Automation was once the future of manufacturing. Now that future is here.
While survey after survey shows that manufacturers recognize the value of automation, the industry overall has been slow to embrace it as part of a larger digital transformation strategy.
There are valid reasons for this, starting with the capital, research and planning required to rethink and retool operations. Yet companies that don’t invest in automation are missing out on significant value and growth opportunities. Moreover, as Industry 4.0 technologies become more prevalent and affordable, the window to establish a competitive advantage using automation is narrowing.
In other words, companies that are slow to create and execute a manufacturing automation strategy aren’t behind the pack — but they could be, soon.
That’s because the value of automation in manufacturing isn’t about using new tools to do the same thing as people, only faster. Real value is gained by using automation’s inherent efficiencies to be more innovative, to develop new business models and to create a better experience for customers and employees. Manufacturers that focus on generating more value will find they can earn greater commitment from their customers while boosting employee satisfaction.
How to create more trust through manufacturing automation
As a whole, our culture is becoming more impatient. We have been conditioned to want information, products and results on a schedule that suits our needs, which is usually right now. Manufacturing customers want faster answers, service and turnaround because their own consumers are demanding the same. Customers also want greater certainty. Their reputation rests at least in part on the on-time delivery of high-quality parts or products.
Automation is one way that manufacturers can deliver an experience that meets their customers’ expectations:
- Automated production and material transfer can reduce cycle time, increase throughput and enable manufacturers to support higher production volumes.
- Industrial robots can unlock greater efficiency and productivity in areas as diverse as material handling, production and warehousing.
- Industrial internet of things (IIoT) capabilities, such as condition sensors, can be used to predict and prevent equipment failures and other situations that derail production schedules.
- Real-time machine monitoring capabilities can allow you to react quickly to current production conditions before it becomes a problem.
The shop floor isn’t the only place that automation can be deployed to create a better experience:
- An enterprise resource planning system that incorporates Industry 4.0 capabilities can more effectively merge production planning and manufacturing activities. Through system integration, manufactures can use connected systems to make faster and more informed decisions.
- Robotic process automation can be implemented in a variety of functions to decrease, if not eliminate, errors in customer-facing processes, such as payable invoices.
- Adopting electronic data interchange (EDI) also helps you connect systems together, reduce administrative work and human error and save time.
Reducing variance across the enterprise will build trust in your operations, your quality standards and your product performance. All of this adds up to happier customers who will stick with you in return for a higher level of service.
Creating more opportunities for career development
While automated manufacturing can create greater efficiencies, more capacity and more opportunities for growth, it can understandably provoke anxiety in employees. It’s true that automation can create redundancies in labor. But this doesn’t necessarily need to be cause for downsizing. In fact, investments in automation can improve employee satisfaction and morale.
Critical thinking and creative problem-solving skills are very much in demand in an automated shop, but they aren’t often required for tedious and non-value-added tasks. Automating repetitive or time-consuming jobs can free staff up to focus on more challenging projects that require a greater range of skills. Automation on the production floor can improve safety by using robots or digitally enabled workflows to handle tasks that are dangerous or prone to causing injuries.
Manufacturers that want to pursue this angle need to keep in mind that creating the right workforce for the 21st century workplace doesn’t happen on its own. If there are meaningful opportunities to redeploy staff to higher value functions, leaders need to strategize if, when and how to upskill, reskill, multiskill and otherwise shift their employees into new functional areas. Success will hinge on developing a change management strategy that will bridge legacy culture and behaviors with the new technology mindset.
Think bigger: enterprise-level big
One of the biggest challenges to automation in manufacturing is the need to think and act at an enterprise level. You will need to evaluate new applications and platforms based not just on cell or function productivity, but on the value that it can bring to the overall business. How will the technology be applicable in the context of your business today, tomorrow and three years from now? How can the capacity or time that is freed up by automation be better used? Where are the opportunities to upskill or multiskill staff so they can add more value? And most important, how will the technology create more value for customers so they will keep coming back?
These are big questions, and the magnitude of the effort can quickly become overwhelming. That’s where Wipfli’s team of manufacturing and technology experts come in. We help manufacturers of all sizes strategize, plan for, prioritize and implement automation and other Industry 4.0 capabilities. Learn more about how the Wipfli team can help you get started on or rev up your technology transformation.
Next up, we’ll look at whether you’re looking in the right places for automation opportunities. Don’t miss out on that and our other thought-provoking articles just for manufacturing leaders. Sign up using the form on the righthand side of this page to receive articles and our manufacturing newsletter directly in your inbox.