Why You Should Review Your Manufacturing Automation Strategy Now

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  • CEO and co-founder at >Robotiq. Author of Lean Robotics : A Guide to Making Robots Work in Your Factory.

    Robots with car parts in car factory

    getty

    I've always been fascinated by the increasing rate of change happening around us and its implication for our businesses. It always seemed like a dynamic environment full of opportunities. However, what we've seen recently with the impact of Covid-19 is not an increased rate of change coming from exponential technologies but rather a sudden step change that has totally disrupted how we work. It is an extreme case that reminds us that: 

    1. We can't predict everything.

    2. We must always remain adaptable as organizations.

    From my experience, I've found that many manufacturers are rebooting their automation strategy right now. Managers and engineers have time away from the production floor to think and plan, but they also see the need to review the automation strategy in light of the recent events. Automation has been seen as a way to be more productive as well as increase quality and capacity. There are now new reasons for the increased considerations to automate more.

    • Business continuity. Many factories had to pause producing recently because they lacked incoming parts from suppliers or because it was unsafe for their people. They realized how fragile their production and supply chains were. Having more automation has the potential to increase the robustness in our ability to produce even under situations where our people can't work at the factory. It also has the potential to produce at a competitive price in more locations in the world to make the supply chain more resilient.

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    • Physical distancing. Many companies have workstations that are too dense with people to make it safe or comfortable for workers. Even in times when unemployment is high, many workers don't feel safe to go back to the factory floor if they need to work in close proximity with colleagues. Interlacing flexible automation with operators can reduce the risks and increase the comfort of employees to go back to the production floor.

    Obviously, automation is just a means to an end, a tool to achieve business objectives for a manufacturer. The automation strategy must fit within the manufacturing strategy, which in turn must be aligned with the corporate strategy.

    Corporate → Manufacturing → Automation Strategies

    Every manufacturing company is unique, and you know yours. You know what you optimize for, what your strengths and weaknesses are and where you're heading next with your products on the market.

    If you're in charge of manufacturing, you need to deliver today — quality products on time at the right cost while maintaining the safety of your people. If it's also your role to define the strategy for the future of your manufacturing, you must clearly understand where your company is going and how manufacturing will need to contribute in one to five years.

    Marketing and product development choices can sometimes be made faster than their implementation on the manufacturing and supply chain side, so you have to skate where the puck is going today if you want to be at the right place in the future. If you manage to do so, manufacturing capabilities can be a strong competitive advantage, and it's going to be rewarding for your people to contribute directly to the corporation's long-term success.

    Manufacturing strategy considers various aspects and potential actions that you can take. I found a great summary in this work from Mats Winroth and Kristina Säfsten that referred to content from this 1969 Harvard Business Review article (yes, companies have been making stuff for a while) and the John Miltenburg book titled Manufacturing Strategy: How to Formulate and Implement a Winning Plan. These so-called "decision criteria" that can be part of a manufacturing strategy are listed below.

    1. Process Technology 

    2. Facilities

    3. Capacity 

    4. Vertical Integration

    5. Quality Management

    6. Human Resources

    7. Organization Structure And Control

    8. Production Planning And Control

    Winroth and Säfsten state in their article that automation (computerized, electronic and/or mechanical devices used to replace human labor) falls into the "process technology" part of the manufacturing strategy. That being said, they also point out the important fact that automation has several interdependencies with other aspects of manufacturing. Here's my take on this aspect coming from our experience in collaborative robots as an automation technology.

    • Human Resources: While automation can assist you in getting more done with fewer people, which can help to relieve the labor shortage issue, there's the potential that you might simply be swapping this challenge for a more difficult one — finding people experienced in automation.

     For this reason, you should make sure that you choose technology that you will be able to deploy, maintain and make evolve in time. Note that automation is also a great opportunity to develop your internal pool of talents.

    • Quality Management: Automation will be hard to implement if you don't control your quality already. A known, stable process is much easier to automate. An unknown or unpredictable process can be very costly and risky to automate.

    • Capacity: Automation can help you look at capacity in new ways. It can potentially help you remove bottlenecks in the process or even extend the regular working hours. For instance, we've seen many manufacturers increase the use of their machines by adding a robot in front of them to feed parts.

    Obviously, you also need to have a precise understanding of where your manufacturing capabilities and level of automation stands as of today to define the automation strategy.

    Then, there is the uncertainty of what's ahead. What you need to do is to consider the future and think about the reasons why you should automate now. Will these reasons be even more important or less important in the future? If the fundamentals tell you that your reasons will still be there, now is probably the right time to develop the strategy and build your automation road map.


    Forbes Technology Council is an invitation-only community for world-class CIOs, CTOs and technology executives. >Do I qualify?

    Source : https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2020/11/19/why-you-should-review-your-manufacturing-automation-strategy-now/

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