Adding another robotic welding station to our plant has made us really think about automation.
Our approach to and experience with automation actually runs contrary to much of what you might be hearing in the news. First, automation has not reduced the number of people we employ. It has increased it. In addition, complete automation is not the be all and end all of manufacturing and is not, in any way, our goal. We are very aware that automation can dramatically change the nature of a business and have developed an automation plan ensuring that we continue to meet our customers’ needs and that we remain the kind of manufacturer we want to be.
We added our second robotic welding station for a number of reasons. The most obvious is that it adds to our capacity. Unquestionably we can now produce more casters – and get them out the door faster. We have also improved the quality of our casters because the automated process yields a better weld and does it consistently.
Interestingly, the robotic welder didn’t replace anyone or reduce the number of our employees. In fact, we hired an additional staff member to run the welder. In addition, we maintain our manual welding station that is manned by a full time licensed welder. That allows us to produce shorter run or custom manufactured items in a reasonable timeframe.
Our experience is that automation has necessitated hiring additional staff. As was the case with welding, automation often requires adding workers with very specialized skill sets. On top of that, our increased capacity leads to more sales and the need for more personnel in customer support and administration.
From a bigger picture perspective we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how automated we want to be. While automation increases and stabilizes productivity, it also locks you in. The cost of automation can be astronomical and its return on investment can only be realized by producing large volumes of single SKUs. It’s a template-based process and that’s not the manufacturer we want to be.
Rather we ‘ve opted for a semi-automated strategy that allows us to be nimble and responsive. There are over two million caster configurations represented in our catalogue and it’s that ability to meet the precise needs of our customers that accounts for our success. As opposed to some suppliers who try to shoehorn customer requirements into the closest available product, at Algood we pride ourselves on producing casters that are an exact match to what our customers need. What’s more is that we can do that in very large quantities with delivery dates that outpace offshore and other fully automated producers. That creates a very unique value proposition for our customers.
It’s not that we’re dragging our feet on automation. It’s quite the contrary. We are well aware of what technology can offer our business and have been innovative in adopting it. But I have seen many suppliers become a victim of their own automation, transforming their business into something very different than they imagined.
Our considered approach to automation will allow us to stay true to our strengths and principles – and allow us to continue to use our expertise as castersmiths to meet the needs of our customers and the industry.