Automation in manufacturing is not a new idea. Automation remained simple until computers became available. The design, deployment, and utilization of cheap, simple automation became a lost art. We have begun to rediscover this art-“low cost automation,” or LCA, at NMMC.
There is no textbook definition of LCA. One must consider LCA versus high-cost automation (HCA) from the perspective of the budget approval process, anticipated life cycle, complexity of control mechanism, and whether it is a general- or specific-purpose item.
There isn't a specific dollar figure as a cutoff. HCA is a capital spending item. LCA shouldn't be. Low cost also refers to the life cycle maintenance costs of the item. HCA items may fill a wide variety of applications over a long life cycle. An LCA device at the end of its utilization cycle would be recycled for use in next-generation LCA applications. The true LCA device has a very simple guidance or control system, or even none at all. Expect the line between HCA and LCA to blur as HCA costs decrease while LCA complexity and capability increases. LCA items are intended to solve a specific problem. HCA items are more generalized in their application.
The most important step is to design and build LCA items in-house. It encourages ingenuity in the use of salvaged components. This will hold down the costs and promote the use of LCA. At Nissan, we initially “spec'ed out” LCA items to a vendor. By establishing our own fabrication shop we were able to make LCA affordable. We still maintain relationships with vendors for complicated LCA projects.
LCA, like HCA can be adaptable, and can grow and develop over time. Lineside space, particularly in our Trim & Chassis plant, has been converted from pallet footprints to shooter racks. A shooter rack uses gravity to feed parts to the line. Shooter racks themselves have evolved from a standard size of 42 inches to 68 inches to 90 inches. Tilt tables, turn tables, and lift tables are all examples of simple LCA devices. The trend has been toward turntables for ease of resupply, tilt or lift tables for ergonomic efficiency, or turn-and-lift tables for both. A more typical example of LCA is the lineside limo. LCA applications are usually employed to gain some advantage in quality, cost, delivery, or safety. Many LCA devices are “fail-safes” or “goof-proofs.”
Some of the advantages gained from LCA projects are intangible. LCA devices can reduce fatigue and cumulative trauma. LCA devices can make the job adjustable and adaptable for a wide variety of body sizes and strength ranges. The design, construction, and application of LCA items constitute the perfect mental gymnasium for engineers and first-line managers. Look for a project that would have a high “payoff,” such as an ergonomic project or a chronic quality problem. Document the project carefully, and then use the participants to help teach others about the process. You'll find that this process will soon become part of the essential development of an engineer in your organization. LCA is not intended to replace HCA. There remains a need for both approaches to problem solving. Using a mixture of the two approaches will help to provide you with greater flexibility.