Automation for a new era of smart manufacturing
We take a look at the possibilities and potential pitfalls of automation in the manufacturing industry.
The drive for automation is showing no signs of abating, with new manufacturing centres increasingly requiring automation technologies to be built in. ‘Smart’ manufacturing has become the watchword for companies in the industry. The Siemens Smart Manufacturing Innovation Centre in Chengdu, China, for instance, opened on 21 May this year. Ericsson, meanwhile, is planning to open an automated smart factory in the United States in 2020.
In a manufacturing context, automation takes many forms. Whether that’s 3D printers removing human error from the equation, quality control software increasing throughput or robots able to assemble parts with unrivalled speed and precision. In recent years, this activity has been supercharged by the maturation of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. Enabling the ‘smart’ manufacturing of the future, such advancements help to imbue automated solutions with qualities of human workers. A ‘dumb’ 3D printer will continue to print even if there has been a failure in the process, wasting resources. A ‘smart’ solution employing AI and machine learning, however, could recognise failure and take measures to abort or restart the process.
The business case for increasing automation is obvious, but anxieties persist about the impact such technologies will have. Research by Oxford Economics has suggested that, by 2030, 20mn manufacturing jobs will have been lost to robots, with those losses disproportionately affecting lower-skilled workers and those in poorer countries. Such an outlook is tempered, however, by the expected creation of as yet unknown industries made possible by robots. A 30% rise in robot installations worldwide, for instance, was estimated to create an additional $5tn in global GDP. The world is well on its way to meeting such targets, with the number of robots used in manufacturing tripling in the last 20 years. Oxford Economics forecasts that the world will have some 20mn manufacturing robots by 2030. A totally automated or ‘lights out’ factory has the attendant benefit of not requiring systems necessary for human workers, such as lighting and heating, thus reducing energy consumption.
To fulfil this demand, numerous companies are rising to the challenge across automation sectors old and new. The world’s largest industrial robot manufacturer is Fanuc. According to Robotics and Automation News, the company has installed some 400,000 of its robots in factories worldwide. Originating as part of Japanese giant Fujitsu, the company became independent in 1972. It is most active in the field of numerical control systems, i.e. programmable machines which might be capable of milling, punching or otherwise manipulating items dependent on the needs of their owner. Indeed, the company’s name is an initialism of Fuji Automatic Numerical Control. With revenue reaching some $4.79bn in FY17, the company is headquartered in the small Japanese village of Oshino.
It is, of course, necessary to act with intentionality when implementing automated solutions, and consequently, the services of automation experts are often required. Multinational Emerson Electric dedicates one of the two sides of its business to providing automation solutions, and in FY17 the company’s revenue reached $15.26bn. Providing automation services to industry, Emerson tailors its offerings to specific clients, saying on its website that its expertise moves away from standard approaches developed in decades past. As part of this, one of the company’s focuses is on implementing the Internet of Things (IoT) in industry. Its Plantweb ecosystem integrates products in the areas of production, reliability, safety and energy management. Emerson’s expertise extends across a broad swathe of different industries, including automotive, food and beverage, oil and gas, packaging and miningz
As well as the work of established giants such as Fanuc and Emerson, the future of automation will require the input of newcomers. Wandelbots is a German startup with a focus on what the company calls a ‘human-centered’ approach to robot programming. Having raised €6mn ($6.73mn) in series A funding, Wandelbots hopes to explode and disrupt the existing system of robot programming, which differs between companies and systems, by introducing demonstration-based machine teaching. Wearing a sensor filled jacket, users can perform actions which are then replicated by robots, drastically reducing the time taken and cost of programming. “We are providing a universal language to teach those robots in the same way, independent of the technology stack,” says CEO Christian Piechnick in TechCrunch.
Though automation, as we envisage it today, has existed since at least the 1940s and the advent of numerical control, it is clear that we are currently at the beginning of a new era of automation. With AI, machine learning, drones and other technologies all driving new developments in automation, manufacturing as we know it is being transformed, bringing new levels of efficiency and entirely new possibilities to industry.
Automation of repetitive tasks leads to higher value work
Two-thirds of global office workers feel they are constantly doing the same tasks over and over again. That’s according to a new study (2021 Office Worker Survey) from automation software company UiPath.
Whether emailing, inputting data, or scheduling calls and meetings, the majority of those surveyed said they waste on average four and a half hours a week on time-consuming tasks that they think could be automated.
Not only is the undertaking of such repetitious and mundane tasks a waste of time for employees, and therefore for businesses, but it can also have a negative impact on employees’ motivation and productivity. And the research backs this up with more than half (58%) of those surveyed saying that undertaking such repetitive tasks doesn’t allow them to be as creative as they’d like to be.
“When repetitive, unrewarding tasks are handled by people, it takes time and this can cause delays and reduce both employee and customer satisfaction,” Gavin Mee, Managing Director of UiPath Northern Europe tells Business Chief. “Repetitive tasks can also be tedious, which often leads to stress and an increased likelihood to leave a job.”
And these tasks exist at all levels within an organisation, right up to executive level, where there are “small daily tasks that can be automated, such as scheduling, logging onto systems and creating reports”, adds Mee.
Automation can free employees to focus on higher value work
By automating some or all of these repetitive tasks, employees at whatever level of the organisation are freed up to focus on meaningful work that is creative, collaborative and strategic, something that will not only help them feel more engaged, but also benefit the organisation.
“Automation can free people to do more engaging, rewarding and higher value work,” says Mee, highlighting that 68% of global workers believe automation will make them more productive and 60% of executives agree that automation will enable people to focus on more strategic work. “Importantly, 57% of executives also say that automation increases employee engagement, all important factors to achieving business objectives.”
These aren’t the only benefits, however. One of the problems with employees doing some of these repetitive tasks manually is that “people are fallible and make mistakes”, says Mee, whereas automation boosts accuracy and reduces manual errors by 57%, according to Forrester Research. Compliance is also improved, according to 92% of global organisations.
Repetitive tasks that can be automated
Any repetitive process can be automated, Mee explains, from paying invoices to dealing with enquiries, or authorising documents and managing insurance claims. “The process will vary from business to business, but office workers have identified and created software robots to assist with thousands of common tasks they want automated.”
These include inputting data or creating data sets, a time-consuming task that 59% of those surveyed globally said was the task they would most like to automate, with scheduling of calls and meetings (57%) and sending template or reminder emails (60%) also top of the automation list. Far fewer believed, however, that tasks such as liaising with their team or customers could be automated, illustrating the higher value of such tasks.
“By employing software robots to undertake such tasks, they can be handled much more quickly,” adds Mee pointing to OTP Bank Romania, which during the pandemic used an automation to process requests to postpone bank loan instalments. “This reduced the processing time of a single request from 10 minutes to 20 seconds, allowing the bank to cope with a 125% increase in the number of calls received by call centre agents.”
Mee says: “Automation accelerates digital transformation, according to 63% of global executives. It also drives major cost savings and improves business metrics, and because software robots can ramp-up quickly to meet spikes in demand, it improves resilience.
Five business areas that can be automated
Mee outlines five business areas where automation can really make a difference.
- Contact centres Whether a customer seeks help online, in-store or with an agent, the entire customer service journey can be automated – from initial interaction to reaching a satisfying outcome
- Finance and accounting Automation enables firms to manage tasks such as invoice processing, ensuring accuracy and preventing mistakes
- Human resources Automations can be used across the HR team to manage things like payroll, assessing job candidates, and on-boarding
- IT IT teams are often swamped in daily activity like on-boarding or off-boarding employees. Deploying virtual machines, provisioning, configuring, and maintaining infrastructure. These tasks are ideal for automation
- Legal There are many important administrative tasks undertaken by legal teams that can be automated. Often, legal professionals are creating their own robots to help them manage this work. In legal and compliance processes, that means attorneys and paralegals can respond more quickly to increasing demands from clients and internal stakeholders. Robots don’t store data, and the data they use is encrypted in transit and at rest, which improves risk profiling and compliance.
“To embark on an automation journey, organisations need to create a Centre of Excellence in which technical expertise is fostered,” explains Mee. “This group of experts can begin automating processes quickly to show return on investment and gain buy-in. This effort leads to greater interest from within the organisation, which often kick-starts a strategic focus on embedding automation.”