Optimising manufacturing efficiency - through pragmatic automation

Optimising manufacturing efficiency - through pragmatic automation

January 2024

by the 42T Manufacturing & Automation Team

In an era of intense competition and labour shortages, the manufacturing sector faces a stark reality; either adopt pragmatic automation or risk losing any competitive edge. At 42T, we’re witnessing first hand the transformative power of well implemented automation solutions in many of the businesses we work with. This article explores the insights we’ve uncovered  within this transformation and demonstrates how businesses can move forward effectively with pragmatic automation.

The manufacturing sector is defined by a wide range of complex and diverse tasks and processes, all operating under the pressure of production demands and time constraints. For this reason, the sector has traditionally relied on a large workforce with diverse skill sets and expertise. However, labour shortages often mean that manufacturing organisations need to seek innovative ways to operate with fewer staff. 

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Retirement of superstar operators or the loss of labour to competitors is a significant risk for many companies, jeopardising their competitive edge and operational efficiency. Simultaneously, the rise of casual staffing means that while there might be enough workers on site, those workers may lack the necessary expertise for all aspects of manufacturing operations. Moreover, high turnover rates and seasonal employment demands may require extensive training, further straining resources. The inevitable consequence is delays, operational inefficiencies, and a weakened competitive position.

Many manufacturing businesses would benefit from pragmatic automation approaches to maintain operations despite fluctuating staffing levels and lack of expertise due to casual staffing. Automation, of course, is not a new concept in manufacturing, but its adoption has been incremental. As technology advances, the trend of investing in automation is expected to accelerate. From a new generation of flexible and versatile machines that can work side-by-side with the human workforce to AI and machine learning, allowing machines to learn from data and experience, it’s easy to get swept up in the possibilities of automation.

Despite this, it’s important to remember that automation is not always about replacing people – it’s often about maximising people’s productivity by enhancing their capabilities and reducing their workload.

There may be many tasks – such as inspecting and rejecting a poor product, adjusting machine settings, troubleshooting errors, or responding to changes in customer demand – that might make replacing the entirety of a person’s role with a robot impossible or impractical. Automated assembly machines can perform repetitive and precise tasks faster and more accurately than humans, but they still need human supervision and intervention to ensure quality and safety. For example, a survey by McKinsey & Co found that 83% of industrial companies had already implemented, or were likely to implement, automation in palletisation and packaging – one industrial activity that needs little human intervention. However, this figure was only 43% for surface treatment and stamping, and as low as 28% for welding and soldering where employees were still predominantly doing these tasks manually.

We’re already working with manufacturing organisations looking to overcome staffing challenges and improve production line performance through automation. Recently, two of our snack food manufacturing clients approached us looking for help reducing their reliance on workers performing tricky manual tasks or correcting mistakes made by automation upstream in the process. Through a detailed assessment of their procedures, we identified key steps where simple automation could de-skill the process. These pragmatic automation steps allowed all operators to achieve the level of performance previously only achieved by the best operators.

To us, it’s clear that the key is to invest intelligently in automation. It’s not about automating for the sake of it; it’s about identifying and investing in areas that yield maximum efficiency gains. Misdirected automation investments can be just as detrimental as a lack of automation. Companies face a dual threat: falling behind due to insufficient automation or wasting resources on ineffective solutions.

From working closely with manufacturers adopting pragmatic automation, we’ve identified that before successful automation is possible, manufacturing businesses need first to formalise their procedures and capture the expert knowledge of their most experienced individuals. This begins with recording all the steps required in specific processes, including often missed ‘hidden’ tasks, such as any non-obvious visual observations that would lead an operator to reject a part or repeat a step. It’s essential to consider the decisions that a human would naturally make that a machine would not – for example, a recipe doesn’t specifically tell you to throw out any rotten eggs, but a cook would know instinctively to do so. By specifying every element of human expertise and interaction that goes into a process, organisations can more accurately assess the real tasks and decisions being carried out. This allows them to pinpoint the most challenging tasks for human operators and identify where automation can be most cost-effectively and efficiently applied.

In conclusion, the stark choice facing the manufacturing sector is between pragmatic automation and a future marred by inefficiency, delays, and a loss of competitive edge. It’s essential for businesses to meticulously analyse where pragmatic automation can be implemented to bolster efficiency and maintain a competitive advantage. The investment in the latest technologies and expert consultation is not just advisable – it is essential for survival in today’s market. 

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