How smart automation solutions are shaping factories of the future

Posted on 26 Jul 2023 by James Devonshire

During a recent The Manufacturer Directors’ Forum dinner, in partnership with Zebra, leading UK manufacturers shared their insights, successes and challenges in relation to factory smart automation. Here are some of the key insights and takeaways from the discussions…

Ahead of Manufacturing and Engineering Week 2023 in June, I had the pleasure of hosting a The Manufacturer Directors’ Forum dinner for an exclusive selection of senior individuals from the manufacturing sector. These handpicked manufacturing leaders, from a deliberately diverse range of industry verticals, came together to discuss how smart automation solutions are shaping factories of the future.

Joining myself and the manufacturing representatives on the evening were Graeme Badenoch and Phil Sanders from Zebra Technologies, who very kindly sponsored the event, and Glenn Carroll from Zetes, a key Zebra partner.

The three main themes under discussion on the night were: how to identify opportunities for automation; how to measure the business / operational outcomes – the ROI – of automation; and what is the best practice approach to engagement and implementation when considering an automation project?

Securing stakeholder buy-in and engagement is crucial

The first theme that emerged was the need to secure stakeholder buy-in and engagement from the outset when undertaking a smart automation project. Oftentimes what we see with many projects – not just those relating to smart automation – is the scope and direction being driven by certain entities, whether they be individuals, departments or silos.

As Zebra’s Graeme explained, “When you are considering rolling out automation, it is crucial to engage with and seek input from every stakeholder the project will impact.

“If your shop floor operators – who are the people who will ultimately use the implemented smart solution – are not fully onboard, you’ll hit barriers. And if you encounter such barriers post implementation, it doesn’t matter how fit for purpose and potentially beneficial the solution is, adoption will ultimately suffer.”

Phil from Zebra followed up by saying, “It is important to take all the relevant stakeholders with you on your smart automation journey.

“Something we often see is organisations trying to complete projects in isolation and not engaging with the right functions across the business. But the reason you are undertaking the project is to drive the right outcomes for the business – specifically to automate and boost efficiency – which will impact everybody. That’s why everybody needs to be on the journey.”

Automation doesn’t have to replace people, it can complement them

Closely linked to the importance of engaging stakeholders is the frequent misconception that automation always replaces people. As Graeme pointed out, “There’s a general theme that often emerges when we start talking about automation, that people are going to lose their jobs, but that’s often not the case.

“What we see is companies looking to make up for a lack of labour in most cases by optimising their workforces and making people’s jobs easier with automation. This then frees these individuals up to focus on more rewarding tasks, which in turn can provide a morale boost.”

Phil added that it’s best to focus on the opportunities smart automation can create for people when having stakeholder discussions as part of a project.

At The Manufacturer, the ongoing skills shortage and the struggle to fill vacancies is a topic that frequently comes up in our conversations with organisations. By implementing smart automation and other advanced technology solutions, manufacturers can begin to appeal to an entirely new audience when it comes to recruitment. The next generation of workers are already used to using technology and companies can encourage the best talent by providing modern solutions in the workplace.

Indeed, Zebra’s 2022 Warehousing Vision Study found that 83% of warehouse workers said they are more likely to work for an employer that gives them modern devices to use for tasks.

Break down siloes to boost opportunity

Phil provided insights into how a lot of the conversations he’s currently having are with customers who are taking a siloed approach to addressing the need for automation. What can happen is a business department or function can spend months scoping a requirement, only to be told by another function, such as IT or finance, that there are insufficient resources and/or budget to undertake such a project.

A much better, more fruitful approach, Phil said, is to consider the wider organisation’s need for automation. “If you’re looking at automation and technology as an organization, it’s about understanding how and where it will drive the best outcomes and business impact. So, instead of looking at it as a siloed process, which often presents challenges when it comes to justifying return on investment, if the scope can be broadened, then all of a sudden the barriers often lift themselves,” he said.

Something Graeme and Phil often see is automation being implemented and reaping benefits in a single area. But once other departments see the advantages, they often want to implement something similar, which triggers new conversations.

“We’re trying to change this by involving the wider business”, Phil said. “Is there anywhere else looking at this or somebody who could stand to benefit? Then we can bring them into the discussions and have the same conversations simultaneously.”

Such an approach not only reduces the number of conversations that need to be held, but can also drive cost savings for the organisation. As Phil said, “We often find come to the same conclusion: that one system, one platform, one requirement would address all of your needs as a business.”

It goes back to the point about engaging the right people from the start and ensuring you have all the relevant parties on the project steering group.


My thanks to Zebra for making the event possible through their sponsorship and all who took part in what was genuinely insightful and valuable evening.

I hope to see all of those who joined us for the dinner again at Manufacturing and Engineering Week 2024 next June. In the meantime, if you are interested in being part of one of our future The Manufacturer Directors’ Forum dinners, register your interest here:

About Zebra Technologies

Zebra (NASDAQ: ZBRA) helps organisations monitor, anticipate, and accelerate workflows by empowering their frontline and ensuring that everyone and everything is visible, connected and fully optimised. Our award-winning portfolio spans software to innovations in robotics, machine vision, automation and digital decisioning, all backed by a +50-year legacy in scanning, track-and-trace, and mobile computing solutions. With an ecosystem of 10,000 partners across more than 100 countries, Zebra’s customers include over 80% of the Fortune 500. Newsweek recently recognised Zebra as one of America’s Most Loved Workplaces and Greatest Workplaces for Diversity, and we are on Fast Company’s list of the Best Workplaces for Innovators.

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