In this era of COVID-19 and growing demand for products, factories are looking to automation to decrease their dependence on human staff. From robots to artificial intelligence (AI) and product-lifecycle management (PLM) systems, the options are vast. But is going high tech the only ingredient to success?
The Paradox of Jobs
By improving production rates and product quality with automatic processes, humans are increasingly kept out of the loop. In fact, one study theorizes that for every five industrial robots per 1,000 workers, employment drops by 1%.
However, this is the temporary displacement effect; with the massive changes brought about by digital transformation, there are fewer jobs suited for humans—until they reskill.
As staff learns to take on the tasks of managing and maintaining the machines, their jobs can become more interesting and satisfying. Reduced costs and increased profits open up new job opportunities with more creativity and responsibility, which can further increase job satisfaction.
This not only benefits your employees but the company also, as unhappy employees cost U.S. companies an estimated $550 billion each year.
Employees can be spared the stress of worrying about making errors on tasks that humans inherently aren’t the best at. Instead, companies can free up time for new projects, such as improving company culture and its social media presence. Robotizing your manufacturing floor can lead to incredible workforce expansions.
Easy Doesn’t Do It
Fully automating a factory is an impressive undertaking, but thinking that every process can be replaced by machines is too simplistic.
Large corporations such as Tesla and General Motors have sought to realize the vision of the “lights-out” factory with robots for general assembly, internal logistics, through-access, welding, joining and painting, but they have encountered fundamental obstacles in the process.
The most important tasks are the ones that have the highest efficiency gains and put most strain on human workers. These need to be automated. For tasks like high-skill assembly and customized products, consider manual labor. And since industrial robots are costly and error-prone if not painstakingly programmed to perfection, collaborative robots can be a solution.
Here, a person works in the same space and on the same task as the “cobot.” As cobots are generally more affordable and easier to use than other robotic solutions, it can be a practical way to reduce the gap between people and technology in the company.
This synergy is a logical step toward a fully autonomous production line and can turn out to significantly improve productivity, as seen in the factories of BMW and Mercedes-Benz.
Know When to Stop
As with any complex process, whether it’s designing a product, writing a book, or automating a factory, it is good to establish a finish line. For automation, an initial phase of implementation and testing is needed to validate the potential of the new technology.
When everything is up and running, the greatest benefits in quality and speed will be gained in the early phases. Processes of lower importance will be automated later, and the returns will be comparatively lower with each subsequent investment.
At some point the profit no longer justifies the expense, and it is imperative to freeze improvements then and there. This is known as the law of diminishing returns.
For improved quality control, keeping humans present reduces the chances of unpredicted flaws that computer vision systems do not always spot, for example sink marks, flash, and other imperfections seen in parts made with injection molding. Humans are simply better at seeing multiple critical aspects of a product at the same time. In the medical industry, it is already known that the best results for MRI scan analysis come from utilizing a human expert plus AI.
Product designers and engineers go through several iteration cycles to perfect the product toward mass-production readiness. This results in a slew of CAD files that need to be properly managed, especially when multiple creators collaborate on a model.
For factories, especially original design manufacturers (ODMs) with onboard product development teams, it is relevant to invest in a cloud-based product lifecycle management (PLM) system.
This powerful software aids in assigning part names and metadata, keeps track of version history and vendor lists, controls revisions, notifies of engineering changes, and can automate cost estimation, manufacturing process planning, and visualization/presentation of the product.
The Smart Factory
The automation of mechanical devices is characterized by an additional layer of electronic control. This opens up the opportunity to add sensors to them to measure their performance.
Before starting production, it’s important to do a failure mode and effects analysis (FMEA) for each machine and process in order to distill the most relevant aspects that can lead to production failures, such as variations in speed, tolerances, part wear, and material use.
This leads to a set of metrics called key performance indicators (KPIs) that are used to evaluate productivity. In statistical process control (SPC), big data gathered from various measurement systems reveals the main bottlenecks in the process. This allows you to search for simple interventions with maximum effect. Equipping a 3D printer with a camera, for example, can help detect scrap rates and incite making the necessary improvements.
Use 3D Printers
For production samples, in many cases it is no longer required to start up industrial-class machinery. With the advent of affordable FDM and SLS 3D printers, valuable prototypes can be made in a matter of hours. And with techniques such as multi-jet fusion (MJF) and PolyJet, parts are nearly identical to their injection-molded counterparts.
This automates a large part of the development process while increasing customer value. Delegating non-core business tasks like this can be delegated to a trusted third party, simplifying your supply chain. 3D print farms for small production volumes can even be partially automated using 3D printing management software.
The Final Word
Digital innovations start small but can turn out to be central to the future makeup of the industry. Instead of revolutionizing the worksite with robots and AI all at once, it is better to mindfully evolve toward a fruitful collaboration between people and machines, as this can play to the strengths of both and improve employee satisfaction and loyalty.
While a completely autonomous factory may be a reality someday, today’s goal should be practical automation production, transportation, marketing, accounting, HR, and logistics. After all, products are made for people, and in order for them to truly serve the needs of your customers, people need to stay involved.