If you’re involved in the operations or logistics of a manufacturing facility, it’s unlikely that, in the past several years, you haven’t at least thought about the best way to further integrate automation into your processes (that is, if you haven’t already taken steps to increase your level of automation). Industrialautomation is at a point (and has been for a while) where the question isn’t whether you should automate at least some of your processes, but rather, how much automation you can successfully implement.
Automation has been changing the face of manufacturing for decades, and innovation in automation continues to create processes that are more intricate, efficient and effective. Robots are able to conduct more complex operations with higher degrees of quality and safety. What’s more, they continue to enable companies (and the people they employ) to do their jobs better — ultimately creating a better product at a lower cost to the buyer.
With very few exceptions, automation will provide benefits to your production efficiency and bottom line. You may want to ask yourself, however, if your processes are automated enough to maximize the potential benefits. Here are some ways to evaluate your processes, why you should, and some questions to ask as you consider increased automation for your business.
How to Evaluate Processes for Automation
By understanding the types of automation processes that exist, you’re better able to evaluate your operations for further automation implementation. Today, three major types of automation exist. With knowledge of the benefits and capabilities of each one, you can examine your existing processes and determine where automation can help.
Repetitive tasks: This is probably the simplest type of automation, and you’ve likely automated many such processes already. Essentially, automating repetitive tasks enables them to be done more quickly with a much lower potential for error. Because these processes don’t require much thought or creativity on the part of a person who would normally do such a job, you are able to free people to apply their skills to tasks that do require the innovative thinking that robots cannot bring to the table.
Pattern recognition: More complex than repetitive task automation, pattern recognition can be thought of as a way of automating multistep processes that combine common, repetitive elements. The vast storage potential of a machine enables a robot to understand and properly respond to a wide number of these disparate situations. For example, delivery processing or first-tier customer service queries can often be automated fairly simply via pattern recognition. Though these complex tasks still require a high level of monitoring and input from humans.
Complex automation: This highest level of automation relies on several input and processing methods, though the one that most differentiates it from the other types of automation is a reliance on sensors and human inputs to “learn” how to execute complex processes with higher quality levels. The best example of complex automation for the layperson might be driverless vehicles. While in manufacturing, these are the types of processes that are efficiently carried out by robots and people working together to achieve higher levels of efficiency and safety.
Benefits of Automation
Automation provides many benefits when implemented with thought and attention to efficiency and quality. Some of these benefits include:
- Faster production cycles
- Bottom-line impact via faster ROI, lower overall investment in production, and improved production processes
- Improved potential for innovation via previously difficult or impossible production methods
- Increased safety in the facility
How and Why to Increase Automation in Your Production
Asking a few relatively simple questions might be all it takes to convince yourself that increased automation can benefit your company and your production processes. The answers to these questions can also shed light on some of the best ways that you can integrate more automation.
Have you looked at the big picture of how your processes work? The major point here is to think of your production processes as overall, integrated “processes” — not just a series of “jobs” that add up to a finished product. Once you take a bigger-picture look at how the process works, you will likely be able to identify potential for production more easily. In areas that can maximize the efficiency of both the automation robots you’ll invest in, and the people who make sure your facility continues to operate as it should.
When you stop asking the question of “Which jobs can I automate?” and start asking “What processes make up this process, and which of those can I automate?”, you’re well on the way toward breaking barriers of innovation as you seek to increase automation for your company.
Are you scaling correctly? Automation in manufacturing facilities is typically thought of as a way to handle either the most menial tasks (such as those repetitive tasks discussed earlier), or a way to carry out processes that simply aren’t possible for humans (such as moving car chassis or airline engines from one location to another). While these processes exist, a more middle ground-level of automation exists — one that can provide a more palatable entry point of investment, and can deliver even greater efficiency and ROI.
These types of midlevel automation are typically those that involve artificial intelligence robots assisting people in tasks such as moving medium-weight components from one production area to another, or assisting in complex assembly processes. By properly identifying the scale at which you would like to automate, you can see a major ROI impact in a short amount of time.
Have you looked at the safety impact of automation? Many of today’s advances in automation are safety-focused, as robots become more and more integrated into the production process. With robots and people working ever more closely, and robots handling more complex tasks, safety is a paramount concern. With these advances come reductions in accidents in the facility, as well as lower rates of repetitive stress injury as robots are better able to assist with those types of tasks. Besides benefitting your employees, these improvements add to an overall higher level of efficiency in your production.