Boost Speed and Efficiency with Custom Automation

by Chris Singleton and Justin Blair / December 20, 2023

Automation in manufacturing systems leads to optimized operations, improved repeatability, and reduced errors. The key is to simplify flexible automated solutions to address specific challenges. As processes evolve, modular solutions ensure that the benefits of automation grow over time.

Custom Automation Streamlines Production

In manufacturing process automation, customers are often open to exploring the benefits of customized automated solutions, recognizing their potential to optimize production. Some benefits include increased efficiency, speed, quality, and reduced cost.

Although custom automation has been proven to streamline industrial production processes and enhance a company’s manufacturing capabilities, identifying the most impactful areas for process automation is a complex challenge. As such, it demands a collaborative approach with experienced partners who intimately understand the nuances involved.

When and How to Add Automation

To determine which tasks to automate, one must evaluate their routine nature and complexity. Key considerations include whether a task benefits from semi or full automation and if the desired quality is achievable. There are five areas to keep in mind that are critical to your overall success:

  • Completing a Product Design for Automated Assembly (DFAA) to ensure the product can be assembled using the least complex (and highest quality) automated process
  • Designing with clear functionality and purpose in mind during the early phases of automation development
  • Conducting a comprehensive assessment of the manufacturing process to pinpoint areas for custom automation
  • Avoiding the pitfalls of over-designing, which can be both expensive and redundant
  • Establishing a realistic budget for automation, ensuring the acquisition or development of appropriate components

After both hardware and software have been integrated and the performance validated, operators must be taught how to safely navigate the new automated  workstation. Operators must also know how to appropriately interact with a new graphical user interface (GUI) while monitoring system performance. Developing and utilizing a user-friendly, operator-driven Human Machine Interface (HMI) is necessary for seamless system operation and minimal equipment downtime. 

Benchmark’s Core Custom Automated Solutions

For optimal results, new (and re-designed) products should be designed for automated assembly. Simplifying manufacturing processes and minimizing product complexity through standardization and modularization is key. The addition of 3D printing capability allows for low cost and fast development of customized tooling, such as end effectors and fixtures. New product layout, materials, components, and even component placement within a printed circuit board (PCB) should be within the capabilities of the automated manufacturing equipment.

Custom automation focuses on specific materials, dimensions, tolerances, and other parameters as part of an assembly or other manufacturing process. As a result of experience and expertise in providing custom automation solutions, Benchmark’s engineers have developed core custom automated systems (Fig.1 below) that can be modified to meet a customer’s automation requirements. These core systems perform many automated assembly processes, including PCBAs, electronic modules, mechanical assemblies, and various inspection, polishing, deburring, packaging, and other diverse processes.

While there are viable alternatives to customized automation (such as off-the-shelf automation, manual processes, and outsourcing), each has its limitations. On the contrary, customized automated solutions (despite an initial higher investment and increased complexity) offer tailored, scalable, and efficient automation that can provide considerable long-term benefits and competitive advantages. Many customized solutions can also be reconfigured to meet the demand of the next-generation customer product.


Figure Captions

  1. Core automated systems such as this can be modified to meet a customer’s manufacturing requirements.
  2. Automated manufacturing cells are designed and built to provide the automated assembly, manufacturing, and test functions for a particular product.

Proven Strategies for Developing Custom Automation Solutions

In contrast to general-purpose automated manufacturing systems, automated manufacturing cells can be designed, developed, and tailored to a particular product—such as an amplifier, antenna, or camera module—which must be produced cost-effectively in high volumes and with high quality. (Fig. 2 above) Benchmark’s engineers have created a proven strategy for the development of these product-based manufacturing cells. Benchmark first analyzes the product, materials, packaging, test requirements, and other factors that are essential for fast, high-quality production to determine the cell’s functional and performance requirements.

Once the hardware requirements have been determined, a design and floor plan or layout for the automated assembly equipment must be created and the hardware acquired. Following the assembly and integration of the components and hardware, the software must be developed. The operation of the cell must also be optimized according to system manufacturing requirements. At this point, quality control (QC) measures can be implemented within the system to ensure consistency and quality of the manufactured product with this automated cell.

Developing automated manufacturing workcells requires careful planning and implementation. Here are five critical steps to consider:

  1. Define the Objectives
    Clearly outline the goals and objectives of the automated workcell. These may include (but are not limited to) improving efficiency, reducing costs, enhancing production speed, or ensuring consistent high quality. Different goals dictate different types of automation, so identifying the desired outcome upfront is critical.

  2. Conduct a Feasibility Study
    Assess the feasibility and potential benefits of automation in the manufacturing process by considering factors such as initial investment, return on investment (ROI), regulatory requirements, and potential challenges or limitations. A DFAA product design review is required to identify opportunities and eliminate material presentation, handling, and assembly challenges.

  3. Collaborate with Automation Integrators and Customers
    Engage with automation specialists, product engineers, and, when applicable, external partners who have business sector experience in the design and development of automated workcells. Their expertise can assist in identifying the best practices and technologies suitable for specific manufacturing needs. Include the product owner throughout the process and milestone signoffs of the Phase Gate process.

  4. Prioritize Safety
    Ensure that safety features and protocols are integrated into the workcell design. This may include shielding, light bars, tactile sensors, and emergency stops

  5. Optimize Workflow
    Analyze the current workflow and identify areas of improvement. Collaborate with the product owner and their suppliers to make improvements that will enhance the automated process.

Test and Validation

 The cell's functionality must be thoroughly tested and validated to the specifications before production release. The cell must undergo a trial production-run period during which modifications may be made in functions that impact the final performance and quality of the manufactured product. Training and documentation are developed for operators and technicians, including routine preventive maintenance and inspection instructions. Because automated manufacturing cells are designed using a modular approach, their performance levels can be continuously improved in small sections and the functionality expanded.

The modular design approach helps to reduce development time while producing fast and reliable custom automated manufacturing solutions for our customers. Each custom or standard cell is capable of traceability solutions that allow customers and Benchmark to track real-time quality metrics, performance metrics, and runtime data throughout the day. One piece of equipment can send defect analysis results in real-time to connected workstations, minimizing downtime and reducing scrap costs. Safety is the number one priority for team members interacting with the equipment.

Transform Your Manufacturing Processes with Benchmark

At Benchmark, our experience working with robotic technologies, applying automation to existing systems, and optimizing machine-tool systems with automated optical inspection (AOI) camera systems has helped our customers gain a competitive edge by balancing the contributions of labor and automation in their production processes. Our engineers craft adaptable systems tailored to your unique requirements. We emphasize a proven development strategy and rigorous testing, ensuring the highest quality and efficiency. Building a strategic partnership with Benchmark will help you leverage artificial intelligence (AI) and computer numerical control (CNC) automation, balance human labor and automation, and give you a competitive advantage.

Partner with Benchmark for transformative automation solutions.

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about the author

Chris Singleton and Justin Blair

As an accomplished Operations Vice President with over 25 years of strategic leadership experience within fortune 500 manufacturing and technology-based companies, Chris brings Benchmark valuable expertise in consumer, industrial, infrastructure, aerospace, and medical manufacturing environments. Justin is the Manager of Automation for Benchmark in the Operations division and brings Benchmark a strong background specialized in automation, lean manufacturing, and robotics system development. He continues to challenge the boundaries of automation solutions in the global organization and uses technology advancements to drive specialized systems for customer needs while also supporting our employees.

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