3 Ways to Avoid Going Broke with Custom Automation Equipment

In the course of R&D, many companies will need to develop what ends up as manually intensive procedures in order to create a new process.  This could occur in any industry: life sciences, agriculture, manufacturing, lab testing, data recovery, etc.  Given the constant shortage of resources in business, it is often difficult to take a step back and initiate a change that may be obvious to an outsider - such as replacing that test-tube-filling PhD with a piece of equipment.  Once the process is proven, it is time to move on and put your high value staff to more productive use elsewhere.

It is understandable that you want to avoid the web-shopping marathon necessary to find an off-the-shelf piece of equipment that meets your needs, if it even exists.  Likewise, designing your own equipment can be even more daunting if your expertise is in the lab.  Believe it or not, custom equipment can be an economical solution.  Keep these ideas in mind to help pull it off:

Targeted solution

One of the tricks to keeping custom equipment economical is to solidify the requirements.  No one works well with a moving target.  What part of the process is known, and which part still needs a dial on it to allow tweaking?  It is usually a little of both.  When establishing the 'solution‘architecture’ this is critical.  Components will be selected with that filter in mind and subsequent decisions made accordingly.  Cost will be minimized if you know what you want and stick to it.

Many who have tried to outsource custom equipment development have been very frustrated with cost overruns.  This is usually because the engineering company didn’t know what they were doing or the customer kept changing requirements, or both.  This is frustrating for both parties.  Nail the requirements down as early as possible to keep things proceeding smoothly and avoid unpleasant surprises ($).

Go for 80/20

Things change; it is a fact of life especially true during development.  So unless you know exactly what your device needs to do, don’t worry about bells and whistles and optimization.  Instead, allow your custom equipment, and the development of it, to follow the 80/20 principle whereby it achieves 80% of what it needs to do for 20% of the cost.  For example, anything can be fully automated.  Add tons of sensors and fancy software, hit go and check in at the end of the day, magical, and expensive.  Instead, skip some unnecessary features and be OK with walking over to hit a button once in a while - you’ll come out ahead.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

The best way to keep cost down is being aware that complete custom is almost never required; it is usually possible to purchase at least 80% of the solution and then modify as needed.  A piece of hardware that serves as the ‘feature base’ for a custom design or using modular components saves a lot of time and money. 

For example, if you need linear motion, the last thing you should ever do is start shopping for the pieces (stepper motor, controller board, sensors, mechanical guide components, power supply, computer interface etc.)  So many designs require linear motion that great companies, like Misumi, now offer a special product line to make adding linear motion plug-and-play.  All of the engineering has already been done by a pro - load tables and speeds are all published for each series.  You can even get free help with sizing - just give them a call.

Happy endings

So you did it.  You have a cool new tool that meets your needs!  Now you could ask, “does this meet the needs for anyone else?”  Perhaps the new device could be manufactured on a small scale and sold to others, or licensed to another hardware company for production.  Not willing to share the design?  That’s OK too; maybe you could build a few more and offer the process that your new device makes possible as a service to others.  Always look for by-products - you never know where your next growth area could be!

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