Digital transformation How to get started with automated manufacturing
Automated manufacturing continues to prove beneficial as companies struggle with various challenges around complex supply chains, varying consumer demands, evolving consumer protection standards and scarcity of production resources.
Integrating industrial automation and smart manufacturing solutions helps metalworking companies unlock better opportunities and meet market demands more effectively. What does it take for a company to initiate and sustain automated manufacturing systems? Here is what you should know when transitioning to automated manufacturing.
#1: Audit manufacturing workflows
Metalworking involves several interdependent processes — some are repetitive, time-consuming, and resource-intensive. Automating such processes enhances productivity, translating to better profitability in the long term.
The first step towards automated manufacturing is conducting an audit to identify challenges associated with established workflows, most of which are manual. This makes it easier to develop a roadmap for automated manufacturing and estimate resource requirements and the appropriate automation technologies.
The audit is also essential for evaluating safety and compliance requirements associated with the desired automation solutions. When conducting a workflow and resource requirements audit, metalworking companies should develop a standard checklist outlining critical inspection areas and simplify documentation and follow-ups.
Involve all stakeholders and consider the perspectives of different employees, including production floor workers, safety supervisors, maintenance personnel and management. These audits prepare employees for upcoming workflow changes, making the transition from manual to digital systems seamless.
#2: Develop automation implementation plans
Companies require a robust automated manufacturing plan that defines crucial milestones, allowable budgets, and trade-offs when evaluating various automation technologies and performance indicators.
For instance, the company should develop a matrix for choosing between different manufacturing technologies. Should they implement industrial robots or numerically controlled machines first? The company should also identify individuals to spearhead the transition. The implementation plan should outline infrastructure reinforcement requirements over fixed timelines to minimise interruptions to production schedules.
The implementation plan breaks down various milestones into small manageable projects to reduce the margins of error and simplify the deployment of different automation technologies. Also, it ensures metalworking companies deploy automated manufacturing without overstretching their budgets — ensuring they choose the right technology for specific workflows and prioritize spending based on prevailing challenges.
The plan outlines changes in existing maintenance strategies, with metalworking companies focusing more on automated industrial maintenance. Appoint an automation champion to oversee the transition to automated manufacturing and provide technical support to production teams.
#3: Run a pilot program
A pilot program allows metal manufacturers to automate a few processes to test the effectiveness of different technology solutions in overcoming daily manufacturing challenges and facilitate data collection. It is a learning curve that manufacturers can use to validate automation concepts and identify possible implementation constraints.
Transitioning to automated manufacturing demands changes in routine workflows, and metalworking companies may face various risks that could hurt their profitability. A pilot automated manufacturing program allows them to test and evaluate innovative solutions in a controlled environment.
It is beneficial for identifying and mitigating potential risks before the company scales operations. The pilot program, although limited, offers metalworking facilities a chance to estimate returns on investment and evaluate possible cost-saving measures.
Manufacturers can leverage this phase to train employees and familiarize them with advanced production technologies, preparing everyone in the company for full-scale implementation of automated manufacturing.
#4: Analyze and improve automation projects
Once metal manufacturers begin the pilot automation program, they should collect sufficient data and monitor various technologies to validate the need for particular technologies in streamlining routine workflows.
Most automated manufacturing technologies continuously collect and store process data. Data analysis is essential for developing continuous improvement programs and scaling up automation technologies — the company can build a strong case for full-scale automation based on verifiable data.
Analysing process data provides manufacturers with valuable insights needed to optimise operations and maximize automated systems productivity. They acquire more data as it scales up automation technologies on the production floor, unearthing more metalworking inefficiencies and monitoring quality trends based on real-time performances of various automated technologies.
Metal manufacturers leverage analysed data to improve the effectiveness of manufacturing systems. Also, they can integrate the data into maintenance programs to predict maintenance needs, helping metalworking facilities implement proactive, data-driven maintenance programs to reduce operational costs and maximise the availability of critical production assets.
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#5: Continuously train employees
Automated manufacturing is a dependable solution to the looming skilled labor shortage. Some employees have an impression that industrial automation technologies can replace them. However, automation can optimise the productivity of these employees.
The manufacturers should invest in continuous employee training to enhance their technical know-how and help them transition to advanced manufacturing. Training enables employees to understand how automated manufacturing systems work, the safety risks associated with these systems, asset care standards, and recommended data logging procedures.
Investing in continuous employee training reduces the resistance to change from employees who perceive automated manufacturing technologies as human replacements. The training programs should evaluate skill needs and be customised for various categories of production floor workers.
Manufacturers should explore ways to deliver theoretical, simulated, and on-the-job training to ensure employees gain enough practical skills to operate, troubleshoot, and maintain automated manufacturing systems.
Shifting to automated manufacturing might sound complex and expensive. However, with the right plan, metal manufacturers can effectively transition from manual to automated manufacturing at a reasonable cost. They can implement automated manufacturing solutions to address productivity gaps in their facilities.
Metalworking facilities can implement these technologies in phases and leverage process data for continuous improvement. Also, they should monitor automated manufacturing trends to identify advanced solutions that enhance routine metalworking operations.
* Bryan Christiansen is the founder and CEO of Limble CMMS.