I recently got the question asking why I haven’t moved production of my pens into automation; It’s been going on four years, and many of the processes that are undertaken in my shop are still done manually. Why?
Well, that’s a terrific question, but one that’s a little hard to answer because it’s unclear what is meant by “automation”.
Strictly speaking, automation is used to describe any process that doesn’t require manual operation. The truth is while automation–in some form–is common, it is actually quite difficult to truly, fully automate the manufacture of anything. Full automation would mean that every step of the process is automated–the processing of raw material, loading it into a machine, performance of all operations, reloading as necessary for successive operations, work holding for finishing, assembly, not to mention the ancillary tasks of cleaning off the accumulated shavings from machining operations so that the machine can keep going, sweeping the floor, unloading the vast amount of waste you generate, etc. Full automation is not a realistic goal for the scale of what I need to do here. What I’ve focused on in the past few years was not automation but optimization, because at the end of the day, if you’re not doing full automation, you still need that most indispensible of machines–the worker. And as one factory manager once put it, “we tried to hire workers, but we got people instead.”