The term “Autonomous Manufacturing” may be new to many, but the idea of using industrial capacity – the ability to make things – in order to gain more independence is as old as civilization itself.
Autonomous Manufacturing is a concept and technology set that can be used by today’s manufacturers in order to achieve greater productivity, profitability and efficiency no matter what demands they face. It is composed of three core principles:
- Create Simplicity Through Agility: Don’t look at how you can have a massive, predictable, integrated manufacturing process – think of how flexibility adds value and resiliency to your overall business.
- Favor Elegant Solutions: Patchwork solutions are contingent and prone to more patching, until a system becomes unsustainable and has too many points of failure. Avoid the inevitable by looking for ways to reinvent your core costs and processes – this is what gives you opportunities that no one else gets.
- Empower People: As circumstances evolve, your people are your greatest asset. The core challenge of every manufacturer is to get the most out of their people, and that comes from giving them the support to make the decisions they need and achieve greater goals.
Ultimately, many manufacturers may already be benefiting from traditional automation solutions, but increasing labor costs and decreased availability and flexibility of key supply chain goods means that “good” isn’t any longer “good enough”. Manufacturers must be more flexible than ever before in order to achieve their goals, and adopting an Autonomous Manufacturing approach is key to prepare for whatever landscape comes next.
Why is Simplicity Critical to Agility?
COVID-19, lockdowns, social distancing and more have all created fundamental challenges to manufacturing. They have also exacerbated an even more titanic shift in the labor market, where skilled workers are aging out with few if any to replace – all on top of a possible two years operating consistently below peak productivity. Deloitte estimates that by 2030, 2.4 million skilled positions will go unfilled in the United States alone.
Creating simplicity is critical because relying on skilled, experienced, knowledgeable labor may simply not be a good strategy for the next few decades. In these positions, instead, the right technology must be leveraged along with a creative and agile workforce that is able to manage and respond to needs rather than focus on producing impeccable results by their own hands.
At the same time, adding flexibility can actually add value to your overall business. Consumer and B2B demands are changing more rapidly than ever – even for high-mix manufacturers, custom solutions are becoming more custom and more precisely engineered to the customer need. A skilled team may not have the skills needed to get the job done where the right machine can otherwise provide it.
Even for mass manufacturers, mass customization is an increased pool of demand that needs to be addressed in order to drive growth. In all these cases, an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach simply isn’t enough to respond to change, while flexibility can permit you to anticipate change in a fundamentally better way.
How are Elegant Solutions a Better Investment?
Automation investments typically require multiple years of capital investment foresight in order to predict whether they will pay off when demand approaches it’s peak. This is rarely due to the cost of capital equipment itself. For instance, with a robotics integration, the actual hardware costs of a new system are typically only between one third and one-fifth of the total costs. Instead, programming and integration costs will make up a majority of the challenge faced by firms here, and that of course will only help for a small variance in parts when it comes to traditional robotics integration.
Conversely, using adaptable and flexible systems (like autonomous robots) can allow for affordable integration costs no matter your part mix. In certain scenarios, there is not necessarily a payoff to autonomous systems where existing systems are sufficiently profitable. However, in situations where autonomous systems can augment existing and more disorganized or less productive solutions (like relying on a dwindling skilled workforce), the opportunity to use an elegant solution becomes a preeminent priority because it can actually pay for itself no matter the state of your firm.
How is this possible? Well, in any production line, low demand will permit inefficiencies to continue because they impose no cost on the manufacturer. It’s only as demand increases that a manufacturer realizes there are chokepoints or bottlenecks in their production lines. By the time demand is high enough, however, it’s really too late to do anything about it.
In this place, autonomous manufacturing technology can actually alleviate bottlenecks – even in high-mix scenarios. What’s important is that while it provides bandwidth to do this while demand is high, it can also provide slack to workforce where demand is low, enabling less basic manpower and energy requirements at low production times while maintaining highest-quality and most profitable output, allowing firms to recover and grow faster than before.
At the same time, large automation systems have one other challenge: many points of failure. Autonomous systems and cells organized flexibily according to a production’s short term goals can consistently out-earn larger integrations, all while avoiding the vast permutations that come with our most favorite of manufacturing maxims – Murphy’s Law!
Where Empowering People Truly Pays Off
Ultimately, what’s often misunderstood in and about the industrial space is that, while firms can be incredibly profitable, their real opportunities for growth are tied to the overall economic cycle. The ability to export, transport and manufacture, meeting demand depending on the needs they see both globally and locally, do much of the legwork in determining what needs to be done.
At the same time, this means that the methods a manufacturer uses are not as intensely determinant of how many people they employ, how happy or well paid those people are, or the imprint that a firm has for stakeholders beyond its customers and shareholders.
With that in mind, robotics actually has an opportunity to create more jobs by amplifying the productivity of manufacturing firms around key bottlenecks. There are a variety of examples to this effect, but the real impact comes in the fact that getting a robot to do a job well, rapidly and with limited rework effectively creates flexibility (and ultimately a greater degree of happiness) for workers who no longer have to bother themselves with the most tedious and time-consuming aspects of their jobs.
It’s also not beyond the tradition of manufacturing itself. The concept of “Kaizen” or continuous improvement – as popularized by Toyota among other outrageously successful Japanese manufacturers – is centered on the voice and insight of employees on the floor. Their ability to identify and offer remedies for problem processes are the core of how manufacturing firms drive greater productivity and profitability. By offering them a tool to better achieve their goals and understand their work, the sky is the limit for what a firm can accomplish.
Getting Started with Autonomous Manufacturing
The truth is, Autonomous Manufacturing isn’t just a step forward for high-mix manufacturers – it’s actually a transformative methodology that reaches beyond the bounds of today’s popular trends like Industry 4.0.
With Autonomous Manufacturing encompassing the concept that you don’t just need efficiency improvements across facilities based on connected devices, but can also realize process improvements that maximize flexibility with novel technology approaches, any development is possible. No longer will firms be constrained by skills and labor pools. They can turn any geography into a production center based on their proximity to raw materials, parts, inputs and the final market for their goods – a boon for workers, for profitability and for the environment.
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.