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 Automation, Control & Plant Intelligence - Articles, Analysis, Reviews, Interviews & Views
  May, 2014
Eliminating the Automation Bias
by John Hayes
 

As a sales manager for several automated guided vehicle (AGV) companies there was an intention: sell AGVs. Performance was measured by number of vehicles sold per month, per quarter, per year, year over year, and at a measured profitability. It took courage to say to the customer and to C-level AGV management, "Sorry this isn't the right product for you."

Representing an AGV vendor is often a conflict of interest. The end-user customer's interests may not align with the AGV vendor's interests. The only way to avoid these conflicts is a vendor agnostic approach to automation.

Rather than entering an automation conversation with a pre-designated solution, there are steps to clearly recognize the best-practices, the leanest solutions, the most rapid return-on-investment (ROI), while avoiding the landmines and confusing games played by many AGV salespeople.

Knowing the "tricks of the trade" has inspired the creation of No Risk Automation. Asking the right questions from the beginning drives a much more precise selection of appropriate automation solutions. This knowledge and experience-based approach cannot be duplicated or Google searched. It requires having walked in the shoes of the AGV vendors and the AGV automation purchaser.

Four Steps to No Risk Automation

Step 1: Application Study and Analysis

A comprehensive vendor agnostic study of potential automation applications is essential. Some automation projects are simply a waste of time, a poor project concept, or ignore applications that may have immediate positive return on investment. Again an AGV vendor sales pitch essentially suggests to a prospective customer that a prescribed AGV solution is best. Perhaps it is; often it is not. Stopping after this first step may be sufficient to avoid the substantial financial hemorrhaging from poor automation technology solutions.

Step 2: Specification Development

Automation vendors write proposals based upon what a prospective customer request. If the automation needs are not properly vetted, and a rigorous specification document developed, these same vendors will provide the proposal they deem best (often targeted to their sales goals and profit margins.

This step is only needed when a decision has been made to pursue an automation project. The risk is eliminated by clearly directing vendors to propose the specified solutions. All the unneeded bells and whistles, add-on services, and superfluous functionalities are eliminated. Stopping after this second step may also prove efficacious when there are sufficient internal resources to move forward with the internal automation project.

Step 3: Vendor Selection

Without the need or incentive for advocating a particular automation AGV supplier, a comprehensive and objective viable pool of vendors can establish a fair, unbiased selection process. Instead of "making a solution fit the automation demand" the opposite paradigm is developed. Vendor selection is expressly guided by the metrics, deliverables, cost-constraints, and objectives of the customer.

The goal is to both exclude vendors lacking the specific project automation expertise and include the best vendors with proven knowledge and experience delivering targeted automation solutions.

The step is only possible with decades of knowledge about the players in AGV automation. Knowing the successes and failures, the strengths and limitations of each vendor is a shortcut to avoiding an expensive and ineffective automation decision. Vendor selection may be another opportunity to internally handle the implementation, staff permitting.

Step 4: Project Manage

Once the automation system is purchased, the next risk danger is a poorly implemented solution. If there are sufficiently experienced automation experts employed by the customer, this project management need not be sourced to a third party firm.

Often there is a champion of automation, perhaps an operations director, or material handling vice-president. The daily operational demands and copious responsibilities on that experienced management team member can detract from a correct, efficient, and cost-contained implementation.

Being vendor agnostic at the first phase is critical to eliminating risk, by the time implementation occurs, internal stakeholders have their own interests within the organization. The automation decision team may have consisted of three or four people. By the time project management rolls around an expanded group of individuals at each customer location must be addressed. Each has a different agenda and in most companies the margins are increased by change orders. Effective project management, especially from an outside source, can ensure this does not happen.

There is no single way to completely eliminate all the risks in automation selection. There are steps and processes that mitigate the likelihood of costly mistakes. These steps are the same as putting on a seatbelt and having airbags. They go a long way in protecting the automation customer.


John Hayes is a solutions-finder for the material handling industry. For more than twenty years he has been evaluating, designing, developing, and implementing innovative software and hardware solutions for businesses in high-volume retail, wholesale (B2B), and direct-to-consumer (B2C) distribution systems. Hayes is ... See More Details.

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