Are You Really Ready For Factory Automation?

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As automation begins to saturate the manufacturing industry, it’s become increasingly clear that it holds several benefits over traditional human labor. These benefits are no secret either – countless publications and businesses have posted articles over the years explicitly detailing the advantages of automation. Though it’s clear that the pros outweigh the cons, automation isn’t necessarily a plug-and-play solution. 

There are several factors that will impact whether or not you should automate your business. These factors include whether existing technology can actually help you automate your targeted process, what kind of flexible automation solutions are already available, or where you can find inspiration from unique forms of automation that may in fact help improve your own application or targeted project. 

Like any major business decision, it’s important to weigh these factors to make sure that automation will better serve your business and if taking the first steps is feasible in the near future.

What Can and Needs to be Automated

Firstly, it’s important to ask yourself what process you want to automate. Naturally, not all automation processes are simple turnkey solutions. Decades ago when automation began to be broadly incorporated in the automotive industry, the nature of automation was different. The robots had a planned programmed set of paths and moves to make in order to repeat the same task over and over again.

Cars don’t change components suddenly, therefore the automation is – relative to other industries – simple. Though the automotive industry largely benefits from automation, they only represent a sliver of all manufacturing and not every sector can benefit from automation in the same way.

Automation for High-Mix manufacturing environments doesn’t necessarily work the same way as it would in the automotive industry. Certain processes can’t be executed by doing the exact same task over and over again. Some processes, such as powder coating, paint spraying or welding, require some planning to automate with each and every cycle.

What is “High-Mix” Manufacturing? It is generally defined as any manufacturer or production that processes more than 100 different SKUs in batches fewer than 1000 each year – basically, a lot more variation than mass manufacturing.

For example, let’s say you manufacture tables, but your existing paint process is slow and produces a lot of waste and rework. In traditional automation, if your tables are all the same, you could use a robot. If your tables vary in size, shape or other factors, then you would need the right software and peripherals to manage that variation and still improve upon your existing process. Put simply: if you have no variation, you’re probably already using robots and other forms of automation. If you have a lot of variation, it’s possible to automate, but new solutions must be considered.

Robots and automated machines aren’t the only factory automation solutions available today – resourceful manufacturers can find plenty of software and equipment to support more flexible systems.

Can I Even Automate My High-Mix Production?

When considering automation, which is a necessity today, many High-Mix manufacturers are losing hope. Maybe you’ve tried to install a new machine or a robot but the part variation you see has always led vendors to tell you “automation isn’t for you”.

For the longest time, that has been true. Most manufacturers have a level of part variation that qualifies as “High-Mix”. If you make something in metal, wood, plastic or other discrete end-use materials, it’s most likely that traditional automation is too rigid and specific for the amount of change and variation in structure that your plant sees.

If you’ve always been told “no” by automation vendors, robot manufacturers, or the typical automation provider who simply doesn’t believe that it’s possible to automate your production processes, then fret not – there may be another way! Today, manufacturers can actually deploy flexible automation or even autonomous systems that can adapt to the actual variation in your production – or at least be easily trained to change when change emerges. After all, as a High-Mix manufacturer, change truly is the only constant.

In High-Mix environments, not everything will be the same, so you may be curious as to how the technology works. With technologies like AutonomyOS, it becomes easier to envision a shift to automation – even in High-Mix.

A Brief Historical Analysis of Flexible Automation

Before jumping into the technical aspects of automation, it’s worth noting how manufacturers grew to adopt automation.

In 2003, engineers Francesco Jovane, Yehuda Koren, and C.R. Boër, conducted a study outlining the progressing needs in manufacturing for flexible automation. Granted this study is nearly 20 years old, but the findings in this academic essay still ring true despite substantial technological advancement since.

Going back to the 1960s, shoe manufacturers shifted from fully manual labor to machine-aided labor. In the 1990s, society’s desire for custom shoes increased leading European manufacturers to push for an increased presence of automation. Customization became so popular that these consumer wants “became the centre of research activities in the footwear sector.” In fact, a flexible automated pilot plant for mass customized shoes was installed in Italy as part of the Italian National Program for Innovative Production Systems. While this was obviously an early attempt at flexible automation in manufacturing, its success meant that more innovation would have to come from larger projects adopting this style of manufacturing.

Later in the study, Koren and Boër explain a survey that accounted for several manufacturers across the United States and Europe, though they are not named. The manufacturers in question had already implemented a form of flexible automation and were asked about its type, their experience with the system, and the most relevant future directions of development.

They noted in their findings a split between those who had benefited from flexible automation and those who didn’t. However, raw statistics don’t tell the whole story. Those who didn’t benefit from automation were found to have not understood the implementation and use of the systems properly. The two writers specify that “the users who were more careful in the analysis of drivers-enablers were the most satisfied with the Flexible Manufacturing Systems.”

In short, as flexible manufacturing became more commonplace in the early 2000s, manufacturers were found to benefit from it with the caveat that they understand how their systems work and how to take full advantage of it. With that being said, it’s important to understand what needs to be automated in your manufacturing plant.

Productivity Isn't What It Used Be

When deciding whether or not to automate your business, it’s important to ask yourself how your business is tackling the shifts in productivity that have beset the manufacturing industry. One of the most common pain points within the industry is the recent exodus of employees towards different industries. With a startling lack of youth entering the manufacturing industry, the majority of current employees consists of those either nearing retirement or those in too deep to change directions. 

Without new employees to take the mantle as older employees retire, there will be a lack of knowledge transfer to the few younger workers entering the workforce. There won’t be any older mentors willing to teach the younger generation the tips and tricks of the trade.

Moreover, the older generation’s productivity will begin to lag as they age. Normally, this would be balanced out by the younger generation’s eagerness to work, but due to the lack of mentorship from the veterans to the rookies, their productivity is stagnating as well. The result of that is an increase in bottlenecks in the production lines.

Even if your business has suffered minimally from this phenomenon, it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily out of the picture in 10 or 20 years. Take a look at the age ranges of your employees. Even if the majority of them are in their 40s, but younger ones remain scarce, the productivity decline is inevitable.

If you’ve noticed – or even just begun to notice – these trends in your business, it may be worthwhile to take a step back and evaluate the future of productivity within your manufacturing business. Planning for automation doesn’t take a couple of days. It can be a lengthy process and as time continues, productivity led by humans may take a dip, which will further necessitate automation.

When automating your factory, there will be a learning curve and an adjustment period that may seem daunting. Even when recruited at a lesser rate, new employees won’t have as arduous jobs. Though you would still require them to operate the robots and their accompanying software, the burden of repetitive tasks will be lifted off of their shoulders. Moreover, morale could see a lift as employees won’t necessarily be burnt out by the end of the day.

If you’re starting to see the writings on the wall, it certainly would not hurt to take a look at automation options.

How Some Rise to the Challenge

Of course, several companies have already taken the plunge toward flexible automation and have already seen success with its implementation. Fizyr, a computer vision company located in Delft, noticed the supply chain disruption during the pandemic and developed a platform that would allow robots to autonomously take on tasks such as item picking, palletizing, truck unloading, and more.

Fizyr as a company doesn’t build or program the robots. However, it does assist in their automation tasks with their software that they describe as plug-and-play. Essentially, the vision software, using 3D cameras, allows robots to perceive the different sizes of the packages needing to be moved. With the variation in sizes in mind, the software would then relay the information to the robot which would then know what method of grasping it should use to make sure the items are being handled with care.

Given that not all boxes are made equally, Fizyr’s platform facilitates some of the longest and most mundane processes by allowing the robots to handle the heavy work. And this isn’t just a case of having a robot perform the same actions on a fixed schedule every day – with different sizes for each box it’s scanning, it’s processing the best method possible.

Based on Fizyr’s success, it’s not impossible to envision a future where your warehouse has automated a portion of your daily tasks. Whether it’s fixed, flexible, or fully autonomous, there’s a solution for your automation needs.

Being Ready For the Cost

If you’re looking to automate your business, it’s probably with the intent to save more money over a long period of time. Replacing skilled manual labor with autonomous robots will guarantee that, however installing them and pairing them with the right software will still come at a cost.

Naturally, buying or renting a robot isn’t always cheap. Typically, automated robots vary in price depending on their model, release date, and capabilities. Prices can start at around $25,000 for used models but that’s only for the robot itself. The accompanying software and integration are an added cost that can also fluctuate depending on the provider of the software. Though these prices aren’t set in stone, they aren’t particularly inexpensive either. 

These costs may seem daunting at first, but it becomes easier to rationalize them when you consider that the robots won’t need salary increases, health benefits, or any other recurring monetary investment that human labor would require.

Think of it this way: you’re investing in your future. That doesn’t always come cheap, but the saying “You have to spend money to make money” has never been more true.

Understanding Limitations

Automation is still very much in its early stages and not every robot and software is ready to take on the world (yet). In order to fully embrace the automation you want, you will need to understand what you can and can’t do within the product’s limitations. Being ambitious is always a positive, but setting the right expectations can set the stage for more future success.

Just because automation has certain limitations today doesn’t mean these same limitations will be there tomorrow. As the technology advances exponentially yearly, most of these restraints will eventually be lifted.

Let’s go back to our table manufacturing example. Say these tables are wooden and need to be sanded down but the technology isn’t quite perfect yet, you can still use the paint spray processes to start and eventually finish with sanding down the line once the technology is ready. Don’t let automation’s initial limitations blindside you about its potential.

With autonomous robots, you'll be able to take a step back and watch the robots do the hard work, giving you more time to focus on other priorities.

Consider Alternatives If You Don't Automate

Automation requires you to take a leap of faith into a new world, which can understandably be unsettling – that’s how change usually is. However, it’s worth noting the long-term effects of not going down the automation path. 

As the labor force in manufacturing continues to decline, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find replacements for those exiting the workforce due to retirement, among other reasons. You will either have to outsource the labor, where quality will surely take a hit, or pay incoming employees a substantially higher wage than those who preceded them. 

If you opt to continue operations as is without any change, your output could also suffer as a result. With fewer employees – or less skilled employees – output will naturally take a hit. 

What’s important to understand is automating your business doesn’t happen overnight. From the initial decision to automating all the way to getting this project online, it could take two or three years. If done properly, the benefits of automation can be realized over 20 years or more. As the technology advances, so will your business. Every passing day means problems are solved and benefits are gained.

These automation solutions naturally go much deeper than simply planning and executing a task. Sure, the robots will need some maintenance and upgrades over time, but none of these costs will fluctuate the same way costs for human labor will. Over the years, automation will save you on labor costs, sick days from employees, overtime pay and much more. As well, if their productivity can easily eclipse that of a person, then automation will easily pay itself off within a timespan much shorter than the full life of a system.

Automation isn’t a one-stop shop to solve all your manufacturing problems right away. You will need patience, proper foresight, and specific planning. If you have all three of these components and the willingness to try new things, then you will see the benefits of automation sooner rather than later.

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before. Contact us to learn more!