As the technological landscape continues to grow and develop, manufacturers want to better understand the role of automation software and how to apply modern technologies to their factory floor, supply chain management, product design, and quality control activities. They want to reap the benefits of automation, whilst feeling confident that critical processes aren’t being jeopardised. By Helen Masters.

When the term ‘automation’ is mentioned, many people first think of robots, drones, and machinery becoming self-aware and taking over the plant – and the world. This is one of the greatest misconceptions associated with these modern technologies. Rather, a range of automation tools are available, which can streamline tasks, predict outcomes, suggest best practices, initiate action, monitor progress, and alert managers when there is an incident that demands attention.

While there are many, enterprise resource planning (ERP) solutions are one of the most basic forms of automation. These modern solutions streamline processes by directly rerouting incidents to the relevant department using event and workflow management. They are also able to automatically issue standard communications such as a daily inventory reports or shop floor schedules, to the right people at designated times.

Other built-in automation tactics can help personnel stay on track by following prescribed company policies. For example, if a customer’s account goes past 90 days, the account can be locked so additional orders aren’t started until payment is received. Such rules-based events can help managers feel confident that company policies are being followed – even when several locations are dispersed over a wide geography.

Built-in automation can also help by pushing relevant contextual information to personnel, such as alerting the Operations Manager if delivery of a critical component is late. Such tools can also notify a person if the inventories drops below certain points, or even go a step further to automatically send an order to a preapproved supplier. Although these may seem like small examples of automation, this eliminates the necessity of a person executing a routine step; it leads to tight controls, speeds response times and frees individuals to focus on more critical roles

However, for all manufacturers and metalworkers alike, the time and efforts invested in the implementation of automation solutions needs to be justified by sufficient ROI.

Quality control is one of the most important benefits of automation in manufacturing. In an earlier era, a final quality check could be made late in the process after final assembly. Today, it is more cost-effective to proactively identify defects and make necessary changes early in the work cycle. In automation, sensors can be set to microns and nanoseconds and monitor specifications and quality conditions more precisely and objectively than a human.

The early detection and correction of equipment performance issues is another benefit of automatic monitoring, and can have mechanical failures attended to at the first sign of trouble. This can minimise operational delays by automatically scheduling a technician, ordering a replacement part, rerouting scheduled work to a different machine, notifying customers of a potential delay, or adjusting projections for completing orders.

Incorporating automation

Once you’ve made the decision to incorporate automation into your factory – where do you start?

One of the first places to deploy automation is on the shop floor. This can include help in scheduling and routing work orders through the operations process, eliminating idle machines and cutting unnecessary movement of goods through the plant. Automating workflows takes advantage of calculated cycle times, production capacity and demand to get the most efficient combination of jobs on the floor at a given time.

Other shop floor automation steps can include inspections, routing work orders, assigning relevant personnel to jobs, and tracking KPIs for different roles and departments so those regularly falling below or above standards can trigger alerts to managers.

Automatic response to order changes is another basic step that manufacturers should consider. If order changes are frequent, they can cause major complications. Each change affects multiple steps or departments. This chain reaction can be automated so that no step is overlooked or no department fails to get the new specifications. The account history, product order, inventory, quote, and invoicing can be adjusted as well. Controlling this process saves lost income from extra parts or engineering time.

Compliance with strict government regulation can also be monitored by IT solutions. Deadlines, percentage of completion, project tracking, specifications, and reporting requirements can be tracked with IT, and reports can be generated automatically.

Although some processes and critical decisions within metalworking simply cannot be relinquished to the IT system, many more can benefit from automation. For managers, the goal must be to become familiar with the automation tools available and which of those offer significant savings and improvement.

As competition continues to place pressure on manufacturers to cut waste and control costs, automation becomes increasingly important. Now manufacturers should be asking when, rather than why, they should move away from manual solutions and embrace a more agile, reliable and automated work model.

Helen Masters is Vice-President & Managing Director of Infor South Asia – Pacific and ASEAN.