Full automation vs. manual systems: which is better?

September 7, 2017

Andy is on a panel of experts, answering questions from the community.

Question:

In another post on this forum, there was a response that said all automated systems malfunction eventually, causing thousands of lost revenue while the problem gets fixed. If that’s the case, what is the advantage of a fully automated system over a manual system?

Answer:

First – all mechanical systems will eventually break down. Automation is an additional level of equipment complexity and thus does increase the possibility for breakdown because there are more components, but to say that just because automation has been utilized that breakdown is inevitable is an overstatement. The corollary would be that manual systems will never break down which we know is not true. Why would manufacturer of manually operated systems offer parts, warranties and service programs if they never break down?

So if automation increases the possibility for break downs, why do it? The simple answer – automation never sleeps. Automated systems remove the variable of the human element, allowing more stability, consistency, safety and reliability. Automated systems don’t take breaks, don’t fall asleep, don’t find better jobs, and don’t hold knowledge hostage. Automation will never bother your HR department and will never have a bad attitude.

Here at Apeks, we get the question “I’m and extraction artist, and I need flexibility.  Can your automated system give me the flexibility I need to create my artisan product?”. It’s important to point out that while not all extraction systems are alike, so too is automation.  Automation can be done well, and it can also be done poorly. This begs the next question: “How do I know if automation is good?” Properly automated systems will not restrict the operating capacity of the equipment. It will allow the operator the same freedoms and flexibility of a manually operated system while not exceeding the safety margins of the equipment. This allows an operator who is less experienced with the equipment the ability to safely experiment without fear of damage. Our response to the Extraction Artist – not only do you have the flexibility, you also have safety and consistency.  In addition – once testing is over and it is time for production, automation allows consistent production without the operator having to monitor the equipment – freeing up time to create other products!

Breakdowns are inevitable, but fortunately the cannabis industry is not the first to rely on automated equipment.  We can learn from our friends in automotive, aerospace, ship building, oil and gas, pharmaceutical and other manufacturing industries.  Just like the rest of the manufacturing world, we recommend all of our customers implement a strong preventative maintenance program to mitigate unscheduled down time, and also recommend carrying a supply of consumable components.   These are proven techniques that are utilized frequently throughout all manufacturing industries.

One final thought on Apeks Supercritical automation – if the equipment does break down unexpectedly we have the ability to look back at the operating parameters to troubleshoot what happened.  Much like patients at a doctor’s office, operators of manual and automated systems report symptoms, and often will incorrectly self-diagnose problems.  The ability to download operating history, alarm conditions and run data gives us the advantage of quickly diagnosing the real issue and getting the equipment back up and running.  Without the data, we would have to rely on the operator to recall exactly what happened…relying on humans is never a good idea!