Manufacturers are looking to lower costs and increase speed without sacrificing quality. This means getting more done in less time, with less manpower, less scrap and fewer mistakes.To do this, businesses in the manufacturing industry are investing more in automation. Specifically, they are automating the processes and tasks that machines can do quicker and better than humans and integrating them with their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and other related technologies.
What once seemed to be the stuff of science fiction – manufacturing plants run by robots – is already a reality. There are plenty of companies today using robot workforces running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Most manufacturers, however, are a long way from being able to automate the majority of their production processes. But as ongoing advances enable machines and humans to become better at talking to each other, more production lines and eventually more production plants will become more and more automated.
For any manufacturing business that hasn’t yet jumped on the automation bandwagon, it’s time. Here are the top five reasons why.
1. Reduce labor costs
For most manufacturers, labor costs represent the biggest expense and hardest cost to manage (or reduce). It’s no surprise that companies around the globe have begun using automated machinery and equipment to replace human workers on assembly lines.
Automation is already replacing human labor in areas such as picking and moving parts, assembly and inspection. Other examples where automation is producing significant reductions in labor costs include:
- Bill of materials (BOMs) comparison. Reduces expensive engineering time by eliminating the manual comparing of CAD/CAM BOMs against existing BOMs in your ERP system.
- Implementing RFID (radio frequency identification) tracking systems. Improves the speed and reliability of employee software logins and inventory tracking.
- Automating purchasing. Reduces headcount in the purchasing department while lowering overall purchasing costs.
- Human resources and payroll integrations. Dramatically reduces HR personnel costs by managing employees and benefits in one system.
2. Eliminate waste
To err is to be human. In manufacturing, human error leads to wasted time and resources. Computers and machines can do many things faster and more accurately than humans – without making mistakes. Ways to eliminate waste include:
- Accurate inventory. Automating inventory processes, such as picking parts and materials and lot tracking, can turn accurate inventory from an unfulfilled wish into
reality. Automated equipment can also reduce lost or misplaced materials and minimize expiration or spoilage of inventory.
- Lights-out manufacturing. An unused manufacturing plant at night is a wasted asset. Yet, the cost of running second and third shifts can be prohibitive. Automating manufacturing systems puts your biggest asset to full use without the need for humans. Advantages of lights out manufacturing include reducing labor, lighting and HVAC costs while increasing throughput.
- Reduce scrap and rework. Even highly skilled operators can’t match the repeatable accuracy that automation produces on routine or less complex processes. Some automated machines can also perform multiple operations, eliminating the time required to move materials from one workcenter to another.
- Eliminate paper. Paper documents slow down the production process by getting lost, misfiled or sent to the wrong person. With automated document management, you can stop shuffling papers and start focusing your human capital on making decisions and creating value. When you digitally send the right data to the right people at the right time, shop floor personnel no longer waste time hunting down routers, drawings, BOMs, purchase orders and inventory lists.
3. Fast turnaround times
Slow turnaround on jobs can be a deal breaker for many manufacturing customers. Automation lets you process orders faster, reduce setup and production times, and get your product out the door quicker. This is just some of the automation that should already be part of your production process:
- CAD interface. Enables the building of huge BOMs in a few hours rather than days or even weeks.
- Nesting interface. Reduces setup times and material waste by automatically arranging part shapes on bulk pieces of stock material.
- EDI. Cuts administrative time and costs for you and your customers with single-entry data transactions.
- Ecommerce integration. Saves time for your customers by allowing them to order and pay directly from your website while automatically sending all job data to your ERP system.
The more you automate customer communications, setup and production processes, the more you can say “yes” to what were once impossible turnaround times.
4. Improve quality and safety
Rework due to poor quality acts like an anchor on production time and lowers customer satisfaction. Workers’ comp costs can put large dents in your bottom line. Automating processes in these areas can raise quality ratings while making your workplace safer for employees.
Quality. These days, you either produce quality products or you don’t survive. Yet, the cost of achieving the required quality can make it hard to offer competitive prices. Automating quality procedures can help improve quality and reduce its cost at the same time by:
- Simplifying management of rework, rejects and scrap
- Reducing the amount of time to produce and implement engineering change notices
- Controlling every aspect of part revisions and inactivations through your ERP system
- Simplifying the process of qualifying for and maintaining ISO and other certifications
Safety. According to OSHA, U.S. manufacturers pay nearly $1 billion per week in workers’ comp due to injuries on the job. Automating production processes can help improve employee safety in three important ways:
- Removing workers from dangerous work procedures
- Enabling faster responses to emergencies with real-time monitoring
- Using safety planning software to simplify safety protocol updates and emergency response plans
5. Prepare for the future
In today’s constantly changing manufacturing markets, success often depends on seeing where customers are going and getting there first. Automation improves the ability to forecast trends, see how customer needs will change, and prepare for them from a technology and strategy standpoint so you can get there ahead of the competition.
Automating the data-gathering process with dashboards provides immediate access to accurate, real-time data while reporting or displaying it in any format you choose. This allows you to:
- Identify trends with customers, products and your industry segment
- Analyze your business health by drilling down to any level of detail
- Forecast future customer needs and the products and solutions to meet them
- Make faster, better decisions
Nobody can predict the future with certainty, but automation reduces the odds that the “next big thing” in your market will catch you off guard.
Get automation right
Implementing automation is not a quick fix. It’s a continual process where your business evolves with the technology. Automation also requires a large investment in software
and machinery. Align your automation strategy with your business and operations strategy. Never implement automation just for the sake of doing it. Every automation system should have a specific purpose and desired outcome that aligns with long-term business goals.
Before investing in automation, be clear on the problem you need to solve and how the software or equipment provides the best solution. Know what improvements the automation will offer and how it will benefit your business and your customers.
Finally, it can be easy to overspend on automation software and machinery. To justify the investment, automation should meet current needs while offering the flexibility to adapt to foreseeable future needs.