The pandemic has shown that businesses like online retailers who have already embraced sophisticated automation technologies have coped well with the sudden changes presented by Covid-19. By the same token, office automation allowed many people to work from home provided they had the necessary IT infrastructure. In contrast, many traditional manufacturers struggled to maintain their production levels.
Mitsubishi Electric’s Chris Evans examines how the pandemic could influence the future adoption of automation by SMEs.
For producers in particular, there are many factors to consider, such as labour demands, skills shortages and needing to observe social distancing for production staff. Although manufacturing can be far more complex than distribution, there are many areas where increasing automation brings productivity benefits.
Post pandemic manufacturing
One topic often underestimated when considering smart manufacturing and the digitalisation of the manufacturing processes is scalability. Scalability gives SMEs the chance to enjoy the benefits of smart manufacturing at a level appropriate to their business.
First, it is important to consider the post-pandemic manufacturing process as a single system and analyse areas where automation technology would have the strongest impact. Labour intensive areas have always been a target for automation, and with the availability of today’s technologies, the options are wide and scalable.
For example, adopting robotic solutions in assembly, product sorting, or machine tending processes offers many advantages over manual alternatives. Most robot solutions also have the option of collaborative operation, allowing the robot to interact with the human operator.
Investing in automation technology has become increasingly challenging due to budget limitations, therefore an acceptable ROI must be demonstrated. Every manufacturing operation has pinch points or bottlenecks, and often these offer those quick-win opportunities. Here, a reasonable level of investment can return significant productivity benefits.
Changing data into information
Part of making an organisation smarter involves collecting and analysing the information about the production processes. Automation devices already include a host of built-in diagnostic and predictive maintenance functions, all awaiting collection and analysis. What happens to that data can be as simple as visualising it on a local operator panel with associated alarms.
Using intelligent process controllers and edge computing at the Operational Technology (OT) layer, minimises data traffic sent to the Information Technology (IT) end of the business.
Edge processing also provides the ability to react in real-time to detect anomalies and changes at the plant level. It performs immediate and detailed analysis at the point of decision making and informs the operator.
A production plant with less reliance on manual labour in the process is more resilient to this type of crisis than a labour-intensive alternative. An automated plant also allows the deployment of manual labour elsewhere in the organisation on less mundane tasks and provides opportunities to upskill the workforce.
Future-proofing the operation
All manufacturers can enjoy benefits from adopting automation and SMART manufacturing. This journey can start with small steps and evolve according to results and demand. Mitsubishi Electric UK has found that early engagement with the manufacturer is vital to understanding their goals. The pandemic should be a catalyst for change.
The journey towards digitalisation and post-pandemic manufacturing will create a more agile and flexible manufacturing environment. When scaled to the organisation’s needs, it will increase productivity and competitiveness without costing the earth.