IfM Insights
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IfM Insights

What, how and when to automate

Automation can be the answer to a whole host of manufacturing and operations questions. But deciding what, how and when to automate is not straightforward, says Liz Salter at IfM Engage.

Feasibility

Consider how likely a solution is to succeed. There are many kinds of digital solutions available on the market today, with many solution providers ready to compete for your custom. Making a list of your short- and long-term needs and identifying automation solutions that match them is a sensible first step which will help you ensure you’re meeting a need which actually exists. The Digital Manufacturing on a Shoestring project, based at the IfM, is a good place to start if you’re a small- to medium-sized company looking for low-cost off-the-shelf solutions. We can help you to identify a process or a part of production to automate that doesn’t cost the earth and allows you to try out small-scale digital solutions that won’t disrupt your core operations.

Machines vs humans

Machines may be efficient, but they don’t have the versatility or creativity of human beings. It doesn’t take much to mean they stop working properly, whereas human workers can apply ingenuity and imagination to get around the problem. Be wary of costly machines that do a highly specific job. If production were to shift, a human worker is more adaptable than a large piece of kit that no longer fits into your plans.

Implementation challenges

Don’t underestimate the implementation challenges that come along with automation. It’s crucial to consider the job that workers are currently doing. More often than not, the job includes subtleties such as detailed quality checking which won’t be able to be done via automation. Think carefully about what the job involves and the value which is added by a human being. Most people aren’t lucky enough to work off a green field site but have an existing factory, so it’s also important to look at existing legacy equipment and kit to work out how well, or not, automation systems can integrate.

Impact on current processes

It’s important to consider the effect of automation on your current processes. Ask yourself: How will automation impact your product?

Skills and maintenance

The reliance on automation creates more demand for skilled maintenance and service technician jobs. For example, when equipment runs into problems, it needs to be back up and running as quickly as possible. Do you have access to these skills, and the resources to fund them?

Implementing automation successfully

It is never too early to consider the potential automation can offer you and your business. But preparing for and considering some of the challenges posed by automaton will require consideration of the entire business processes, as well as the culture of the whole organisation.

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