The Not-So-Obvious Upside of Automation
By Adam Montoya, VP Industrial Solutions, USA
May 29, 2019
Companies looking to automate their existing manual processes are typically faced with multiple challenges, from the technical aspects of preparing for this type of deployment, to the internal pushback from an operations team who are already overburdened with their current day jobs. The daily challenges of managing complex manufacturing operations combined with needing to make time, floor space, and personnel available for a new (and inherently risky) automation system make it a daunting task for companies of any size.
Traditional automation projects tend to start off with the following questions:
- How much does it cost?
- What will my output be?
- How good will my yield be?
I’ve spent the last dozen years answering these questions from customers across a range of products from cellphones, to sneakers. No matter the product, the questions largely remain the same. This set of questions informs an organization roughly what the cost per widget will be in the manual vs. automated equation – sufficient information for the finance organization to calculate an ROI/justification. Typically, questions stop there – particularly for organizations that are relatively new to automation. Despite many other factors, organizations tend to focus on the things that could go wrong. It’s fairly easy to find yourself up to your waist in “analysis paralysis”, preventing forward progress, and eroding precious time in your payback period.
Few, but the most seasoned automation veterans dig deeper on the not-so-obvious upside of deploying modern automation. In almost all innovation projects, there is a champion for the change. In organizations that are well experienced in automation, that may be a dedicated functional team. For other organizations, these initiatives tend to originate from the quality, operations, engineering or even the finance organization. While a great deployment would incorporate stakeholders from each of these functions, it is increasingly rare for companies to capture, and realize all, of the hidden upside for their shiny new automation project. Here are a few of the most often overlooked improvements by area:
Operations tends to get the most focus after a new automation deployment. Are you hitting planned quality? Yield? Uptime? If the answers to these questions are all yes, operations also likely benefitted from: reduced headcount, reduced turnover, reduced training, and more predictable production planning. Ramping additional shifts in an automated process becomes a much less complex problem than it is in a manual operation, so adding surge capacity is a very practical reality. As the system and the team matures there is simply less to manage on a daily basis.
Engineering teams often have the heaviest burden when it comes to deploying automation. They assist in qualifying the overall system, ensure the supporting processes are in place, and that the system keeps running day after day. While it’s a daunting task, the benefits are worth the effort: Improved repeatability, faster SPC, faster NPI’s, reduced manual processes to support, faster DOE’s, and predictable maintenance intervals. Multi-step, automated manufacturing operations are vastly easier to diagnose, and remedy a defect faster than their manual multi-operator counterparts. In addition, the ability for the engineer to make a change to just one discrete process, perform a control run, and revert to known good settings allows for faster innovation during both NPI, as well as later innovation.
- Edwards Deming taught us: “Quality is everyone’s responsibility.” In less philosophical terms, most manufacturing operations find the QA/QC organization picking up the heavy lift as it relates to product quality. Data presents both the biggest challenge and opportunity for improvement for these organizations. Automation provides reliable real-time data, repeatability, and process control. When a quality engineer (QE) knows the repeatability of a system and can access production data while the product is being built, true magic happens.
The benefits of automation detailed above are related to specific functional areas, but there are also areas that everyone benefits from: more predictable work and meaningful time with employees. Not to mention, repetitive motion injuries can be eliminated, safety factors mitigated, and morale improved. While none of these factors must be included in the ROI of an automation project, it’s important to qualify and quantify these benefits in order to determine the project’s true value. The very process of encouraging the organization to consider these things will help shift the mindset from the negative, “Why are we doing this disruptive thing, when I’m just fine?” to the positive, “I’ve heard you are working on this project; it has benefits for my team as well, how can I help?”
In manufacturing, automation (and its many hidden upsides) is a critical ingredient for industry-wide transformation – something we, at Bright Machines, have set out to accomplish. We are building something much greater than a new manufacturing automation system. We are building towards a future when software defines every phase of the manufacturing lifecycle. A future when fully-programable factories are the norm, meeting the requirements for speed, scale and flexibility that tomorrow’s manufacturing industry will demand. A future in which everyone who touches the process of building new products benefits.
About the Author
Adam Montoya is a manufacturing and engineering expert, known for his ability to accelerate business, with two decades of experience. At Bright Machines he leads a world-class team devoted to evaluating and implementing automation on today’s factories, directly addressing customer pain-points and revealing new market opportunities. He spent 10 years at Flex, leading the Manufacturing Technology and Automation team and prior to this held several positions at Solectron.