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How to Identify Your First Automation Project: An Interview with Kurt Gunnell

February 20, 2024 | Sophie Bisson

As more small and medium manufacturers adopt automation technology, Vention is dedicated to ensuring they have the knowledge, support, and resources to be successful. To this end, we recently launched a 3-part webinar series, ‘Scaling Up with Automation: A Guide for Small to Medium Manufacturers.’

Throughout this series, executives from Vention and industry experts explore the compelling need for automation in today’s manufacturing landscape, guide you in identifying your first automation project, and help you build the Advanced Manufacturing Team necessary for success.

This article provides an overview of the second episode, ‘How to Identify Your First Automation Project,’ hosted by Mathieu Desmarais, VP of Application Engineering at Vention, and Kurt Gunnell, Manufacturing & Automation Engineer at Bourns, Inc.


About Bourns, Inc.

Bourns, Inc. is an American electronics company that develops, manufactures, and supplies electronic components for various industries, including automotive, industrial, instrumentation, medical electronics, consumer equipment, and portable electronics. As an enterprise-sized company with over 10,000 employees, Kurt works in a facility with 50 other employees, making powder into ceramic materials by pressing or rolling it into a flexible material and stamping or scoring it.


Production challenges and pain points

When Kurt joined Bourns, Inc. two years ago, he immediately identified areas of the production process that could benefit from automation. In particular, there were areas that required semi-precision to perform special stacking, packaging, inspecting, and majoring or required a certain speed or manual handling to complete.

While Kurt is the only automation engineer at the office, he is not intricately involved in the day-to-day manufacturing operations. As a result, he doesn’t know the pain points as well as the others. He relies heavily on the greater team to prioritize which automation projects should be completed first. From there, Kurt compiles a management plan, including the justification for the project, projected outcomes and improvements, and the total capital expenditure required.

Keep it simple, and start out simple, then incrementally expand your proficiencies and try new things. Otherwise, you’ll bury yourself.” - Kurt Gunnell, Manufacturing & Automation Engineer at Bourns, Inc.

Proceeding with an automation project

Kurt has learned through trial and error that you need two things for any successful automation project:

  1. Receive stakeholder buy-in. Ensure that your colleagues, management team, and external partners are all invested in the project and its success.
  2. Understand all the critical components. Look at each critical component, from hardware to electrical and everything in between, to fully understand the project. Bring in trusted external support for aspects that you don’t have internal expertise in.

There is always learning to be done. You just have to make sure you understand all the components of an automation project…If you have good control over the process, then that fits nicely into an automation project.” - Kurt Gunnell, Manufacturing & Automation Engineer at Bourns, Inc.

Improving throughput with automation

In one example, Kurt discusses an automation project he and the team successfully completed. The idea was first brought up by a mechanical design engineer. They were using an older process, but there was no programmer or integrator in-house to adjust the programming. As a result, everything had to be modified blindly.

When Kurt was hired, he retrofitted the machine with a new PLC so programming could easily be completed in-house. Now, the machine is vertically stacking twice the amount of material in the kiln, doubling its capacity, improving efficiency, and increasing throughput. This project was made possible because of the in-house expertise Kurt contributed to it.

Every time you add a bell or whistle, it’s going to add extra challenges to the programming, integration, monitoring, and maintenance of that additional tool… perform two or three simple function steps, and once you’ve proven you can perform that operation than widen it out.” - Kurt Gunnell, Manufacturing & Automation Engineer at Bourns, Inc.

Finding the right automation partner

Kurt has decades of experience in automation but humbly admits that he doesn’t know everything and often relies on others, either in-house or externally, for help and expertise. In Vention, Kurt found a reliable automation partner to assist in the design and deployment of automated equipment. For one project, Kurt was looking to develop an inspection cell and leaned on Vention’s team of engineers to design the cell to Kurt’s specifications. The modular components and rigid extrusions allowed for seamless adjustments, and the 3D digital twin created a simple assembly process.

I never would have come anywhere close to the solution that you provided for us. Even in-house we would’ve struggled with the structure, and it would’ve created additional challenges and issues we wouldn’t have seen… You’re a part of our team with that as well.” - Kurt Gunnell, Manufacturing & Automation Engineer at Bourns, Inc.

Interested in learning more? Watch the full webinar for even more insights from Mathieu Desmarais and Kurt Gunnell:


How to Identify Your First Automation Project is the second webinar in a three-part series. Tune in on-demand to the other episodes: Episode 1: Market Pressures and the Need for Automation with Joe Wykes and Juan Martinez & Episode 3: Building Your Advanced Manufacturing Team with Etienne Lacroix and Brandon Bond.

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