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The Quest to Identify and Automate Manufacturing Processes

May 7, 2024

With the drive to reshore manufacturing operations back to the United States, automation is increasingly viewed as a crucial enabler to make domestic production economically viable versus offshore alternatives. However, according to Forrester’s 2024 Smart Manufacturing Predictions, implementing software and hardware automation to boost competitiveness in reshored facilities has proven more challenging than expected. 

One of the critical factors contributing to this challenge, according to the report, is the difficulty manufacturers face in identifying processes that are well-suited for automation. Pinpointing the right processes to automate is a crucial first step, but that’s often easier said than done.

The complexities of automating processes

Manufacturers face several obstacles when identifying ideal candidates for automation initiatives. For some processes, intricate customer preferences or stringent regulatory requirements introduce a level of complexity that can make it challenging to determine which aspects can be automated without sacrificing quality or flexibility. For instance, in the pharmaceutical industry, manufacturing processes must adhere to stringent regulatory guidelines to ensure product safety and efficacy. Automating such processes requires a nuanced approach to preserve compliance. 

Similarly, in industries like automotive manufacturing, where customer preferences play a pivotal role, processes often involve a high degree of variability and customization. Automating these processes without sacrificing the ability to cater to diverse customer demands presents a different set of challenges.

And in processes that have been developed in a non-standard manner due to existing systems and equipment, there is often a reliance on manual interventions and inconsistent data input, making such processes harder to automate. For instance, a manufacturing plant may have processes that require operators to manually adjust settings or input data, leading to variations in the process. Standardizing these processes and ensuring consistent data collection is crucial before automation can be successfully implemented.

Cost justification is another critical challenge when considering process automation. Manufacturers must develop realistic estimates of the potential benefits associated with automation, including projected gains in productivity, improvements in quality and reductions in labor or maintenance costs. The cost of implementing a flexible automation system may be difficult to justify if the projected productivity gains are marginal or if the system requires frequent retooling, leading to extended downtimes.

Manufacturers must also consider the human element when identifying processes for automation. Employees may fear that automation will lead to job losses, causing them to resist learning new skills or adapting to new processes. Developing a change management strategy is crucial to address resistance to change and concerns about job displacement. This may involve upskilling or reskilling strategies to ensure that employees are prepared for new roles and responsibilities in an automated environment.

Aligning automation with business strategy

In addition to the complexities involved with process automation, it’s also crucial to connect any automation efforts to specific business strategy aspects to further ensure success. To effectively align automation initiatives with overarching business objectives, manufacturers should take a strategic approach that considers the following key factors:

  • Conduct a comprehensive assessment: Before embarking on any automation project, manufacturers should thoroughly evaluate their current processes, identifying bottlenecks, inefficiencies and areas where automation could yield the most significant benefits. This assessment should consider factors such as cost, quality, flexibility and customer requirements.
  • Prioritize high-impact processes: Manufacturers should focus their automation efforts on processes that have the greatest potential to drive business value. This may involve targeting processes with high volumes, labor-intensive tasks, or those that significantly impact product quality or customer satisfaction. By prioritizing these high-impact processes, manufacturers can ensure that their automation investments yield maximum returns. 
  • Develop a clear roadmap: Once high-priority processes have been identified, manufacturers should create a clear roadmap for automation implementation. This roadmap should outline specific goals, timelines and milestones, as well as the resources required to achieve them. By establishing a well-defined plan, manufacturers can ensure that their automation initiatives remain on track and aligned with their broader business objectives. 
  • Foster cross-functional collaboration: Successful automation projects require close collaboration between various departments, including operations, engineering, IT and finance. By fostering a culture of cross-functional collaboration, manufacturers can ensure that automation initiatives are designed and implemented in a way that considers the needs and perspectives of all stakeholders. 
  • Invest in employee training and development: As automation transforms the manufacturing landscape, it’s crucial to invest in employee training and development programs. By equipping workers with the skills needed to thrive in an automated environment, manufacturers can not only mitigate concerns about job displacement but also cultivate a workforce that is better prepared to leverage the benefits of automation. 
  • Monitor and optimize continuously: Aligning automation with business strategies is an ongoing process that requires continuous monitoring and optimization. Manufacturers should regularly assess the performance of their automated systems, making adjustments as needed to ensure that they continue to deliver value and support broader business objectives. By taking a strategic, data-driven approach to automation that prioritizes high-impact processes, fosters collaboration and invests in employee development, manufacturers can effectively align their automation initiatives with overarching business goals. 

Eric Binning is senior enterprise software solution consultant at Rockwell Automation.

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