Automating a manual process can greatly increase the productivity of a manufacturing facility. It can reduce overall system life cycle costs, reduce machine start-up time, and improve product quality and consistency. It can also increase the time to market of products through the speed, responsiveness and flexibility of an automated system. All manufacturing processes of all scales will benefit from automation. We outline a number of key considerations to undertake when planning a shift to automation from manual manufacturing processes.

Identify your needs

Techniques such as the use of process flow diagrams and cycle time analysis may be used to identify problems. Sources of variation caused by manual operations can be determined from review of quality data. Operator participation in the analysis is important to assist in identifying opportunities and potential solutions. Such an approach ensures the automation is focused and will be as simple as possible.

Big Picture View – effect of the automation on the entire process flow

Bottlenecks, hitherto non-existent, may be unintentionally created in downstream processes if unreasonably confining your automation process planning to only the singular process to be automated. The bigger picture of the entire process flow should always be kept in mind. Adherence to the principles of lean manufacturing during automation planning results in an efficient and lean implementation.

Ensure the automation technology fits the company

Keep things simple and resist the urge to over-engineer: implement the most cost effective technology. The automation technology chosen should be reliable, straightforward to use, and easy to repair and maintain. Preference should be given to equipment with as much flexibility built into it as possible to allow for future upgrades or alternative applications.

Understanding core operations

A company needs to understand its operations thoroughly prior to implementing automation in order to derive optimum benefits. More importantly, gain sufficient know-how on the process that is to be automated. The key to the success of these projects is an open-minded, executive support and sponsorship and a well documented, progressing time-line of achievements to justify the project efforts.

Workforce Expertise

The technical expertise of your current staff should be taken into consideration when implementing an automation system. They should understand all aspect of the automation process. Evaluate your employees skill set to determine the kind of training to provide to match the needs of the automation system. The uptake of the automation by your employees and achieving shorter paybacks lies in integrating the new automation into the employees daily cycle of work.

Top level management should be involved on an ongoing basis in the project implementation. When people in charge are not willing to pro-actively manage automation, they diminish the likelihood of project success. Project management involves ensuring all stakeholders are on the same page, information gathering and distribution, planning, budgetary control, employee evaluation etc.

The proven benefits of automation in manufacturing processes cannot be ignored. Most companies have implemented automation in all their processes making it a way of life for any serious manufacturer. Embracing automation will help your company leap forward to full process efficiency and productivity.