By Marcus Behrendt, Partner, BMW i Ventures
Now is the perfect time to automate. It’s bold advice, as so many in the
sector grapple with uncertain futures – and to be sure, the future is indeed
uncertain for all of us in
manufacturing. But if your uncertainty is around when and not if your
factory will reopen and production will kick off again, now is the time to make
important changes that will take your manufacturing operations from vulnerable to immune as we brace for the next inevitable disruption.
So often, manufacturers have well thought through plans as to when
they’ll automate elements of their production line. They know it’s a sound
investment in the future and an opportunity to reduce costs, increase output
and optimize quality, representing returns that can be harvested down the road,
but the cost of shutting down production to deploy next generation automation
means missing out of harvesting more immediate returns. So, they wait.
But now, with day-to-day business at a standstill, there’s never been a
better time to future-proof manufacturing through modernization – and there’s
never been a better example in context of the myriad ways next generation
automation can protect manufacturers from increased exposure when disaster does
Anything that’s true of the benefits of intelligent and flexible
automation in normal circumstances is doubly true now: it enables more
efficiency, lowers cost, increases output and quality – and importantly, it
lowers reliance on manual labor. In a crisis like the one we’re all experiencing
now, the more self-sufficient manufacturing processes are, the less they’ll be
affected by unexpected changes in circumstance, such as a sudden shift in the
availability of the workforce.
As we all talk about Industry 4.0 nowadays, we should also start
thinking about Automation 4.0. Automation in the past might have been
independent of labor-related influences, but it was, and still is, far from
flexible. It was quite an effort to adapt to changes when needed. But there are
new possibilities in automation when it’s powered by software – it offers more
dynamic, flexible lines, with changeovers that happen at the touch of a button,
as exemplified by the technology of one of our portfolio companies, Bright Machines. This
software-defined approach to manufacturing enables a more agile response to
demand. As we’re seeing in real-time as manufacturers work to shift their
factory floors to address not only shifting consumer demands, but the pressing
needs of healthcare providers, the ability to quickly reconfigure a production
line cannot be undervalued.
Solving for Supply
Those in the electronics manufacturing industry will remember well the
impact that the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 had on the global supply chain. That was one
localized crisis, but it had massive global repercussions. Now, we’re dealing
with a global outbreak that’s affecting every place, every nation. But it
presumably strikes at different times with differing severity, making the
recovery for supply chains completely unpredictable.
The case for scalable, intelligent automation solutions that enable more
localized production has never been clearer – and in fact, this has been a
discussion point for OEMs well before COVID became a household name. I’m
optimistic that supply chains will show resilience and that going forward, the
concept of decentralized, localized production will come into clearer focus for
manufacturing as an industry. What we’re quickly learning is that shipping
products around the globe to save a penny today, might not pay off in these
times of crisis.
It’s always been a concern for OEMs, especially in complex situations
like auto manufacturing, that the complexity of the supply chain will lead to
issues when a group of suppliers hasn’t planned well enough for the unexpected,
and that the production cycle will be thrown off. The more manufacturers
throughout the supply chain are able to better prepare themselves and their
lines through implementing flexible, smart automation, the more likely they’ll
be able to weather any storm, whether it’s a tsunami, a pandemic, or a trade
The Time to Automate
There are of course some who won’t be able to weather this particular storm; it’s a tough time for the world, and those in manufacturing aren’t exempt. That said, if you are confident in your future, I urge you to consider seeing this downtime as the perfect time to rethink your approach and move forward with next generation automation plans.
The bottom line: anyone who invests in software-defined automation now – while production allows, because of unforeseen downtime – will be ready to answer the call when things do return to normal, whatever that new normal might look like.
originally appeared on ManufacturingGlobal.com
About the author
Marcus Behrendt is Partner at BMW i Ventures
and serves on the boards of Mapiliary and DSP Concepts. He is also an active
member of Nauto’s Strategic Council. Prior to joining BMW i Ventures in August
2018, Marcus was the Vice President User Experience, Control Panels, Ergonomics
at BMW Vehicle Development in Munich. Before Marcus joined BMW he worked as
Head of European Operations at JD Power and at Daimler Chrysler AG, and Herlitz
PBS in strategic roles. Marcus earned a Dipl.-Ing. degree from the University
of Berlin in Management and Engineering.