone leverage their experience, leverage their catalog, leverage new technologies to be able to solve that problem. And everything has a trade off. And I think the effective part of that discussion early on is that conversation. It’s, you know, what are the trade offs of this option versus that option? And what’s better for you as the person implementing that technology? Is that fair? Because I’ve seen that a lot in, I would say, kind of best practice approach.

SC: Absolutely. There’s and there’s the triangle of selection Criteria. Cost, schedule, and risk. And typically, you know, customers want the best of all worlds, but obviously there’s sacrifices that have been made. You can usually pick two, but you can’t have all three. So will help customers make the best decision on which two to make.

SD: But if we could always have all three, wouldn’t life be better? A good segue into like another, I think key topic around how to select an automation partner. And in the realm that automation is new to a lot of our listeners, automation is new to a lot of people, the perception of risk or the actual risk, how do how does a good partner tackle that conversation? You know, you have multiple options of how to solve the problem. There’s different risk profiles. How do we help our customers, you know, really evaluate what risk there is in those different types of implementations?

SC: Great question. We have many tools in our toolbox. And one of those risk mitigation tools, when entertaining a new customer automation project is a risk assessment heat map and a risk assessment heat map basically walks through all the automation processes, identifies the risk level associated with each one and mitigation plans, and really getting down into the nitty gritty of each, each station and each technology that’s going to be implemented. We basically have to make decisions on risk level. What are the mitigation plans and how that impacts cost, schedule and overall technical risk?

SD: Is it possible to reduce the risk of the system kind of going into that catalog and sort of the we’ve done this before, this is how we did it? Or is it always new and unique to whatever the application is that we’re discussing?

SC: Good question. It’s a mix of both. So we’ve automated many processes in the past. But there’s always new ones that come out and when there is a new process to be implemented, we’ll typically embark on a proof of principle phase where you know, we can leverage our innovation team, we can leverage our front end of the business team by trialing new processes and showing the customer that we can do their process prior to ever them having to make a decision.

SD: So like coming in and sort of proving out key parts of the application to say you know, we’ve identified that this is the most risky thing, but we’ve done X, Y and Z on a small scale to make sure that it’s not going to hit us later on.

SC: That’s correct. Yep. That’s how we do it.

SD:  And I can see how much that would reduce the risk of, you know, a more complicated piece of automation. You take the most complicated step and you and you try it, you try to make sure that it’s not going to be an issue later on. And so, you know, as a as somebody who’s thinking about, you know, automating for the first time, it’s an organizational change. It’s an organizational progression. What do we do once- What does a good partner do once the automation gets to the customer site?

SC: I would say a good automation partner will always follow up, will follow up on how the machine is performing, typically throughout the project lifecycle when the machine is integrated at the machine builder, a lot of discussions are had about training, service, support. How the how the customer plans to operate the machine. All of those discussions lead to a call it a service implementation plan. How, how we plan to help the customer ramp up and make sure that they’re running the equipment as efficiently as it left our floor.

SD: And so as somebody who might be doing this for the first time, is there a couple of questions that we could enable our listeners to ask as they’re evaluating automation partners? Like how would they know that somebody is equipped to train them on pieces of automation? How would they know that that that company, that partner is going to help them once the equipment gets to their site?

SC: Two questions come to mind what services can be offered and two what type of OEE are they expected to run? As we know, time is money. So obviously reject rates are key. Machine availability is key. Overall equipment runtime and minimizing downtime is key. So those are the questions that a customer should ask the automation supplier. How are we going to keep the automation running and maintain its uptime as effectively as possible?

SD: And for any of our listeners who haven’t heard the term before, OEE overall equipment effectiveness is basically a measure of how well the automation is running. It’s a multiplication of the equipment availability, so it’s up and able to run the throughput versus what it’s designed to do. So if it’s supposed to run 100 parts per minute, if it’s only running 90, it’s running at 90% of its throughput. And then you multiply a quality metric as well, which is the parts coming off the piece of equipment are as expected. And when you multiply the three together, you get an overall equipment effectiveness which is normally part of the specification for the piece of automation. So if we’re enabling our listeners to ask, you know, educated questions and really start to narrow in on how do you find a good partner? It’s about not seeing an equipment effectiveness drop off from the machine integrator site or factory acceptance test to site acceptance test and beyond. Correct? And the services and support to do that.

SC: That yes. That’s correct. And you want to make sure that the automation provider can help you as a customer ramp up as fast as possible and minimize that learning time, minimize that the time between when you’re doing your quality checks and when you’re validating and get to production as fast as possible so that machine can start making you money quickly. And, you know, you have a lot of a lot of experience deploying a lot of experience designing.

SD: Do you normally see a trend line? Does the machines run better at the automation provider than they do at the factory?

SC: Typically, automation is running at its peak performance on the automation vendors floor, and after that machine is delivered, you know, there’s a lot of learning that’s happening with the customer. They’re getting used to the machine. So they’re trying to figure out, you know, how to recover from any column faults or any jams the machine might have. They’re trying to figure all that stuff out. So, of course, the overall equipment effectiveness is reduced. But with, you know, good service, good you know, good support, that’s where we want to try to minimize that learning curve.

SD: And I think you touched on such a good thing is, you know, the enablement services of a good partner really help to address that challenge. You know, you’re operating in best case conditions. When the machine is built, you have the machine experts, you have all the designers. You’re even running in a world that that’s not reality because you kind of selected good components. And, you know, you’re really early on in the manufacturing cycle, whereas when you get to the actual production floor, there’s a lot more variation and we have to start dealing with that and we have to look for that.

SC: There’s variation in customer input parts and there’s variation in who runs the machine. And yes, there’s actuators age over time and there’s all those factors that can lead to overall poorer performance or poorer running machines than when it left the automation floor.

SD: And so I think what the listeners are looking for is somebody who understands that, who knows that and has a strategy and a plan for addressing that once the equipment is on our or on the customer’s floor. Is that a fair statement?

SC: Absolutely fair statement.

SD: So another good question to ask: What is what is your strategy to help us ramp up to have the maximum OEE we can?

SC: One way that an automation can do that is proving through the use of examples that machines delivered are running with high OEE, have the data to support through machine analytics. I think that’s something that’s coming into the industry, that machine analytics and that constant monitoring of the overall equipment effectiveness and making sure that it’s at least a level trend, that we’re not seeing a downward trend in the piece of equipment and that, you know, the monitoring infrastructure takes place. The yeah, the monitoring infrastructure is there and the resources are there to enable the factory to continue to see peak performance over time.

SC: That’s right.

SC: An automation supplier really should be the ones that implement the overall Machine analytics. They know how to build machines. We’ve built thousands of machines. The I find a mistake customers often do is they want to provide their own machine analytics. But imagine a world where an automation supplier delivers equipment all around the world. They provide a common link to addressing faults to showing machine trends, and really diving deep into what causes machines to fault. So are our feeders causing our biggest faults. Imagine a world where all that data was in the cloud an automation provider is looking at all that data and implementing strategies on how to correct faults and increase throughput. Imagine a world where an automation supplier was doing that. And I think that kind of circles back right to the very beginning.

SD: And you know, it’s about a good partner listens and it starts with requirements. And so how did a good partner start to enable and support the creation of a good requirements documentation or a good requirements document? And I think it’s slightly related to what you just said around, you know, standardized approaches. And there is some guidance on how to how to build a good piece of automation, one that’s going to work for that partner. So what are some of the approaches to creating a solid requirements document?

SC: So a good approach is to make sure that all the product inputs are known, and ultimately, what are the what are the user end goals? How many parts per minute does the equipment need to be designed for? What is the ultimate uptime? What is the expected reject rate. Then after that? Those are those are the global ones. Then after that, how is the product to be assembled? What processes need to happen? What are the parameters around those processes? All the inputs required. What are all the machine outputs required? And ultimately, that’s fundamentally the best specification you can provide is really just what are your end goals and what are all the inputs and outputs, including process parameters, anything after that is really, I’ll call them Nice to Haves. Which is part of our job. We have to tease out Nice to Have Versus Need to Have.

SD: And so I think that’s a great framework and really good advice for anybody who’s listening, you know, what are the objectives you’re trying to accomplish? What are the inputs in the outputs? And are there key process, key process parameters or key process data that you can share? Those are sort of the minimum.

SC: Those that’s the minimum. And yeah. Everything else on top of that is really typically just I’ll call them Wants as opposed to Needs. I equate it to like a imagine you wrote down you were going to buy a car and you wrote down everything that you wanted. You wouldn’t write down as your specification the barebones. I want the a car with four wheels, And cloth seats. You would go in there with I want four wheels, I want sunroof, I want leather seats. What you end up buying is probably something in between.

SD: Well, that’s an interesting analogy. I like that. And so have you seen or have you ever experienced somebody who comes in or comes to the table, they want a piece of automation and they’re unable to provide any of the basics?

SC: Yes, we have lots of customers that they don’t have experience in writing requirements document. But that’s where ATS can come in and help. We offer pre automation services. So ATS has experience writing specifications, obviously we’ve seen lots of specifications over the years. So we can help customers and guide them towards writing down what they want, which is so important to write down specifically what you’re after for. What the automation needs are. Because an automation project, you know, there’s lots of people that are involved in the project. If there isn’t one central requirements documentation it’s really hard to move on to the project phase. You don’t want to move on from requirements, you can’t move to validation without having the requirements fundamentally documented correctly.

SD: So I think we’ve even touched on now two of the sort of like major platitudes inside of automation is, you know, anything can be automated with time and money. And as long as you can write it down, you can automate it.

SC: Correct.

SD: And you touched on validation and I think that’s such a big thing. Right? And it’s one of the majors, which is are changes in approach between doing something with people and doing something with technology is once you do something with technology, you’re missing the inherent validation of the human being. So somebody’s got to be able to validate that technology’s doing what you want it to do. And the requirements document is so important to be able to do the programing and set up the inspection are the tools to be able to do that. The validation is so key to making sure all the processes are validated.

SD: And it’s you touched on a lot of a lot of good points there, sensors, and vision. And if you have processes that have heat staking and different assembly processes that require validation, labeling, all of those pieces need to be validated and they all have to start with requirements to begin with. I think this requirements document in this line of discussion is so important for listeners and so important for anybody who’s looking to automate or integrate technology. And so we talked, you know, end goals, the process, the inputs and the outputs, those are all critical to be able to evaluate technological options or the ability to automate. If I’m doing this for the first time and I don’t want to go the consultant route or I might not be able to go the consultant route, what guidance could you give somebody to get started?

SC: What I would suggest is it you’ve got to start by just writing it down, and by it I mean look at your process. What is the starting point? Where do you want to start your automation? What is the very first step? What are the inputs to that step? What are the outputs from each step thereafter? Are there any special requirements? Any special assembly steps or process steps in between? As you’re looking through all the requirements to automate your product or your solution to the industry. Once you get through those first fundamental steps, ultimately you need to step back and then say, what is the overall end goal? Why are we automating? Are we replacing operators? Are we trying to scale up? Ramp up? Increase our throughput? How many shifts do we plan to run? You start taking a stab at writing all of those things down. The requirements document really is going to complete itself. And I think that kind of circled back right to the very start of this conversation. You know, what are you looking for to select a good automation partner? You’re looking for somebody who’s going to be able to listen and provide you options along the way. And if you can at least write down a portion of, you know, end goals, processes, inputs and outputs, you have a really effective way to start the conversation with an automation provider and then start asking a lot of questions that will start to put sort of meat on that framework and really evaluate who the right partner is for you. As somebody looking to integrate automation.

SD: Totally agree.

SC: That’s key. Is having something to start off. To start off with to talk through What do we plan to automate? What product am I assembling? What is my throughput? What are the process steps to get there? An automation partner can take it from there and show you many different options. I can show you, you know, the lowest cost to get the job done. We can show different solutions that have different varying levels of technical risk. Different schedule options, all everything in between to enable a customer to pick what should I automate? What platform should I select? I think that’s a perfect summary of exactly what somebody who’s looking to automate needs from a partner what should I automate? What should I not automate? What can I put on a standard platform? What would need to be customized? What’s easy, what’s hard? What’s high risk? What’s low risk? What’s costly, what’s not? I think somebody who has that catalog has that depth of experience that we’ve talked through for the this episode is somebody that can answer those questions and really help to enable someone to effectively implement automation.

SD: So Scott, we’ve touched on a number of different things and a number of different questions, a number of different topics. And so thank you very much for joining the Enabling Automation Podcast. I think our listeners can take a lot away from your guidance points and really the advice and pointed questions that they could ask a potential automation partner to really start to understand if they’re the right partner for them. So thank you very much for your experience and your contribution.

SC: You’re very welcome, Simon. Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure to talk to you today about a topic we all love, automation and robots and risk levels, technology. We’ll always take the opportunity to talk about robots anytime I know that.

SD: So to everybody listening, thank you very much for joining Episode Nine: How to Select an Automation Partner of our Enabling Automation podcast.