Overcoming the common challenges when implementing industrial automation

Posted on 26 Feb 2019 by Jonny Williamson

An expert panel discussion at Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit 2019 explored the common pain points surrounding automation implementations and ways businesses can overcome them.

Robot assembly line - Industrial Automation - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Industrial automation lies at the very centre of many challenges manufacturing businesses face – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

UK manufacturing businesses are having to respond to the convergence of powerful trends in labour supply, supply chain consolidation and optimising the balance between quality and cost – a situation in which industrial automation lies at the very centre.

The sold-out Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit tackled these challenges head-on, helping the 80 senior manufacturing executives in attendance to define:

  • What parts of their production process are best suited to automation, and what kind
  • Where their industry peers are seeing the greatest automation opportunities and successes
  • How the technology landscape has evolved, and continues to, and how best to take advantage

The summit took place at Aston Villa Football Club in Birmingham and was deftly chaired by Duncan McFarlane, Professor of Industrial Information Engineering at University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing (IfM).

McFarlane also chaired the morning expert panel discussion comprising:

  • Kevin White – Process Control & Automation Manager, Tata Steel
  • Joan Stewart – Operations Director, Hotter Shoes
  • Jeremy Hadall – Chief Engineer for Intelligent Automation, Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC)

When introducing industrial automation, what are the biggest barriers to securing employee buy-in?

Kevin White: The rumour mill, which is why transparency and involving employees from the very beginning of any automation project is vital. Managers and team leaders need to define exactly what is they want the business – and the employees – to achieve and explain how automation is beneficial to realising that goal.

The sold-out Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit gathered together 80 senior manufacturing executives - image courtesy of The Manufacturer.
The sold-out Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit gathered together 80 senior manufacturing executives – image courtesy of The Manufacturer.

Joan Stewart: Address people’s fears head-on, don’t ignore or disregard them. Help workers embrace, rather than fight, automation and remember that typically the line operators are the ones who have the real knowledge, so include them in the decision-making process and tap into their invaluable insights. That will increase the chance of getting it right first time.

Jeremy Hadall: Sell the technology as a benefit rather than a way of simply reducing headcount.  Automation is a tool – one of many in a toolbox – than increase an employee’s value in a business, a tool which will help them to increase their skills and qualifications and something that help will increase their wages and job satisfaction as a result.

Do the latest technological developments require a different skill-set, and if so, do those skills currently exist?

KW: There is a huge gap between the usability of consumer technology and the sometimes clunky nature of industrial automation. We need to mimic the experiences users experience in their personal lives in their work environments.

JS: Preparation is vital. If you know that your business will be integrating some form of technology or automated system, then send your workers on training courses or have them visit businesses which have already integrated it prior to its arrival or a final investment decision being made.

JH: The UK’s lack of engineers generally means a lack of digital and automation engineers specifically. Young people have a large amount of digital skills that have been learnt by doing, rather than sitting in a classroom. Could we change our automation systems and user-interfaces so they don’t actually require specific training, rather they are intuitive enough that users can effectively self-teach themselves how to use it, like a smartphone?

When it comes to industrial automation, which processes should businesses be prioritising?

Warehouse automation robotics robot - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
The UK’s lack of engineers generally means a lack of digital and automation engineers specifically – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

KW: You need to understand your organisation on very a deep level and determine what is you want to achieve or overcome. Once you’ve done that, define the payback you need to realise – whether that’s financial, increased output, less risk or greater quality levels, and explore which technologies fit those requirements.

JS: Businesses often struggle to see the wood through the trees; they’re focusing so much on the process that they can’t take a step back and take a wider view, which is essential.

JH: Make sure you invest your money wisely by asking ‘why’ five-times to determine where the actual need is. Don’t automate a process without knowing that that is actually what’s causing you so much pain, and don’t get caught up in the excitement surrounding a potential shiny new piece of kit.

Industrial Automation-as-a-Service?

Despite the rise of lightweight, affordable and flexible collaborative robots (‘cobots’), there is still the perception that automation and robotics represent a significant capital investment – a frequent factor cited throughout the discussions at Manufacturing Automation and Robotics Summit 2019.

Offering the technology – particularly robotics – as a subscription service represents a new twist on an established business model. While still in its infancy, the model is quickly growing into a multi-billion-dollar industry.

Small Robot Company has won a award for helping farms to increase yields and profits.
Small Robot Company has won an award for helping farms to increase yields and profits.

By offering highly adaptable robotic solutions for rent, Robots-as-a-Service (RaaS) providers enable companies to avoid large capital investments in robotics while still being able to take advantage of the benefits these systems can offer businesses, i.e. increased productivity, reduced costs, greater quality, lower defect rates and enabling human workers to focus on more value-add tasks.

At the same time, the service provider can invest in and keep up with the latest technologies, while spreading their expenses out over many users.

The Manufacturer’s Maddy White recently reported on how pay-as-you-go robots are transforming Britain’s agricultural sector