A recent survey conducted by the Made Smarter North West pilot of small businesses operating in the region, found that too many were operating without a strategic plan when it came to digitalisation and investing in new technology.
“Manufacturers recognise that digital tools and technology are essential to remain competitive, cut costs, increase growth, and enhance the customer experience, and without capitalising on the opportunities digital technology offers, risk getting left behind,” said Donna Edwards, programme director for the Made Smarter North West pilot. “But it is also clear that too many makers have employed technology without the technical understanding of which areas to focus on first – which leads to disparate, disconnected equipment, and increases the risk of wasted time, money and effort.”
Manufacturers must take a strategic approach to capitalise on technology adoption yet, according to this survey, 55% don’t include technology in their vision and growth strategy, despite there being a huge appetite and motivation to introduce new digital tools into their operations.
The research suggests that too few UK businesses are approaching the opportunities and challenges of Industrial 4.0 in a planned, strategic manner and despite an appetite for technology adoption, barriers remain with the biggest being insufficient capital and a need for guidance.
According to Edwards, “Before implementing technology, makers need to consider whether they have a culture of innovation, the right skill sets, good digital leadership, and the buy-in and support of the team. Then they need to identify the most effective technologies to overcome their operational challenges and create a digital transformation roadmap to help them achieve their goals.”
Jumping in the deep end
“Too often businesses think they need to jump in at the deep end and deploy automation technology straight away, hoping it will solve problems they are experiencing. But if the aim is to improve efficiency and productivity, technology is just one part of the overall solution,” explained Dr Paul Rivers, CEO, Guidance Automation a specialist in autonomous mobile robots.
According to Dr Rivers for a successful automation programme companies need to take into account the process needs and its people, as well as the technology, so that automation can not only augment the workers’ experience but help transform productivity.
“Industry 4.0 can transform organisations’ processes and operations. It can revolutionise productivity, improve accuracy and unleash new levels of efficiency. It can help in operating environments where skills are thin on the ground and staff recruitment and retention is a challenge. For many, automation often appears to be a fast track to nirvana. Yet the reality is somewhat different,” Dr Rivers warned.
Automation should not be viewed as a direct replacement for a human workforce – and while it offers huge opportunities to improve productivity, it’s currently unable to replicate the activities of a human workforce in a like for like manner.
“By failing to truly consider how the technology will be deployed – and, critically, how it will work in tandem with a human workforce – organisations are failing to get the point of automation or reap the rewards,” he said.
According to Steve Richmond, Director Logistics Systems at Jungheinrich, an intralogistics provider, the key to successful automation is taking a staggered approach.
“Instead of completely overhauling your current setup, it should be about deploying the right technology and processes in collaboration with the right people, at the right time,” he suggested.
“This collaborative approach is more than plugging different systems together. It’s about combining people, process and technology together to achieve common goals.”
The aim for a company should be about creating a highly motivated and skilled workforce that’s willing to embrace new opportunities that are derived through automation.
According to Richmond it is only possible to achieve the best results when companies are clear and concise about the specific business objectives they aim to meet, as well as having their customer expectations and emerging technology solutions in mind.
“By transitioning in stages you will allow the workforce to gradually understand and become familiar with each stage of the automated process and enjoy the benefits,” said Richmond.
Industry 4.0 is compelling and businesses in all sectors are finding new, innovative and cost-effective ways to better their processes whether that involves the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV).
When it comes to implementation while some mistakes are basic, usually when it comes to installation, others are more fundamental, such as overlooking the implications of dropping technology into a workplace without engaging the workforce.
“Either can lead to serious operational problems that risk derailing essential investment in improvement,” Dr Rivers said.
Assessing the way in which automation will fit within an existing process is vital.
“If, for example, one of the biggest issues within a warehouse is vehicle congestion, especially at peak times, simply replacing human operated vehicles with autonomous vehicles, without considering the timing and location of the routes, is not going to address the problem.
“Reconsidering the traffic flow, the way orders are batched, the tasks and schedules is essential if you want to maximise the specific value of this type of investment,” said Dr Rivers.
When it comes to investing in technology, running a simulation of how an automated model will work in practice will be essential and optimising any new process can still be derailed if the workforce does not understand how to work with new technology.
“Ensuring people are part of this process from the very beginning is essential because their day to day activities will change,” explained Dr Rivers.
When technology can completely eradicate arduous or repetitive tasks, individuals tend to respond well to the change.
“But people need to be educated, trained and confident. They need to understand how the technology works and how they work together. A workforce that does not understand the system will neither work, or be harmonious,” warned the doctor.
The skillsets required will need to change but in a market desperate to recruit and retain experienced individuals, the use of automation will provide companies with the opportunity to retrain and retain highly skilled staff.
Highlighting the specific skills that are simply not in the purview of automation today is an important part of this automation evolution and key to creating an operating environment that combines excellent technology with an engaged and motivated workforce.
“The automation technologies available to organisations today are compelling. From autonomous mobile robots to automated guidance vehicles, as Industry 4.0 gains both momentum and maturity, confidence in the quality of the technology to deliver and enable significant operational change will continue to grow. But, if businesses fail to get processes aligned and truly understand the goal of any automation investment, problems will arise,” said Dr River.
By considering both the processes and people, organisations can take a far more intelligent approach to automation.
Combining analytics to monitor conditions in real time will also enable continuous improvement.
“The technology is brilliant; but it is the way technology is deployed and the way people are managed and skilled, that is the key to truly realising the potential of automation,” concluded Dr River