Maximizing the Value of Automation in Manufacturing

My eight-year-old heard about the fantastic wave of artificial intelligence and robotics that will shortly become standard. His first wish (should he be given one) was that he wants a robot to do his homework, but not play soccer with his buddies because he does that very well. His understanding may be naïve, but it is indicative of the potential of automated manufacturing that is underway. We are already deciding what kinds of tasks and jobs manufacturing automation technology can take over in our plant. What we don’t know is how easy that will be.
What will these deep changes look like? Let’s think of some of the effects of automation so we can get ready.

  • Artificial intelligence will take over most adjustment work and will deliver more precision to the line operator based on data. It will make the informed shop-floor decisions for which we currently rely on humans.
  • Manufacturing automation could eliminate many basic jobs, but also a lot of simple bureaucratic tasks and we will still need shop-floor capabilities in our people to interpret the data that will become available.
  • Extremely repetitive jobs will be replaced by automation and thus first-line managers and Shift Supervisors will have a completely different workforce profile to lead and manage.
  • Collaborative robots can work alongside people to increase throughput and safety on the shop floor.
  • The need for process control, improvement and innovation will increase significantly to ensure it can scale with automation – after all, the output of automation is only as good as its input

In all those examples and more, its critical to align manufacturing automation investments with critical benefits, such as better productivity, improved quality, fewer errors and reduced safety instances. While labor cost savings may come into play, productivity and quality improvement are greater contributors to a plant’s performance. Balancing these potential improvements against the cost of implementations and technical feasibility of implementation is critical to making automation work in your plant.
Further, understanding how the new technologies will dramatically transform the remaining jobs is even more difficult. Much of the workforce in manufacturing plants is not prepared for the massive push for robotization and automation in the various phases of the supply chain. Its not just because the technology is new – its also because individuals are not pressed to take on new tasks, responsibilities and ways of interacting across the traditional functions of the plant. To make this happen in a sound way, factories need a structured and rigorous approach to developing capabilities of the complete workforce.

Again, let’s be realistic – transforming our line operators into IT engineers is not going to happen. What we must do is train our shop-floor employees to be better prepared to interact with automated manufacturing systems; to smartly use the information in their hands so that they remain a key value-adding element in the operations. Relying solely on new talent to arrive in your facility and deliver incredible results will continue to be challenging, if not impossible for most manufacturers.

In our view, a truly successful Manufacturing Performance System is critical to achieving this goal, for several reasons:

  • Identifies the most impactful areas where automation benefits manufacturing operations (for more on this, read our overviews on focused improvement and production flow)
  • Trains employees to interact with automation technology in a consistent and impactful way, to make the most of new technology investments
  • Integrate new technology into the business operations through a daily management system
  • Build a culture that is adaptive to continued innovation so that your workforce is capable prepared for the next curve in the road.

Manufacturing leaders are responsible for making the transition to automation in manufacturing as smooth and healthy as possible and ensuring the workforce can maximize the benefits of smart digitalization. The training and onboarding process cannot be opportunistic, nor a one-off effort. It must be part of the way we do business. Responsible leadership cannot dream about homework being magically done. Now is the time to get your hands on the right processes and tools to prepare our shop-floor for the agility required for success.

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