From a human perspective, the factory floor is becoming an increasingly lonely place.

While the most productive factories used to be those that were swarming with workers, today many are dominated by robots and other machinery. These automated factory workforces are often left to their own devices, apart from a smattering of humans whose role is to supervise and step in if anything goes wrong.

This post explores the different levels of automation in today’s factories, the benefits of automating, and how it should be approached to ensure the most effective outcomes.

What is factory automation?

Factory automation is a category of digital transformation where technology-based processes within a manufacturing facility replace manual, human-centric processes.

In scenarios where processes are automated, businesses are either reducing or re-allocating their labor resources to focus on other value-added activities.

4 Types of factory automation

Factory automation covers a wide spectrum: from enhancing a single manual process along the production line to rolling out a full-scale “lights out” transformation where human involvement is removed almost entirely. The steps along the automation spectrum are:

1. Partial process automation

An element of automation is incorporated into a factory process where a human worker is in charge. Simple, repetitive tasks are automated but responsibility for the final outcome—such as ensuring quality assurance standards for what leaves the workstation—remains in the hands of a human operator.

2. Single automated machines

Machines designed to carry out one specific, repetitive task take the automation process to the next level. These tasks can include robotic actions such as cutting, welding, packing, or even defect detection using computer vision.

3. Automated production lines

Having a combination of automated machines, each performing a specific task and typically linked through a conveyor system, further reduces the need for human involvement on the factory floor. With an automated production line in place, the role of the workforce shifts to focusing on supervising, monitoring, and maintaining the equipment, rather than carrying out the actual production process.

4. Fully automated/end-to-end automation

At the furthest end of the automation spectrum is the “lights out” or dark manufacturing environment where a fully automated set-up allows production to continue 24 hours a day, seven days a week without any human input or oversight.

Benefits of automating your factory

Factory automation offers a range of benefits. Depending on their goals, organizations will have differing priorities and expectations when embarking on an automation journey. In general, however, the benefits of automation include:

Improved productivity

A key goal of any automation—from partial process changes to end-to-end transformation—is often to improve productivity by reducing the limitations that human workers impose on a production process. Unlike people, machines can work continuously enabling businesses to increase their production capacity by a significant margin.

Improved quality and consistency

Beyond productivity gains, the repeatability of automated processes means they can often produce finished products of a higher quality and consistency than those produced using human labor.

Reduced waste

Repeatability can also enable improved planning, which in turn leads to opportunities to reduce waste.

Cost saving

While automation inevitably involves an initial capital outlay, long-term cost savings through the combination of benefits listed above can provide a compelling reason for a factory to go down the automation route. As well as enabling savings through improved productivity and quality, and reduced waste, effective automation should also reduce downtime and staff training costs, further reducing costs.

Safer working conditions

By removing workers from exposure to production hazards, automated factories reduce health and safety risks to staff, providing a happy combination of a safer working environment and the elimination of accident-related costs.

The problem with excessive automation

While process automation can result in many of the benefits outlined above, complete and total automation can be something of a fool’s errand. One notable case where excessive automation resulted in diminishing returns was Tesla’s production of the Model 3 in 2018.

After Tesla outlined their ambitious production goals, largely driven by automation of the vertically integrated production of electric vehicles, Elon Musk faced significant criticism when the company was unable to meet its production targets.

When asked, Musk confirmed that one reason Tesla failed to reach their target production volumes was due to excessive automation. He noted, “We had this crazy, complex network of conveyor belts…And it was not working, so we got rid of that whole thing.”

How to approach factory automation in your business

While the potential upside of factory automation is significant, the outlay required is also extensive, and it is important not to begin automating without developing a robust strategy that encompasses the following elements:

Understand your goals

The return on investment from an automation project will vary depending on how it is applied throughout the factory with automation of some systems generating a stronger, more immediate ROI than others. Therefore, it’s vital to establish which processes on the factory floor should be automated first. When considering the spectrum of automation, understand which small steps, such as the introduction of single automated machines, will deliver the best ROI given your specific needs.

Ensure all stakeholders are aligned

Once an automation plan has been drafted, it’s important to achieve buy-in for the initiative from stakeholders throughout the organization. The evidence in support of an automation strategy should be clear to all parties: a board of directors concerned about the capital cost of the project will be convinced if the downstream productivity improvements (and therefore profitability) are evident. Similarly, the workforce may be concerned that automation will lead to job losses, while an effective strategy may actually result in enhanced health and safety outcomes and opportunities for staff to upskill from labor-intensive work to more fulfilling roles focused on oversight of the new automated processes.

Evaluate tools and technology

Take the time to fully evaluate the tools and technology available to achieve the required automation outcomes. It’s easy for organizations to over-specify and over-complicate the journey towards what they are aiming to achieve—and in the process spend much more than is necessary. Getting the balance right requires starting with a solid understanding of existing manufacturing systems.

Measure the impact on productivity

To ensure automation initiatives deliver on their potential, invest in tools to measure the impact of the changes your organization is making. To get a complete picture of the ROI from your digital transformation, it’s important to measure the increase in productivity over time.

Ensure automation is on your agenda

Factory automation is inevitable across all areas of production given the productivity and quality benefits it delivers. But like any evolution, it requires planning to roll out effectively.

As you consider your options when it comes to factory automation, understand that “excessive automation” can ultimately hinder your productivity, like in the case of Tesla and so many other businesses that over-indexed on their digital transformation initiatives.

At Tulip, we advocate for an Augmented Lean approach to digitalization where businesses consider how their workforce can be best utilized, and how technology can fill the gaps when it comes to tasks such as data collection and record keeping. This human-centric approach enables a more sustainable digital transformation as well as a culture of continuous improvement.

If you’re interested in learning how Tulip can help automate the non-value added activities across your operations, reach out to a member of our team today!

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