Manufacturers have seen more than their fair share of disruption, even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended operations and supply chains.
Competitive drivers have been shifting for years as B2B customer preferences more frequently mirror retail consumer behaviors. Customers want a better experience with faster turnaround, higher quality and greater visibility. On top of that, manufacturers are increasingly forced to be more creative with sourcing both materials and talent.
A manufacturing automation strategy is a key component for tackling these challenges. By automating the shop floor and back-office functions, manufacturers can win back time through greater efficiency. They can improve accuracy, decrease risk and even increase throughput. In addition, manufacturers can deploy industrial internet of things (IIoT) capabilities, artificial intelligence and analytics tools to boost performance and unlock new revenue opportunities. And by modernizing their operations, manufacturers can enhance their recruitment and retention efforts.
Getting the most out of your manufacturing automation technology
Advantages aside, automation and other aspects of Industry 4.0 will soon be essential to maintain profitability. As more shops overhaul traditional business models in pursuit of digital transformation, smart manufacturers will have the upper hand.
If you’re not sure where to begin or how to get the most from your manufacturing automation technologies, you’re not alone. Getting started can be overwhelming, especially for small and mid-sized businesses. We compiled the following checklist of automation best practices to help you start your journey on the right foot.
- Build a strategic roadmap: Embracing automation is not an overnight or a one-and-done activity. It’s a journey that will likely touch every aspect of your operations. Before getting started, you need to define where you want to go: that is, what you want to measure or improve. You will use this goal to guide process improvements and capital investments. From there, you can break the journey down into smaller and more manageable pilot projects.
- Align your budget and your plan: Manufacturers typically overestimate the cost of automation. The truth is, most automation technologies are not as expensive as most people think, provided the investments are made strategically. Prioritizing your spend based on business requirements is the key to ensuring the right investments are made in the right places at the right time. This will also keep your team from getting sidetracked by the latest innovations or when technology trade-offs are required.
- Establish a manufacturing automation champion: To maximize your return, you need an automation champion who can oversee your strategy on a full-time basis. This project owner should be supported by a diverse, cross-functional team to ensure that use cases and solutions are fully vetted for purpose, feasibility, applicability, and pitfalls or roadblocks. This team can also double as ambassadors to help build internal buy-in for your automation journey.
- Reinforce your infrastructure: Efforts to triangulate people, processes and intelligence will come up short if your shop lacks the proper infrastructure. Your IT backbone needs to support uninterrupted connectivity, unimpeded information flow and adequate storage. As you connect more systems and people, you may also need to bump up your cybersecurity defenses and business continuity tools.
- Identify pilot projects: There’s no reason to go big right out of the gate. Start small with relatively simple processes that can be easily automated. Look for tasks that are repetitive, create bottlenecks, are difficult to fill, have high overhead, rely on paper or are prone to error. Proving the concept before scaling up will save you money, avoid unnecessary disruption and will help win over detractors.
- Analyze and perfect your processes: Before you can automate a process, you need to understand that process by walking through it from end to end. Then you need to perfect and document it. Skipping this step will simply replicate inefficient processes and data gaps. Only after removing non-value-added tasks should you look for opportunities to automate. You can prevent wasteful activities from creeping back in by establishing a governance structure.
- Optimize your existing equipment and automation technology: It’s not unusual for manufacturers to defer upgrading their automated capabilities because of limited resources. But in many cases, there’s no need to start from scratch. Legacy equipment? Modernize your equipment with sensors and other capabilities. Outdated or overextended enterprise resource planning (ERP) software? Consider layering on applications to expand what your ERP can do for you. Information silos? Build or rebuild data pipelines to seamlessly link stand-alone applications, technology platforms and analytics tools. That’s not to say that these and other systems won’t need to be replaced at some point; but it does allow you to stretch your resources.
- Involve your employees in the journey: Your employees are your number one source of knowledge about current processes and opportunities for improvement. They understand your business and your customers, making retention a priority. Involving them in the planning process will be key to a successful implementation. At the same time, you need to be thinking about how to best upskill or multi-skill your staff to ensure your workforce is equipped with the appropriate skills for Industry 4.0.
Ready to take the next step in manufacturing automation?
Like all aspects of digital transformation, this is a journey that requires patience. It takes time to map, improve and document processes; to determine where to invest and to implement the solution; to recalibrate as necessary; and to win over and train staff. If your pilot project doesn’t go according to plan, it will take time to regroup and assess how to move forward. But this investment of time and discipline will make your operations more efficient and potentially safer, your customers happier and your employees more satisfied.
Wipfli offers decades of experience with helping manufacturers of all sizes leverage innovation to their advantage. We have the industry insights, technical capabilities and innovative approach to help you plan, implement and get the most value from your digital transformation.
Learn more about how the Wipfli team can help you develop and implement a manufacturing automation strategy.
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