The Fundamentals of Manufacturing Automation

September 17, 2019 by Stefanini

Over 70 years ago, an engineering manager at Ford Motor Company named D.S. Harder gave birth to a new term: automation. Emerging in the automobile industry, this newly-found term described the rise in popularity of automatic devices and controls used in the factory.1

Automation is deep-rooted in mechanization, dating all the way back to the Industrial Revolution. From the early developments like the steam engine, to modernized developments such as artificial intelligence (AI), automation has been molded into what it is today.

Automation is having the most impact on the manufacturing industry, but processes are being automated in other industries as well, including transportation, customer service, food service, among others. Manufacturing companies should think about what lies ahead as a result of automation. They must embrace and leverage the new tools of digital transformation and learn how to balance multiple challenges, such as producing more while spending less, creating customized products while using standard processes, and reducing technology debt while reducing time to market.    

Here’s a comprehensive guide to manufacturing automation.

What is Automation?

Today, automation is generally defined as “the process of automatically producing goods through the use of robots, control systems and other appliances with minimal direct human operation.”2 This type of advanced technology improves overall efficiency while streamlining processes in the manufacturing plant.

Most businesses that are on the road to digital transformation are in favor of automation for optimal productivity and profitability. Disruptive technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) play a major role in manufacturing in the fourth industrial revolution (Industry 4.0). Therefore, it’s crucial for manufacturers to leverage their IoT data for process insight and prescriptive analytics.

Top 3 Trends in Manufacturing Automation

  1. Internet of Things

Factories implement IoT to virtually monitor processes, products and assets to increase business transparency and optimization. Workers gain deep insights into the data regarding manufacturing operations and equipment, allowing them to automate processes and get a glimpse into potential issues, taking action to prevent problems before they arise and maintaining operational efficiency.

The real-time feedback that IoT provides keeps businesses ahead of the game. By placing factory machinery and other equipment online, some of the responsibilities of making operational decisions are moved into the hands of technology—therefore freeing up employees to utilize their manpower on more critical business tasks.

        2Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning

AI is a major trend in manufacturing automation. AI’s ability to record and transmit data through IoT-connected devices is made possible by using sensors. Furthermore, factory errors can be more easily identified with machine-learning algorithms and AI. Such algorithms have led to new ways of garnering information, utilizing data, performing tasks, and predicting consumer behavior. 

In addition, AI technology can expand machines’ understanding and recognition of complex situations. This means that automated factories are in the forecast, and AI’s ability to recognize and correct errors in the factory will reduce the amount of company recalls.3 

        3. Robotics

Robots’ capabilities go far beyond automating mundane tasks – they can practically perform any task a human can. Robots are equipped with their own set of hands to perform the heftiest tasks, removing humans from hazardous situations. For example, autonomous dump trucks can be operated remotely.4 Robots also have the ability to retain processes and methods to perform tasks with their sophisticated memory.  

Robots equipped with sensors have the ability to increase speed and efficiency for many factory tasks, by accelerating the process of identifying and fixing issues. Robots can also provide predictive and preventive support which, in turn, yields improved condition and process monitoring—with the potential to increase the performance of overall equipment effectiveness in plants and factories by 65% to 85%.4

Benefits of Manufacturing Automation

In manufacturing, automation can take repetitive tasks and automate then using a specially-designed system. More factories are realizing the benefits of automating tasks, and businesses are not only enjoying cost efficiency and time savings, but competitive advantage as well. Here are some of the benefits of automation:

  1. Increased Productivity

Among the many benefits of manufacturing automation is greater productivity. Factories can gain the full benefit of automation if all processes and systems are automated, which often multiplies the amount of production. Furthermore, businesses can gain competitive advantage by keeping equipment running for longer periods of time, minimizing the likelihood of maintenance.

        2. Safety

Ensuring the safety of workers is a major reason why deploying automation in manufacturing plants is beneficial. Automating systems minimizes human contact with hazardous tasks, reducing the number of accidents in the factory. The Occupational Safety and Health Act is a U.S. law passed in 19706 to ensure safer work environments and protect workers from dangerous conditions.

        3. Reduced Hours

Automation has also significantly reduced the average number of hours worked per week in the U.S. factory. For example, the shift from the 70-hour work week in the early 20th century to the current 40-hour work week can be attributed to automation.  Moreover, “the time required to process a typical production order through the factory is generally reduced with automation.”6

        4. High-Level Value

Oftentimes, workers complain about their inability to focus on high-level5 tasks because mundane tasks occupy all of their time. This is where automation can help. Machines can take on more repetitive tasks that make humans less productive and engaged in the workplace, which can hinder their ability to add real-value to the company and achieve overall goals.

        5. Cost Efficiency

Simple upgrades like “generating little waste heat, using the minimum power, and focusing on controlled and precise movements” 5 make for cheaper manufacturing processes and greater profit. Furthermore, heat and lights may no longer be a necessity if humans are not occupying the space, and since machines probably don’t need heat and lights to operate successfully, factories can enjoy cost and energy savings.3

Impacts of Automation

There’s no doubt that the impact of automation is significant. From improved efficiency to factory workers dedicating their time and expertise to high-value roles, it’s evident that there are many benefits to gain from automation. However, people have raised concern about the elimination of jobs, which is only natural in any technological revolution. But what people fail to realize is that robots will not replace humans – they will only make us more productive in the world. The productivity of factory workers has gone up 47 percent more4 than what it was 20 years ago, and it’s occurring with less labor. The reasons behind this include the fact that older factory machines are being replaced with new, updated machines and technologies, and today’s factory workers are coming into their jobs with more skills and education—both of which are contributing to higher productivity and output.

When we look at other industries, like health care for instance, robots have already made a dent working alongside medical staff at hospitals, automating routine tasks (robotic process automation) such as claims processing, taking patients’ vitals, and more. Medical robotics is also present in the operating room, as robots are being utilized to “enable minimally invasive approaches and ease the physical burden of surgeries.”7 All of this to say that doctors will still have their jobs, and are leveraging technology to improve productivity and the quality of care patients receive.

The bottom line is that no matter how sophisticated technology gets, there will always be a need for human assistance, expertise, creativity, leadership, and other characteristics that simply cannot be replaced by robots. But in order to keep up with an ever-changing workforce, we must keep up with the evolving digital landscape by staying well-read, and making the effort to develop the necessary skills to succeed in the future of work. In China, learning new technology is a major focus. AI and robotics has boosted China’s economy, now exporting more than it’s importing, leaving a significant impact on the global supply chain.8

Looking into the Future

Companies are pondering what’s ahead in the realm of manufacturing automation.  Even companies outside of the manufacturing industry like customer service and transportation are starting to realize the value of automation, and the companies that fail to jump on the bandwagon will fall behind. 

For companies to thrive in the manufacturing industry, they must develop an innovative mindset, thinking in terms of agility. As with anything new in the digital transformation, companies must take a collaborative approach when adopting new technologies and take risks with no trepidation. McKinsey suggests considering the following: what modern-day technology and future technology is making possible with automation; what factors will influence your decision to implement automation; and how much to automate to gain the most value.  

Furthermore, McKinsey conducted a study that confirmed that there’s plenty of potential for automation in manufacturing. McKinsey found that 64 percent of working hours spent on manufacturing-related activities globally were automatable with current technology. This study was based on 46 countries in the developed and developing worlds, which makes up approximately 80 percent of the global workforce.⁷

How Stefanini can help

We take a digital approach to manufacturing, embracing IoT, predictive analytics and AI. With our customer-first mentality, we’re ready to take on your business challenges by delivering innovative ideas, deep insights, and examining your pain points to help you thrive tomorrow.

By integrating Information Technology (IT) with Operational Technology, we ensure significant improvements to your manufacturing processes. Our IoT services generate data that helps us recognize upcoming failures, providing you with predictive maintenance. We also optimize your business processes with AI, machine learning, AR/VR, and cloud software.

In a world that is constantly evolving, it’s critical to have a partner on your side that will guide you every step of the way. We understand the challenges businesses face in the digital transformation. That’s why we’re an ideal partner for you, dedicated to driving long-term value and success for your company.

Our extensive experience serving manufacturing industries includes mining, metals, pulp and paper, food and beverage, fertilizer, cement, and more.

Learn more about our manufacturing solutions here.

References

Have you considered the digital approach for your business?