Over the next few years, many discrete manufacturers will start exploring how to leverage technologies in order to improve efficiencies in both their processes and their operations—efficiencies that help ensure ongoing profitability in increasingly competitive marketplaces. The importance of being on or ahead of the technology curve is that you won’t get left in the dust by competitors and, as a result, get caught in the untenable position of having to play “catch up” in terms of learning and adoption.
What does that digital landscape look like for discrete manufacturers? Where should you be today, and where can you expect to go tomorrow?
A Little Background
Kaizen and Six Sigma, both introduced into the U.S. in the 1980s, are two of the most notable improvement concepts ever adopted by industries and have led to significant efficiency improvements for organizations using them. Today, cloud computing is credited with opening up new opportunities for optimization. It may seem that from production process modifications to cloud/computer-connected machinery we’ve come a long way but, in reality, most manufacturers, with the exception of enterprise level, are at the beginnings of the automation evolutionary cycle. On the near horizon are more complex and sophisticated technologies like autonomous operations and general purpose machine learning.
How most manufacturers will get to this end of the spectrum is through a fairly straightforward sequence:
Phase I. Most manufacturers leveraging today’s technologies are at this stage, taking advantage of robotic process automation, or RPA, using mechanized automation, cloud computing, and/or virtual assistants to expedite their work. RPA is used most often for the types of repeatable processing that, when taken off the plates of back office teams, free up people to do more value-added work, like improving customer relationships.
Phase II. Cognitive computing is the next phase and can best be described as computers simulating the way humans think. Your smartphone is one example: when texting, predictive text presumes what you’re trying to communicate and “fills in the blanks.” There’s also speech recognition, digital assistants like Siri and Alexa, and robotics. This phase is where many believe the biggest advancements will come in the next 20 years.
Phase III. Artificial intelligence is where many organizations are headed—some are already there. In this phase, intelligent machines perceive their environments and take actions toward specific goals. These rational, “thinking” assets are expected to take automation to a much higher level than is possible today.
Dipping Your Toe in the Water
For automation to be deployed wisely and profitably, management must take a strategic approach to understanding its value and implement it when and where appropriate. These and other questions should be addressed in the very earliest stages of the automation journey:
- What is our specific motivation for pursuing automation? The need to solve for labor shortages? To offer new capabilities? To reduce costs?
- Where within the organization does it make sense to deploy automation? Shop floor, back office, or both?
- Who will “own” automation? IT? Operations?
- How will workers interact with automated machines and processes?
- What is the deployment process and how will it affect people and processes?
Why All the Effort?
Not only is implementation relatively simple and cost-effective (RPA solutions can be deployed in a matter of weeks for business processes, longer for shop floor integration), but there are a number of ways automation benefits a business:
- More satisfying roles for workers. Though automation replaces workers, those who are freed from routine and/or repetitive tasks are often redeployed to work on more valuable initiatives, like enhancing customer relationships and upselling.
- Reduce the time and cost. When things like reports and document management are automated, there’s a significant savings of both time and cost.
- Improve quality. Automation reduces human error, requiring workers to intervene only in cases of exceptions.
How to Get Started
Wipfli’s team of manufacturing experts can walk you through the typical process of introducing or expanding automation in your organization. This usually starts with a proof of concept to model how automation will work and what kind of ROI you could see. We also help organizations communicate their strategy to the entire organization, engage teams, and manage the change within the company.
Think you’re ready for automation? Reach out to us to get a conversation started.