The following are six imperatives that, if fully understood and followed, will help ensure a positive outcome when undertaking any project for custom-built automated manufacturing equipment:
1. Define the project. This means writing a complete equipment and process specification outlining exactly what the equipment will be required to do, what the expected machine throughput should be, and so on. Also included within the project specification should be a complete definition of the materials to be processed, including drawings that clearly define all dimensional requirements and tolerances.
2. Have realistic expectations. Recognize that automated manufacturing systems are expensive and you get what you pay for. It is not necessarily best to go with the cheapest price. A cheap price often means poor or nonexistent after-delivery support. Recognize also that because this is custom-designed equipment, it will likely not be perfect upon installation—there may be problematic areas that need addressing over time. A well-qualified, reputable equipment supplier should be willing to work through these issues until they are fully resolved.
3. Recognize the need for in-house support staff. Sophisticated manufacturing systems will require dedicated in-house technical support. This includes well-trained equipment operators as well as service and maintenance technicians.
4. Recognize the need for spare parts. Parts wear out, sometimes even during shipment or initial startup of the equipment. It is important to obtain a list of recommended spare parts from the equipment supplier and if at all possible purchase the spare parts and have them available upon arrival of the equipment. This will save valuable time and help avoid potential problems during the equipment startup. It will also be very important long after the equipment is operational and in production.
5. Choose equipment supplier carefully. This means checking references. It means asking others knowledgeable in the industry about the supplier's reputation for providing robust equipment and after-installation support and service. It means checking into the financial stability of the company—it would be disastrous to have them go out of business in the middle of the project, or even afterwards when their service and support is critical. It also means having a good feeling about the people with whom you will be working.
6. Stay involved throughout the project. Do not expect to simply write a contract and then sit back and wait for the equipment to show up. Successful projects require attention. They require constant communication between customer and equipment supplier. Insist upon at least monthly progress reports. Maintain telephone or email communication, asking pertinent questions relating to schedule, technical issues, problems encountered, and corrective actions taken during the equipment development, assembly, and debug activities.
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