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Starting the Automation Conversation

Author: Jason Zenger
Published On: Apr 26, 2023 12:00:00 PM

MC 356 Blog Image

After obtaining an engineering degree, Chris Luecke dove into manufacturing with Rockwell Automation in Sales Engineering. He’d get to use problem-solving skills and help customers. He felt it was the best of both worlds. So he moved to Houston, TX to launch his career as a sales engineer.

He’s sold everything from large project solutions to parts and pieces. He worked on selling things like control systems for offshore rigs or large motor control center lineups. They were large 6–7 figure projects. 

When Chris moved to California, he started working with equipment manufacturers. Chris needed a better way to meet his customers. He had to find a new way to reach his audience: so he created Manufacturing Happy Hour. It started as a short-form video series that was geared toward teaching the basics of automation. 

When Chris recorded his first video on his iPhone in 2016, manufacturing wasn’t cool. But he knew it had potential. He thought if he could make it look approachable—and talk about tech over a beer on a podcast—he could generate more interest.

Why automation has become a popular topic

Chris believes that the reason we’re hearing more about automation now—even though it’s been around for decades—is that we are seeing a crossover between the tech and manufacturing worlds. 

People are realizing that if manufacturing in North America will continue to be successful, we need to step into the 21st century. And to attract the next generation, you need a high-tech facility. It also helps you be competitive. 

Is part of the allure because automation has become more affordable?

IoT sensors cost around $1.44 in 2004. Now, that same sensor is just $0.44. Robots have been created for welding, machine tending, warehousing, logistics, and more. People are implementing robotics as a service. That’s where we’re seeing more accessibility in automation. 

You can also lease autonomous mobile robots (AMR). So if your machine makes 1,000 widgets in a day, the fee you pay to have the machine is a fraction of the parts made. It incentives both the equipment manufacturer and the robotics company. The robotics company has to keep the bot in proper working order to achieve a better output. In a traditional model, you’d buy the robot and you’d be responsible for the results. You have to look at your P&L and figure out what makes sense for your facility. 

Automation 101: Where do you start?

Chris advises everyone to start with base-level classes and become familiar with the interfaces they’re using. You’re learning the general methodology. Secondly, you need a stable process before you implement automation. And when you get the people and the processes right, then you apply automation and technology.

Automation doesn’t take people’s jobs away

If you want to promote from within, getting someone into an automation role—where they use their mind and focus on processes—keeps people around and excited about their jobs. It gives them ownership of their role. And right now companies need people. They’re struggling to find programmers and the skills they need. Until that problem is solved, there’s no reason to worry about automation taking jobs. 

IT/OT (information technology/operational technology) convergence

“Digital transformation” is the buzzword that people hear the most right now (Chris started his podcast to squash buzzwords like this one). 

Digital transformation is about getting your company from point A to point B, using automation and digital tools to accomplish your goals. Maybe you have numerous facilities where you need to integrate ERP systems into one scalable software to improve quality. Bringing together your business systems, ERP, data, and information on a factory floor is how you’re accomplishing digital transformation. 

Ultimately, you have to be able to meet your customer’s demand. When you’re bringing in information from IT systems like raw materials, orders, etc. you can tie that in with your OT network, so the demand influences what you’re doing on the plant floor. 

IT and OT live in different worlds—but they need to be in the same room. It’s about getting two different groups with different priorities to get change done and move your company forward. 

Check out episode #356 of MakingChips to hear the full automation conversation with Chris Luecke.

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