Materials Handling Equipment — Past, Present And Future

August 6, 2000
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The ceramics and refractories industries have come a long way in developing both production methods and equipment that reduce the costs of handling materials in the production process.

New ways of handling and processing materials are developed just about every day, and manufacturers that want to remain competitive need to be continually on the lookout for new and more productive material handling equipment for use in their manufacturing processes.

It is not enough to merely be aware of the latest technologies—manufacturers must also be willing to take some amount of risk to use these technologies in their processes. To be truly competitive in a world market, a company must be as automated in the production of their product as possible. Even manufacturers in developing countries recognize this trend and are using an ever-increasing amount of automation. Besides streamlining production processes and increasing overall efficiency and productivity, automated materials handling equipment also provides for a more uniform and higher quality product.

What to Look For in an Automation Company

Automation can provide numerous benefits. But if there is one misconception shared by both management and those on the production floor, it is that automation is going to solve all problems. This is an unrealistic expectation. You should be wary of any equipment automation company, large or small, that promises more than you think they can deliver.

There are many things to consider when looking at an automation company other than just the size of the company and/or the price of the system.

1.) Integrity of the company and their personnel. Do you trust them to do what they say they will do?

2.) Number of years in business. Have they been doing this type of work for a number of years (at least 10 or more)?

3.) What is the level of expertise and experience of the personnel producing the system? Do they really know what they are doing?

4.) Is the system being proposed one that your personnel will be able to maintain or make most adjustments to on an as-needed basis without the assistance of the equipment supplier? (This consideration is very important. You do not want a system that is “overbuilt” for your needs or one that requires additional personnel to handle minor maintenance or adjustments. Even if an equipment supplier assures you they can provide personnel, it doesn’t mean someone will always be available immediately, and downtime can be very costly to your operation.)

How to Properly Assess Automated Equipment

Not only is the automation company important, the automated equipment you choose should be carefully evaluated as well.

Determine why you want to automate a particular area of your production process and what you want the equipment to do for you. Some companies at this point look for an outside source to consult with about their needs. However, be careful who you ask for advice. Consultants without the proper experience can end up providing companies with recommendations that either will not work as proposed or are so cost-prohibitive that nobody would consider implementing them. By this time, so much time and money has been spent for an impractical solution that not enough time or money remains to supply a system that would do the job. The best solution for this phase of an automation project may be to enlist the services of a reputable automation equipment company to work with you and your people to determine the optimum system for your operations.

Do not buy more “machine” than you need. Be careful of buying one with a lot of “bells and whistles” that do not provide any real benefits for you.

To ensure that the equipment is successfully implemented at your facility, make sure you get everybody who will be responsible for the project (engineering, maintenance, production, technical staff, purchasing, project manager, etc.) involved and committed from the beginning. One can’t stress enough how important comprehensive feedback is to a project.

Do not buy a system based on initial purchase price alone. When you are considering a system’s price, you must also take into account the annual maintenance costs. Many systems have been bought on initial purchase price only to find later that their maintenance costs turned out to be considerably more than anticipated. One reason for high maintenance costs on many systems is exclusive parts, black boxes, etc., that must be purchased from the equipment manufacturer. Often you’ll have to pay for the manufacturer’s assistance to do the maintenance as well. While technology is constantly changing, a major piece of automation equipment should last at least five years, and in many cases easily 10-plus years with regular maintenance. However, such equipment is not inexpensive and normally will require more than one to two years to recoup costs. Manufacturers considering a significant amount of investment in automation equipment must be willing to think long-term.

Embracing New Technologies

Technology will continue to have an impact on material handling equipment in the future, just as it has in the past and present. We must be willing to embrace new technologies as they are developed and adapt them for improving both productivity and competitive position.

CASE STUDY: RHI Refractories America

RHI America is one company that has realized the benefits of automated materials handling systems. Just a few years ago, the company was manually spraying its refractories in tundishes in its customers’ steel making plants. “A man would hold a gun connected to a hose and equipment that would provide the material. And he would spray this on the wall like paint,” said Dan Moniot, project manager. This was an unpleasant job, and material was often wasted through uneven application and human error.

Working closely with their customers, RHI America began evaluating the use of automated equipment to apply the refractories. One main criterion with regard to the company they chose to design the equipment was experience. “Experience in refractories was important because of the environment—refractories can be a relatively dirty process with abrasive operating conditions” said Moniot. “Our customers in these areas are in the steel industry, which is a high-tech industry with a lot of good engineering and precise control requirements. Being able to go into this environment and provide a robust structure with long-term durability was important.”

Today, custom-built robots spray RHI America’s refractory material in the tundishes. According to Moniot, automating the process provided almost instantaneous benefits. “By applying a precise, engineered amount of material, we were able to reduce the total refractory material used and increase the consistency of the process. The net result was an improvement in productivity, efficiency and overall safety of the operation,” said Moniot.

As for the cost of the system? “There is a big cost factor involved in switching to automated equipment,” admits Moniot. “But the material that we’re applying also costs a lot, so the material savings alone justifies the investment.”

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