It’s easy to picture manufacturing automation as robots piecing parts together on an assembly line. However, the real opportunities for achieving greater productivity through manufacturing automation exist behind the scenes — in the processes, workflows and communication lines leading up to production.
The startups emerging in the manufacturing space already know this. Born in the cloud, these new players understand how to leverage automation and data to complete processes faster and cheaper than their more established competitors. Meanwhile, the industry’s older players are trying to innovate and play catch up, but enacting change in a large traditional corporation can be like steering a cruise ship — more slow and steady than fast and disruptive.
With all the coordination and heavy lifting that goes into digitally transforming larger organizations’ manufacturing processes, these parties have a greater incentive to approach an automation plan with extreme diligence. But with the many processes that power manufacturing operations, where should organizations begin applying automated solutions?
Finding opportunity in automation
Change is occurring in multiple realms of the manufacturing space, with nimbler startups posing competition for larger organizations. On top of the tighter competition, industry output is 47 percent higher than it was 20 years ago. These added pressures are changing the way the space operates, to the point where one-third of all manufacturing supply chains will be automated by the end of 2020, according to IDC.
With the stakes rising, it’s in the best interest of organizations to start the automation implementation process sooner rather than later in order to keep up with the growing pace of the industry. But understanding which processes are ripe for automation can trip up some teams.
Part of the challenge lies in recognizing that smaller steps of a workflow are often the best candidates for transformative automation. But in attempting to think bigger, manufacturing leaders can overlook these opportunities. Conversely, they can be overly focused on totally automating complicated processes that still require a human element.
Simple processes harbor inefficiencies too, and collectively cause unproductivity. When automated, the end result can have a significant impact on an organization’s bottom line. For example, countless decisions and approvals are needed before any product actually gets assembled on the floor. Many of these are handled via manual processes and physical forms, sometimes dropped on the desk of the team member who needs to approve them.
Handling these decisions manually heightens the risk of human error or missed deadlines due to disorganization. A paper-based request for parts, for instance, may get left on someone’s desk during a week when they’re on vacation, thereby causing delays. Or the form could simply get lost in the shuffle. Either of these scenarios pushes the entire workflow back, whereas intelligent process automation could have preempted delays by rerouting forms to other relevant and available team members.
When paying attention to the promise of automated administrative processes, here are a couple of areas manufacturing leaders should keep in mind for their own digital transformation efforts:
1. Planning automation – Automating manufacturing processes yields actionable data, which helps manufacturers manage their workflows smarter. Smart processes can learn from past order volumes to predict which elements — such as time of year or product price — yield higher work requests. With this knowledge, leaders can adequately prepare. This might mean staffing extra workers during peak periods or keeping extra inventory and parts in stock, allowing the whole department to get ahead of busy times and achieve peak productivity.
2. Compliance automation – Manufacturing teams face a variety of compliance measures at the local, state and federal levels. Tracking and adhering to these measures becomes challenging when communication breaks down thanks to onerous manual processes. But allowing workers to update statuses on the floor via mobile devices allows for real-time updates to be made. Managers monitoring the process can check in on progress through the centralized system, preventing delayed communication from getting in the way of swift, compliant workflows.
3. Procurement automation – Procurement inevitably gives way to too many manually handled documents. Due to the heavy manual communication needs during the procurement phase of manufacturing and selling goods, productivity stagnates. But procurement processes have great potential for automation, such as through creating customer folders, management access permissions and notifying team members of new information for the process.
Taking steps to automate manufacturing processes
Now that we’ve established some workflow areas that might be ripe for automation, defining a step-by-step plan is important to kickstart implementation within your own organization. So what steps can manufacturing enterprises take to achieve the greatest benefits from automation capabilities?
1. Understand which of your processes are ripe for automation. While I’ve mentioned a couple of general practice areas that are good candidates for automation, each organization runs differently and experiences unique pain points. The processes your organization rushes to automate may not be the same as your top competitors’. Run your race by zeroing in on documented, business-specific inefficiencies. Which aspects of your overall workflow repeatedly run behind? Where are mistakes most often made? The findings that present themselves should be considered low-hanging fruit for automation.
2. Decide which processes to automate first. You can’t tackle all your inefficient processes at once, but you also don’t want to start with the toughest process. While it’s tempting to dive into fixing the most broken process first, failing hard right out of the gate can hurt morale and stall momentum. Instead, you should focus on easing into the digital transformation journey with the smallest process on your plate. Taking a simple approach upfront provides a great starting point for defining your process and garnering employee adoption. That way you can work your way up to the more complex processes which involve more people and approvals — and tackle these flawlessly once you have a process down.
3. Capture analytics from your automated processes. By bringing intelligent process automation to your manufacturing processes, you set your team up to capture new data points. This mountain of insight can be hugely valuable to the way you run your operations, so make sure that your team is paying attention to the data flowing in, as well as analyzing and acting on it. By digitally evolving your processes and tracking the data it produces, you have the opportunity to understand why certain requests are approved or rejected, if certain processes take longer than planned, or if certain team members tend to reject requests more often than average. This information dictates how you adjust your processes going forward and how you make general decisions about your operations.
Many of the manufacturing industry’s processes are ripe for automation — especially administrative processes. In the past five years, more manufacturing teams and organizations have recognized this fact and have begun their digital transformation processes. By taking a thoughtful approach to understanding the power of automated processes, which processes to automate and how to go about doing it, your team will reap the benefits.