With manufacturers increasingly embracing robotics on the shop floor, the benefits are well publicised, but the risks are addressed less frequently. By Jo-Anne Ruhl, Managing Director, Infor Pacific.

Modern IT technologies are set to reinvent the manufacturing industry and turn factories into digital enterprises. Since the introduction of advanced software and disruptive technologies such as the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), cloud computing and social media, manufacturers have managed to keep up with the escalating expectations of the modern consumer and remain competitive.

These advances have seen the growing introduction of robotics in the workforce to assist in managing business efficiency. Some tech enthusiasts even project a new era of “lights out factories”, which can largely operate without the need for human engagement.

And so this raises a number of questions: will this reliance on automation be a positive trend for manufacturing or will it bring with it unexpected risks? Can manufacturers rely too heavily on automation and fall into auto-pilot complacency?

These are certainly questions with no easy answers, but they deserve further consideration.

Ever-evolving automation

The current state of shop floor automation has changed drastically over the last five years. IT capabilities bring advanced software functionality, highly flexible infrastructures and more options in deployment, including Software as a Service (SaaS) and cloud computing. A Chief Information Officer must, at times, feel like the so-called kid in a candy store as these technologies bring a myriad of options for unprecedented functionality and automation.

In order to remain competitive, it is important for organisations to continually evaluate their current processes and look for opportunities for improvement. When reviewing automation options, manufacturers should keep in mind that it is important to deploy a solution that is highly flexible and will allow for future expansion and enhancements. It’s also important to choose solutions that can be accessed through a variety of devices.

One example is robotic technologies, which have created a paradigm shift in the manufacturing sector. The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) estimates that Australia is sitting at the world average level, with just above 55 robots per 10,000 employees, and some 139,300 industrial robots sold in 2014 across Australia, New Zealand and Asia collectively. For SMEs, this automation provides a flexible solution to increase efficiency of production and remain competitive in their industry. Customers are now offered greater speed, more product options and greater value.

For the manufacturer that needs agility and speed of implementation, cloud deployment offers a smart solution and is helping manufacturers keep up with the rising expectations of modern business. As well as benefiting from greater collaboration and increased mobility and flexibility, industry-specific cloud designs mean organisations can streamline production and improve quality. This provides accurate configuration-specific information to manufacturing, which can also lead to additional cost savings.

A recent survey conducted by IDG Research indicates that manufacturers are increasingly turning to cloud-based solutions in order to meet aggressive growth plans. Half of all respondents cited the need to keep up with complex regulation requirements as one important driving force. IT managers, in particular, said standardising locations, improving service speed and managing erratic supply and demand are all vital for their business growth and success — issues that cloud deployment simplifies.

Social business technologies such as Infor Ming.le have also recently become favoured for their potential to drive bottom-line benefits. These include employee engagement and collaboration, faster decision-making and improved knowledge retention. By embedding this collaborative platform into the organisational system, it operates as the company’s primary vehicle for facilitating connectivity and all employee interaction.

Whilst the use of automation has grown exponentially over the last five years, the degree of automation used by a particular organisation still fluctuates between the extremes of “nice to have” to an absolute necessity. The type of vertical industry, the business model and the size of the organisation all influence the degree of automation that is practical and cost-effective.

Manufacturers must continually evaluate the results, not only in terms of increased productivity, but the improved insights into customer needs and enhanced ability to predict customer trends. Automation, when fully integrated into the company’s enterprise resource planning and customer relationship management tools, can help support a full customer-centric approach. This differentiates an organisation’s services and provides an opportunity to gain an advantage over industry competitors. A focus on customer relationships helps to elevate loyalty, thus making buying decisions transcend price alone.

While automation is essential today, it is just one element of the smart manufacturing redesign. Manufacturing is still about innovation, customer insights and applying data for creative problem-solving. Machines, internet connectivity and advanced software solutions cannot replace the creative spark of the people who manage the automation. Similarly, building a successful social business strategy must consist of more than simply tacking a Facebook-like collaborative platform onto existing organisational systems.

Finding the right balance between convenience, speed and a measurable ROI is the critical part of this automation journey. Simply automating because “it’s possible” is a dangerous undertaking, which can divert valuable resources away from other IT initiatives that could provide meaningful results. Automation is a tool, but not the end-all solution. It frees people from the burden of repetitive tasks and allows them to focus on the truly essential elements that only humans can do: designing game-changing products and building relationships with customers.