In an industry where labor pools are already shrinking due to an aging workforce, the global disruptions that we’ve seen in 2020 only exacerbate an ongoing issue for today’s manufacturers. Today, factory managers are challenged to find and keep enough workers to meet the rising demand for more and smarter products, while also working with new guidelines around social distancing.
In this climate, automation helps manufacturers navigate the many challenges that come with the manual assembly of products.
Automation has been a mainstay in factories for decades. But until recently, it has been capital-intensive and time-consuming to implement, and prohibitively expensive compared to manual labor. With the introduction of intelligent software, automation can now work with adaptive hardware to provide a flexible, fast, and most importantly – affordable – automation solution that is well worth the investment in 2021.
This combination has been dubbed ”Software-Defined Manufacturing”, and it leverages software along with computer vision, machine learning, and adaptive robotics to pave the way for intelligent production lines and fully-programmable factories.
Automation that combines software and hardware working in concert in assembly settings can transform how products can be made, and who can make them. What follows are just some of the key considerations to take into account when considering an investment in smart automation.
1. Superior Scalability
While human operators bring the benefit of being fast and flexible when it comes to deployments and changes, this approach to assembly lacks scalability. If a line needs to add 50 percent capacity, it’s hard to achieve when that means adding 50 percent more human operators.
With the ability to add hardware or adjust the software to solve bottlenecks and increase throughput, an assembly approach rooted in smart automation is designed from the onset for scalability. This also means that when the time comes to change the product variation that is produced on a line, or change the capacity of the line, those changes happen quickly, too.
This speed can mean the difference between success and failure for any business – when scaling production up or down or shifting a product entirely to meet consumer expectations, the manufacturer who can do this quickly is the one who will keep their margins where they need to be.
2. Vital Flexibility
Think of how dramatically the automobile industry changed when the electric car re-imagined what a vehicle consists of: simple hardware (a battery, plus seven moving parts) primarily controlled by software.
As we re-imagine how a factory floor can be managed, we expect the same dramatic redefinition of how much simpler, more affordable and accessible manufacturing can be. Especially today, as the manufacturing sector grapples with the pandemic and other unexpected disruptions that have impacted the ability for people to be prevalent on factory floors, the flexibility and scalability achieved through assembly automation is increasingly important.
By enabling high mix/low volume, remote management and distributed manufacturing, software brings flexibility, intelligence and scalability to assembly processes.
3. Resilience As A Competitive Edge
Today, the manufacturing world finds itself badly shaken by COVID-19 and its impact on global supply chains and the workforce. As a result, it’s clear that the essential next chapter in manufacturing efficiency, productivity and cost is going to be written by intelligent software – and the machines, lines and, ultimately, the factories that software defines.
As we’ve seen more acutely than ever during the pandemic, human operators can lead to unpredictable output when folks are unable to come to work. On the other hand, the responsiveness of smart automation means that regardless of what the disruption is – be it to the workforce, to the supply chain, or to consumer demand – production lines are able to scale up or down at the touch of a button.
4. Continuous Improvements
A major benefit of smart automation is that it enables closed-loop inspections that allow manufacturers to set up pass/fail bounds based against quantifiable metrics. Software also allows manufacturers to have full traceability into what’s happening on an assembly line. These software-enabled feedback loops lead to continuous improvement and adjustments, ensuring that throughput and quality are as high as possible.
5. The Proof Is In The ROI
The promise of automation – higher throughput, less downtime, fewer errors – is what every manufacturer wants; but cost, as measured in both dollars and time, can make it unappealing. Today, through more modern “Robots as a Service” business models, in which manufacturers gain access to automation solutions for an annual fee, manufacturers can put robots on the payroll. This allows for financially matching the labor performed by assembly automation solutions to operating costs.
The benefits of assembly automation are easier to understand: when you look at the yield rates, cost and the time to configure a line.
Not only does smart automation shift the resiliency, flexibility and scalability of assembly, it also frees up factory workers to fill more productive and meaningful roles. In fact, it is predicted that up to 133 million new roles may emerge as companies embrace automation and uncover new opportunities for humans to work alongside machines.
In an industry with some of the highest turnover rates due to dissatisfaction with mundane tasks and roles, automation optimizes not only machines but the humans operating those machines. The downstream effect of automation, on the other hand, is that the factory can produce more products at a higher quality and at lower cost.
Pat O’Malley is a seasoned finance and business executive with over three decades of experience. He currently serves as the CFO of Bright Machines.