In any automation deployment, “The Three Ps” – Product, Process and People – are of vital importance, writes Barry Hendy of Andrew Donald Design Engineering.

I have been involved in the robotics and industrial automation industry (on and off) for more than 30 years. Over the years I have seen a lot of projects make the transition from wild concept to productive and effective reality, and I have learnt a lot about what is behind both the successful and the difficult projects. That experience boils down to what I call “The Three Ps”: Product, Process and People. You must manage all three for success.

It is easy to do simple automation that ‘should’ work most of the time, but life rarely travels down the middle of the road. Great and successful automation projects must take full account and manage all the things that can go wrong so they can keep going when the road gets a little rough at the edges. Achieving 99% is not good enough – that might mean a stop every five minutes. To get rock-solid automation you must take account of all the exceptions – all the things that might go wrong – because if it can go wrong … it will.


The first step when thinking about automation is to fully know your product. Intimately. Totally. All its nuances, variations and faults. While some customer operations are single-product, most manufacturers have a range of products they make in different batch sizes and rates. Knowing and documenting the full scope of products is the most important section in the requirements document. It is probably the fastest and the biggest that will determine the design solution, but you should also weigh that up with the percentage of your production that is spent on each product. If there is one very big or heavy product but you only run it occasionally, is it worth including in the must-have list?

Just as important as the range, and for single-product operations, you must also have a deep understanding of the variation in each product. It might be seasonal, it might be temperature, it might just be tolerancing – but every product will have its variances. One project Andrew Donald Design Engineering (ADDE) did was packing croissants, but if they were left in the proofing room too long, they fluffed even more and didn’t even fit in the box! Variation in the amount a bread loaf rises is perhaps obvious, but the variance in a bottle, carton or casting might be more subtle. Cardboard packaging dimensions typically vary by about 3%, so how well a product fits in the package can change from batch of packing supplies to batch.

We had one project where the parts were injection-moulded and supplied to us pressed together. It is a high-rate system (about 30 parts per million) so they were both made in a multi-cavity die. While we were promised all the parts were the same, there was one combination of cavities where the parts didn’t fit together quite as snugly, so occasionally – certainly often enough to be debilitating – the parts would come apart in the descrambler.

And then there is all the ways that the product can fail – or be a bit less than perfect. What are the checks that your operators might make, possibly even subconsciously, on every part? Do they know the sound or feel of how a part clips on and realise when they occasionally aren’t right? All these things can be managed, but only if they are known. If you miss them or don’t understand them, you run the risk of shipping bad product or having to add additional quality checks to a finished machine.

Even documenting or quantifying what is good and bad can be a challenge. I have watched on more than one occasion while a group of the client’s team debate if a sample part is acceptable or a reject.

You must know your product – completely.


Just as you must know your product intimately, you also have to know your processes just as well. What are all the steps you need to execute your production? And I mean ALL the steps. Yes, most will be obvious, but it is the subtle or occasional tasks that are probably just as important as quality and reliability.

What can go wrong? What doesn’t always work perfectly? What are the checks you need, the alternatives and the subtleties of all the products? Especially dig deeper for the subtleties because they are the things you might not notice, or perhaps don’t always need to be done, but can have a big impact on the finished product.

I frequently see operators on a line, perhaps packing product, flip some or all the products over and quickly glance at something. When you ask the manager what they are doing they often have to ask the operator and learn that the printer might not be super-reliable, or there might sometimes be a flash from the injection moulding.

Some level of Failure Mode and Effect Analysis (FMEA) is probably a good idea, but at least have a discussion with your operators on all the small things they see and do to make sure you fully understand what is needed to ensure everything goes well. Part of this will be consideration of if it is acceptable to just control the process, or if you need to check the result – somehow. Also consider that often automating a process will make it inherently more reliable since you have removed the variations natural in human tasks and brought consistency to the process, and that alone may address an issue.

As your automation system is being designed, a deep understanding of your processes will be critical to ensure all the checks, fault capture and failure management is in place. Make sure you fully understand all your processes, the failure modes and the checks required.


Regardless of what equipment you purchase, what machines you have bought or what robot you install, if your production team is not committed and on-side to make the project work – it won’t work. That is not a statement about your team – it is just human nature. When the thing stops, is the operator going to say: “I told you it wouldn’t work”? Or will the question be asked: “How can I stop that from happening?”

Get your team involved right from the start. Get the people who are going to make the system run, buy-in from the beginning, especially since they are probably the ones with the most insight into the subtleties of the product and the process. Trust me, there is nothing worse than having an operator explain to you, while you are training them on-site how to run a machine, that there is a problem because the boss doesn’t realise all the issues they have with this part or that process!

I have seen perfectly good and capable automation projects struggle because the shop-floor team does not want it to work. They might see it as a threat, or just feel sidelined. Whatever their motivation, I can guarantee that if the production crew don’t want a piece of equipment to work, it will never work, no matter how good a job your system integrator has done.

We recently installed a major upgrade to a palletising system that runs 24/7. Almost every night, the system was getting locked up at about 3am and the crew could not recover the system so an emergency crew had to be called in to hand-palletise. We did more training of all the crews, updated alarms and messages, but the problem continued. One day we told the crew we were getting the CCTV camera moved so we could understand what was happening and we could fix it – but funnily enough, the problem never happened again.

Conversely, I have seen some ‘less than perfect’ systems run very effectively because one of the crew has taken the machine under their wing and wanted to make it work. Any automation system is going to stop at times – it is how the crew react that will determine if that will be a big problem, or if they will learn the idiosyncrasies of the whole system and work to manage and minimise them, and probably eliminate them.

Engage your team early and get them on-side. Find a champion who will ‘own’ the system and be proud when it works.

The most challenging automation projects that ring alarm bells when the first enquiry is made are for products that are still in development. There will be prototypes and perhaps pre-production equipment, but there will not be the deep experience with both the product and the process. It is not that these projects cannot be automated from the get-go, but it is certainly challenging. In our 24 years at ADDE, we have only had two clearly ‘unsuccessful’ projects, and both were cases where the automation was being developed before the product was proven and production experience established. By the time the automation line was developed, the product and assembly process had evolved and changed and the challenges started.

The 3 Ps

The most successful automation projects are those where the whole team is involved and committed to success, and where everyone’s input is used to ensure a thorough definition of what is needed. When you have covered:

  • Products – all the variations, all the rates, and all the faults.
  • Processes – all the operations, all the failure modes, and all the checks.
  • People – the team who will be responsible for making it work, and will take that responsibility early in the project.

… then you will have the Three Ps covered and will be set for a successful automation deployment.

Barry Hendy is the Managing Director of Andrew Donald Design Engineering (ADDE).