Enabling Automation Podcast: Episode Five

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 the fifth episode, host Simon Drexler is joined by Blair de Verteuil to discuss What to know before you start your automation journey.

What we discuss:

  • Ways to increase your knowledge of automation technology
  • The building blocks of an automation system
  • Why vision inspection systems are important
  • Five roles needed for your project team

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: Blair de Verteuil, ATS Corporation (Life Sciences)

Blair de Verteuil is the President of Life Sciences Systems for the Life Sciences Division at ATS. After earning his degree in mechanical engineering, he started his career in the automation industry where he has worked for 21 years.

——Full Transcript of Enabling Automation: Episode 5——

SD: Welcome everyone to Episode 5 of our Enabling Automation podcast. I’ll be your host, Simon Drexler. I’ve been part of the automation industry for approximately 15 years in a number of progressive roles with both small and large organizations. I have the good fortune of being able to talk to experts from across the ATS Group of Companies about pertinent topics in the automation industry.

SD: We’re really excited to have one of the executives inside the ATS Group join us today, Blair de Verteuil. Blair, can you give a quick introduction to our listeners, please?

BD: Sure, and thanks for the invite, Simon. I’ve been in the industry for 21 years now. I like to say that I joined the industry. I’m a mechanical engineer by education. I like to say that I’m a project or a program manager by passion and an executive by a whole lot of luck. The industry’s an exciting one and just always welcome the chance to talk some shop.

SD: And over the course of the 21 years, you would have seen such a dramatic transformation of what automation looked like 20 years ago to what automation looks like today.

BD: Sure, I was a naïve young engineer and really excited about the just moving stuff, and parts and mechatronic systems. Programing was obviously emerging and continuing to emerge as a mainstream career choice and what I thought was really cool about ATS is that the programing made things move, made things come to life rather than just, forgive me, an app on a screen or something like that. And I always thought that I wanted to be part of something and build something that that made a sound when you dropped it.

SD: That’s awesome. It’s when we get going in these podcasts, it’s good to kind of jump right in because they’re meaty topics of what’s going on in the automation industry. Obviously, the industry is going through a major transformation. So why don’t we start that way? We’ll see where our conversation takes us.

SD: And today’s topic is what to know before you start your automation journey. So as a way to dive in, Blair, based on your experience, your background, extensive knowledge of the automation industry as an executive here in the ATS Group, what advice would you give a listener looking to get started in the automation journey for their facility?

BD: Yeah, so certainly Simon, you know I’ve had a lot of exposure over the years to different levels of maturity of and I say organizations and groups that were looking to automate and some of those groups had extensive automation knowledge and were just embarking on the next phase of that. And others were just starting out. I think the context of this is, is someone just starting out and maybe not having a like a local infrastructure or a lot of good internal examples of automation. And so, I guess the first thing I would say is don’t be intimidated. You know, we see these pretty spectacular videos on YouTube and automation solutions all over the place. And just know that these systems are just smaller building blocks that have been built up generationally over years, and even if your application is quite unique, know that there is probably in the industry experts that if they haven’t done it before, they’ve done something similar before and can deliver a solution that’s appropriate for you.

BD: So that’s the first the first one I wanted to say, just don’t be intimidated. I can imagine that that’s the case. And I know when I first entered the workforce here and saw the very large, spectacular programs that that we were delivering, it was like, where do you even start? And so that brings me to the next point is just understand what problem you’re trying to solve. There’s a lot of reasons to automate. You know, it could be you want to reduce the cost of your goods sold. You want to improve the quality. You might have some regulatory or compliance issues that you’re trying to resolve. You may have a workforce issue. You just can’t staff up, production demands.

BD: And then there’s another one that’s, I think, often forgotten and that’s just an interest to progress your technology know-how.  I know no one says don’t automate for the sake of automating, but maybe there is a small project that you want to just get some exposure to. Get your first robot or Cobot in place and maybe it’s you know, I’ll say maybe it’s not even as complicated as that. And I’ll say that, you know, we experiment with technologies that are unfamiliar with us to us, sometimes with no real purpose other than just getting some level of exposure. There’s an industry trend that we don’t want to miss and we just need some level of engagement and that may be at a more sophisticated level. I’ll talk like AI and ML and vision guided systems, complexities, you know. Simon, I know you’re in the LMT space, things like this. So, we play in those spaces sometimes just for the sake of gaining an understanding of technology. And I’d just recommend the listeners, that is a valid reason to automate something is just we know that automation is a trend. We know that it’s important. You may be feeling it and feeling intimidated. Maybe you want to just automate something for the sake of getting a little bit of exposure and seeing what you learn and doesn’t have to be a huge investment.

SD: I really like that framing. And when I get the chance to speak at a conference or talk to anybody who’s really looking to get started in the world of automation, we usually talk about starting with the end in mind. You know, exactly where would you like to be? And then how do you take some progression. In your framing of organizational earning get started, do something, and that might help inform what you’re actually capable of. Your ability to learn can sort of address the first thing that you said of not being intimidated. Is that is that fair?

BD: I think that’s I just think it’s a forgotten reason to automate. Right? And I don’t want to belabor it either. It’s just when you don’t have any automation in your plant and you know that it’s something you need to engage in. And there’s not an obvious candidate to automate. You know, just invite some industry experts, some colleagues that, you know, in some neighboring plants that have some automation and just walk your shop and look at it, go and look at others and experiment. There’s lots of opportunities to do little we call Proof Of Principles, little semi-automated cells, things like that. And just get a level of exposure because then all of a sudden you start to catch a tiger by the tail, if you will, and you start to see other opportunities emerge. Those with financial payback or those with, you know, capacity, scale ups and addressing real business needs. And again, I don’t want to dwell on it too much. But I think it’s a valid reason for getting in automation is just to increase your technological know-how and make sure that you don’t miss a trend. You don’t want to be caught flat footed with no automation. I would argue as an emerging manufacturer or one that aspires to be a world leader.

SD: And I’m not trying to dwell on the topic either, but in the overall topic of what to know before you start your automation, you’ve touched on a couple of things in that you want to build your organizational capability. In order to do that, you might just want to get started on, on something, something small. But then you also talked about inviting partners into your facility to learn from them. Can you elaborate on that point a little bit for the listener?

BD: Sure. Of course. There’s those that supply automation, right. You call them, you know, machine builders, systems integrators, automation companies, you know, you Google automation companies, you’re going to get a wide range of what an automation company is and for what industry and in what space means a lot of things to a lot of different people. But for the purposes again, I think of our podcast, we’re talking about custom machine builders that are delivering automated solutions, robotics, mechatronic systems. So the obvious is start to invite some of those there. You know, there’s many of them I’m certain there are local suppliers to you, right? Start to engage those local suppliers and see what their offering is. Ask them for customer references, ask them if they have installations nearby that are applicable. And go and look at them and start to educate.

BD: And then if you don’t have a local automation company to help you guide that, then just go talk to some of the more sophisticated manufacturers in your area. They will have automation, right? And start to have that start to engage and have that network. Because a lot of these a lot of these solutions and a lot of these offerings that the industry is trying to deliver to manufacturers as they scale up there are universal truths, right? There are universal truths on how to implement a program. And there’s no better way to learn those from someone else who has been through it. And then you kind of frame the technology around it. Right? So I feel like I’m babbling a little bit about that, but I just build up your network, right? Just get some exposure. Get some exposure, because then you start to see where the opportunities are “oh, I never thought of, you know, using a Cobot in that type of application. I never thought that, you know, you could start there and scale up to this.” And so there’s just so many technologies, visions, I think.

BD: I think vision systems are totally underutilized. We have people doing inspections and I just manual inspections and not that people aren’t, you know, important for making pass fail criteria for quality and things like this. But just think about the consistency over time of what an installed vision system could do for, the capturing of data, the paretoing of rejects, and how you can increase your yield. Otherwise, you just have people picking parts off of a line and throwing them into a bin, not really knowing if they’re, you know, they’re catching everything, if they’re being consistent from shift to shift day to day. Operator to operator. Year to year, I think it’s one of the most underutilized or under overlooked technologies, just a simple vision system.

SD: And I just want to assure you’re definitely not babbling. I think for our listeners, this is exactly the type of information that they’re looking for when starting their automation journey and asking for information that can help them enable. It’s these tricks, tips, input from somebody who’s been there before because they haven’t. And you know what a great example of being able to leverage your community, leverage local suppliers, leverage local manufacturers. Go out, take a look, see what they have, and you’re at least learning something. It may apply to your organization. It may not, but you can talk to them about their automation journey. You can touch and feel equipment that you may not have exposure to otherwise, especially if you don’t have automation in your own facility.

BD: Absolutely. So from a technology viewpoint, these are just all building blocks that ultimately you get familiar with robots and cobots and vision systems, manipulators, process equipment, whether it’s ultrasonic welders or some sort of oven or glue dispense system or these types of things. And then really it’s just, you know, populating those around a conveyance system of some sort, right? And material handling system of some sort. And so they’re just all building blocks. And this is where going back to my initial statement is don’t be intimidated by introducing automation. They’re just all discrete building blocks upon which, you know, again, the most sophisticated manufacturers and users of automation in the world are really just applying these building blocks and putting them around in a conveyance system of some sort and just in more elaborate, efficient methods. And  from a technology standpoint, I think that’s how that’s how you engage and start to build up.

SD: I couldn’t agree more in the business that I’m a part of we view the world the same way in that automation is a build up of a series of modules or generally standard processes that you assemble around a means of conveyance. And generally things get more complicated as the conveyor moves faster. Does that align with your experience as well? Sure.

BD: Yeah. So, so clearly. Right. You also don’t want to oversimplify it as these systems get bigger then you know, systems quote unquote “systems integration” becomes more and more important, right? Connectivity with, you know, your MRP, or your ERP system, data management, you know, quality management, operator, human machine operator interface has become more and more elaborate, important. Then you start to get into, you know, connectivity and Internet Of Things and remote assets and all this stuff, and we can go down the rabbit hole there for certain. But again, let’s just go back to just building blocks of automation populated around a conveyance system. And as that grows, of course, it gets a little bit more complicated. And systems integration, as we call it, becomes more important. And you may want to move up to the value chain or the ladder in terms of more sophisticated automation companies as that gets more sophisticated. But, you know, there’s a lot of people providing those building blocks very effectively to get started.

SD: In the most base of implementation. Can the conveyance system be people? Can you populate automation systems and then use people to move things between them?

BD: Certainly. So we refer to that in our, so we’re looking at generally larger scale automation, fully automated systems, but we refer to those as lean automation projects, right? Semi-automated or lean automation projects. And that’s where we use people to place components to a nest, you know, do an operation on them an automated operation on them. And then we use the people to move that to the next stage and the next, you know, piece or Island of Automation. And again, those are all very good entry level operations to introduce. And ultimately those can get, you know, once those stations, those processes get more well-established then and you scale up and you require capacity to increase, then you’re just taking those stations and you’re either multiplying them or scaling them up and placing them around a conveyance system, a dial, LMT, a SuperTrak, a dual strand conveyor, a locking beam, all of those things, right?

SD: Bring our current thread of discussion full circle, selecting a base conveyance platform. Maybe it’s people, maybe it’s something different. But I really like your example of vision systems being underutilized in the automation world. And if you were to give somebody who’s listening to us today some advice on how to implement a lean cell that automates some of their visual inspection, how would they get started to do that project?

BD:  So again, beginning in the end of mind, what are you inspecting? What’s the pass-fail criteria, right? What’s the variability in your product? Understand that to, to a certain extent, right? You got to create what we call your user requirement specification and it really comes down to what is it that you’re inspecting for, right? Are you reading a barcode? Okay, that’s very basic, I’d argue. But what if your customers need to read that barcode? Are you interested in the quality of the barcode that you’re producing? So if you’re printing a barcode on your product, for example, laser marking, inkjet printing, stamping, whatever, you know, maybe you want to understand the quality of the barcode. There’s vision systems that do that. They not only read the barcode, but they monitor the quality of the barcode being produced. And they can indicate to you that there’s a degradation of that barcode. So if it’s an inkjet printer that’s putting on the barcode, it’s degrading over time, it’s getting dirty. The head needs cleaning, it needs servicing. If you’re putting it into a metal component, sometimes you’re etching that in with a laser or some sort of physical tool and it can be getting dull, or your laser could be getting out of position off center. So those are simple vision applications. There’s, of course, dimensional inspection. So we’re going to measure, you know, specific dimensions for pass fail criteria. But again, you’re trending, you’re trending whether you’re injection molding processes going out of control, right out of out of tolerance or trending that way. And so you can make those adjustments on the way. And I think that’s where, you know, entry level inspection systems can do a lot for a manufacturer that otherwise is just putting parts in a bin and not really knowing why and not and not addressing the root cause and the corrective action necessary to improve your yield. So, yeah, you’re inspecting in quality, but you’re not really addressing the quality issues that are falling on. So I’m a big proponent for inspection systems being an early automation project.

SD: I couldn’t agree with you more. And the other thing that it provides for you is if you start with inspection, you start to get the data required to drive automation of that process. Is that correct?

BD: And then you think about, okay, how do I connect that inspection process to the mold machine, to the to the inkjet printer, to the laser marker or what have you, and you propagate out from there, so.

SD: That’s awesome. Before just shifting course a little bit, just one more question on this thread. If I’m listening today, I hear the idea for a vision system as being an interesting place to start my automation journey and can be used to learn a number of different things. What types of resource requirement or what types of people would you say a listener would need to apply to a project like this?

BD: So you know, okay, so if we’re talking an entry level vision system, probably not a large team, right? If we’re talking about something a little bit more complicated, you need to assign some sort of technical project manager. I’m talking about a small scale, but, you know, maybe something a little bit larger than a single cell or single station of automation. You want a project manager, an acquisitions engineer, I think you certainly want a buyer, a supply chain professional, someone who specializes in supply chain contracts and can manage you through. You’re not you’re not buying just a commodity, right? You’re buying a project, a solution. And so you want to make sure that you’re creating a contract with your automation partner that facilitates that from a contractual perspective. Probably want a sponsor, someone more senior in the organization that’s kind of behind this.  And making sure that directionally you’re approaching that because there’s probably a larger automation ambition or technology ambition that you’re trying to introduce to the plan or, you know, hopefully or seemingly people aren’t just introducing a single piece of automation for the aspiration that that’s going to be the only piece of automation they ever put in the plant. So I think a sponsor, executive sponsor of some sort helps you keep the strategic direction. Your operations person. So that may be the acquisition engineer, but your operator, who’s going to be running and maintaining the equipment, make sure that they’re close by. You want to make sure that the technology that you’re implementing fits the expertise of those that are going to operate and maintain it. And I think that’s often overlooked and it’s okay if you’re bringing in technology that’s maybe, you know, you’re swinging above your weight class a little bit. That’s okay. You just make sure you have a plan to train and become familiar with it and upgrade your skill set in the plant. And so that’s why you want your operations people to be involved.

BD: And then the last one, I would say that is often forgotten or missed is, you know, a finance professional, someone who’s going to really understand the, you know, be a business partner and understand the return on investment and just not get caught up in the coolness of implementing the technology. And just making sure that it financially makes sense and that we’re not maybe going back on what I said earlier, we’re not just implementing for the sake of implementing. If that’s the case, if that’s the objective, then maybe drop the finance person off your team. But you want to make sure you’ve hit your objectives that you went into it. You’re creating a business case ultimately for this this implementation. And you want to make sure that you’re objectively looking at and holistically looking at all the costs, not just the purchase cost, the automation, but the operational costs, the maintenance costs to make sure that your return on investment is what you said it was going to be. And if not, you learn from that. You learn from that and address it.

SD: So you want to build up your total cost of ownership to drive an ROI. And I think the one thing that’s it’s hard to quantify but does exist is organizational learning as well.

SD: Absolutely. Again, this is scalable too, right? This is not different than some of our largest customers. They basically have what do they have their five, five functions, a sponsor, a project manager, ops maintenance, a buyer and finance is the five functions, then you just scale up the team depending on the size of your project. And had a lot of customers and for some of those big programs and a lot of people participating in the design reviews and the FATs and things like that for those big, big programs. But for our small programs, there’s not that, you know, those functions are still generally represented.

SD: I wanted to shift directions slightly with you, Blair, because we’ve framed the conversation that this is someone listening that is looking to automate for the first time. You had mentioned large companies, and I just want to reinforce the point. Do things change at all when you’re not implementing your first piece of automation, but you’re trying to take a leap forward or a step forward in the automation that you do have in your operation? Does the advice change?

BD: It certainly becomes more sophisticated, right? So the conversation is when we talk about technologies gets a little bit more sophisticated. But really why, why are the big best manufacturers in the world coming to buy additional automation? It’s probably the same reasons, they got they’re doing a major capacity increase, right? They’re they have some sort of regulatory or quality thing they’re trying to address. And often it’s a combination of items they’re trying to reduce their cost of goods sold or they’re engaging in a next generation product, either their own or trying to, you know, create some sort of differentiation with their competition. And so they’re experimenting with technology and of course, depending on the drivers between them behind the project and or the combination of drivers behind the project, it’ll take on a unique shape and form, but we still have that same conversation. Begin with the end in mind. What is it that you want? Create your user requirement specification. What is it that we’re trying to achieve? How are we going to prove it? How are we going to demonstrate it and ensure that we meet the goals. We’re going to put a team around it, the customer is going to put a team around it. We’re going to put a team around it, and we’re going to focus on a solution that meets those drivers. And again, whether that’s ATS that’s doing that or whether it’s another automation supplier or whether the customer’s doing that in-house, it doesn’t really change that much. Just the level of sophistication and complexity I suppose. But it all generally always comes back to those building blocks.

SD: It’s great and I think it’s awesome for those that are listening to the podcast to hear someone like yourself say that the approach is the same no matter how complicated the automation is. Diving in a little bit to the complexity or the sophistication of the automation we had mentioned earlier in our discussion is the primary driver to sophistication speed? So the actual output of the piece of automation? Or are there other drivers to sophistication?

BD: Well, so, so certainly recently and so. Okay, let me take a step back. When we were talking about our most the most sophisticated manufacturers, users of automation in the world, and they’re doing a capacity increase. You know, often there are times they come back and they say, hey, we want another one of those what we had built previously for them or someone else had built previously for them. We call that a build to print, but there’s kind of a and I know you know it there’s always a industry running joke there’s no such thing as a build to print, right? There’s a build to print except, right. And this is what we want. And speed is very often at the top of that list. We want to build to print, but instead of a 30 part per minute machine, we want a 35 part per minute machine or a 40 part per minute machine or we want to build to print, but it’s a 60 part per minute machine. Well, it’s not really a build to print unless you’re getting two of them. So speed is certainly important. I wouldn’t say it’s the only the only driver, but people want to go faster, cheaper, better. So, Simon, how do we evaluate now we’re opening a can of worms? How do we evaluate the performance of a piece of automation, right, or a manufacturing solution? It’s OEE, right? Overall Equipment Effectiveness. And what’s that made up of? It’s made up of three components, it’s performance availability and yield. And availability. Fairly obvious. How often are you using the equipment either planned or unplanned downtime. Yield, fairly obvious. How good is the quality of producing? Is it producing components within specification or not? And by what percentage? And the last one is performance. Is it, you know, what’s it running at? Is it running at the designed rate or not? And so those are the those are the three components you’re always trying to improve upon from a technology and a solution standpoint. But I would argue that that’s only one leg of a three-legged stool.

SD: I think that’s a great response to the question, to be honest, and in the topic of what to know before you start your automation, we haven’t even touched on OEE yet. If you’re getting started in your automation journey, that is how you know, that is how you evaluate the effectiveness of the piece of automation. OEE, Overall Equipment Effectiveness.

BD: Yeah, of your manufacturing solution.  So we, manufacturers talk about their OEE in terms of planned and unplanned downtime and things like this. Equipment and machine builders talk about MOEE, right. The machine OEE. It’s what the machine. The, the piece of automation is capable of. I can’t control whether you run it or not, but I, you know, I have a lot of influence on whether there’s a break down or not or whether it’s meeting the design criteria in terms of speed or not or the yield fallout or not. That’s a great place to start as well as know that acronym, OEE, how it’s measured, why it’s important, and what are your expectations? If I want a 30 part per minute machine, It better not be broken down, you know, 90% of the time because that means nothing to me.

SD: And that’s a good way to break down where what’s driving complexity and what’s driving sophistication. So any one of those three factors, if you’re trying to make them significantly better, things are going to get a little more complicated, a little a little more sophisticated as you apply technology. Is that a fair statement?

BD: I think that’s a fair statement other than just replicating the same thing over and over again.  It’s an unsophisticated way to solving your speed solution.

SD: Amazing when that happens. But seems to be very rare in our industry. I like what you said about build to print, but.

BD: Yeah, everyone- yeah, everyone’s trying to go faster, right? So it’s a build to print, but.

BD: I think that’s a fantastic spot to finish off our discussion today, Blair, we ended in a place where we can use the OEE calculation. It’s an industry standard term to educate our listeners on where the complexity is driven. And on top of that great discussion on how you get started in your automation journey and even an example of where you might choose to get started with vision application.

BD: Thanks for inviting me. I guess the takeaways are don’t be intimidated. Begin with the end in mind. Leverage your network both the machine builder network as well as those users of automation. Know what OEE is and why that’s important and maybe the inside joke is there’s never such thing as a build to print.

SD: It’s definitely true.  That’s just a fantastic summary of our discussion today. So Blair, thank you very much for joining the podcast today for offering your time to educate our listeners on what to know before you start your automation journey.

BD: Thanks for the invite.

SD: To our listeners. Thank you very much for joining us today. If what you heard today was valuable, I would highly encourage you to join our Episode 6, which is a special episode: is automation suitable for your business? And we actually have two guests addressing that discussion. Part one is with Heinrich Seilemann and part two is with Jeremy Patten. Thank you very much.