Operation automation

ProVantage's mission: boost productivity

August 15, 2012   by Matt Powell, Assistant Editor

Automation is touted as an industry game-changer, yet Canada’s manufacturers have been slow to update their processes with the technology.

They’ve been getting an earful from various industry experts who declare automation would boost Canada’s lagging productivity, but buy-in has been slow thanks in part to a high-value loonie, hard-to-find investment money and sluggish export growth; and the European economic crisis hasn’t helped either.

The paradox is automation requires capital investment, and Canadian manufacturers are spending only 71% of what their US counterparts do on machinery and equipment, says a recent TD Economics report. It suggests this is contributing to the productivity gap, but manufacturers are starting to see the light.

Canadian companies have boosted investments by 6.6% this year, according to TD Economics economist Dina Cover, which has also boosted output by between 3% to 4%. Manufacturing sales are also up by 5.6% this year, while new orders have grown by 6%, according to Statistics Canada.

In her report, Cover concedes manufacturers are sitting on more cash these days because they’re not hiring as quickly, which suggests there is money to spend. Indeed, manufacturing has only recovered 30% of the 500,000 jobs it lost during the recession, which is also contributing to Canada’s productivity gap.

Rob Hattin has seen enough. He’s sick of manufacturing’s dark days and the sector’s continued, yet slow recovery. And he sees a business opportunity.

Call to action
“All the demographics suggest prosperity is dependent on replacing our aging workers with capital investments, and if I’m going to preach about automation, I have to do something about it,” says Hattin, one of three principals of the new ProVantage Automation and vice-chair of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters (CME).

He sold his stake in Hamilton’s Edson Packaging, Canada’s largest advanced packaging equipment manufacturer, 18 months ago and started looking for new ventures.

“I’ve been in the manufacturing and industrial world since college. It’s what I know. It’s the world I’ve lived in for 30 years,” he says.

Hattin, along with partners Peter Graham and Alex Shalamov, launched the Ancaster, Ont.-based automation and mechatronics services provider earlier this year. The company currently employs a team of seven, but Hattin says that number will jump to 20 by the end of the year as operations and revenues ramp up.

Between them, Hattin says the team has designed and built more than 600 systems over a combined 50 years of industry experience, which he sees as the company’s competitive advantage.

“We know how machines run, we know the touch and feel and mechatronic elements of a system,” he says. “Most automation companies and programmers haven’t had the benefit of running a line and understanding how it operates.”

Specifically, ProVantage specializes in sophisticated machine and process control operations for advanced manufacturing, packaging and material handling companies. Those “sophisticated” things Hattin refers to include services related to lean manufacturing, line efficiency and safety, and data analytics. The company also offers design and programming services to local panel builders that want engineered, documented panels, but may not have the resources to engineer them. And the partners also help optimize entire supply chains, from the IT level to production.

Hattin says that focus and systems designed by Graham and Shalamov have helped ProVantage reduce changeover times by 80%.

“If you can change a line over in 10% of the time it used to take, that’s a huge benefit for companies looking to get more out of their production lines,” says Hattin. “Companies want to optimize their lean techniques and the benefit of that is pushing all the information up to IT. Production needs to marry all aspects of the supply chain to improve efficiencies.”

More efficient machines last longer, which increases user output by 30% to 40%, he adds.

“In most cases, existing machines are good mechanically, they just need to be controlled better. Doing so, we can help operators control lines, which increases supply chain flexibility.”

Number cruncher
There’s another part of the automation equation Hattin’s trying to solve: measuring the efforts and benefits of boosting automated activities on the shop floor. To do so, the partners have designed a quantitative analytics and simulation service to provide manufactures with real-time production data on a sku by sku basis to demonstrate that a line has been fully optimized.

“We’re taking these huge amounts of data and analyzing it to death,” he says. “This way we can optimize inventory for a feeding line and give the customer numbers that can be expected for output based on simulation.”

The activity is almost impossible without connecting legacy machines so they communicate with each other, another way the partners are bringing the supply chain together from the top down, boosting automation without spending a lot of money on new equipment.

“Most lines are made up of different machines from different vendors, so you have this jambalaya of machine control,” he says. “We’re trying to demonstrate that old legacy equipment from different companies can communicate through a system that’s optimized to enhance productivity.”

That’s where ProVantage’s automation lab comes into the mix.

This is the playground where they try out new things and tinker with solutions. It’s designed to solve connectivity issues between various OEM components and devices, and keeps the company and its clients current on new equipment. This helps when it comes to developing complex programs for a client’s machines, and the entire supply chain. It also gives Hattin and his team the chance to demonstrate customized systems before installation.

The bigger picture
“We’re trying to show clients they can come in and have a look at the lab and let us show them how we can enhance their operations, while putting the onus on the equipment supplier to make sure their stuff works the way it should,” says Hattin.

They didn’t have to wait long for customers. Before the company was even 48 hours old, it closed it’s first deal – one that Hattin says has exceeded 2012 revenue expectations.

The identity of that customer is confidential, but the scope of the project involved boosting production times using automation for multiple high-speed production lines to meet a final capacity of 120 parts per minute. The “part”, a low-cost, environmentally sensitive packaging product, had a number of variants, adding to the complexity of the project.

ProVantage was tasked with optimizing the production lines in six weeks, providing parts inspection and rejection, robotic stacking and re-orientation applications to ensure there was a low grouping tolerance so parts made it to different processes more efficiently.

To do so, ProVantage developed a customized pass/fail vision program, “fuzzy” electronic line shafting, a visual line-tracking system and a lean-based project management system.

The outcome: a system that was provided in seven weeks, now operating at 110% efficiency.

To Hattin, ProVantage is another cog in the manufacturing wheel, one that he hopes has an effect on the efforts needed to help manufacturers excel.

“I met with [Bank of Canada governor] Mark Carney last year and expressed to him very candidly the necessity for Canadian businesses to automate if they want to be relevant, to play a part in global markets,” says Hattin. “They have to get off that comfortable pew. We’ve got a low tax regime and it’s my belief the government has created market conditions we need to compete.”

Now it’s industry’s turn to step up.

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This article appears in the July/August 2012 edition of PLANT

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