Many people may hesitate when it comes to automating their workforce. One can speculate that robots or other types of automation will require significant start-up costs, as well as the resources (such as programmers and engineers) to handle the implementation. However, manufacturing automation can offer your business four critical benefits: higher productivity, lower costs, workplace safety, and high-level focus.
Manufacturing automation can come in many different forms, but usually is appearing through the use of robotics, artificial intelligence, and software that can help increase the overall workflow in a manufacturing plant.
Automation in manufacturing via artificial intelligence (AI) can be thought of in many ways. From robots to conveyor belts, to systems that can accurately measure appropriate item counts or chemicals in a manufacturing process, more and more factories may choose the route of automation in the near future.
Automation via automated machines and robots has been around for a while. AI comes into the picture by letting machines become smarter, such as being able to understand goals management has sent. For example, good AI will not only catch a manufacturing failure but learn how to correct it as well. Every business wants to prevent a recall, and would likely pay the cost of manufacturing a failed product rather than also deal with the public humiliation that comes with a product recall.
The ultimate goal for manufacturers as they weigh various factors of implementing automation technology in manufacturing is to capture as much long-term value as possible. Factors to consider are technical feasibility, the cost of developing and deploying, the cost of labor, and benefits beyond labor substitution (including higher output levels, better quality, fewer errors, etc.).
There are many indirect cost savings involved with a full automation process, such as turning off the lights. Most robots don’t need the light to operate properly, but the main takeaway is that the evolution to automated processes has limited the need for human interaction in certain areas, and can create savings you may have never thought of before.
Planning and Prioritizing with Software
The first method mentioned on this list of better managing time is “plan early and prioritize.” This advice will work great to prioritize the manufacturing process.
One way to plan early and prioritize in manufacturing is through the use of material (manufacturing) resource planning (MRP) software, whose common functionalities include material planning, material control, and defining your production process. MRP acts as an “inventory on steroids” that will help your manufacturing production improve by better use of your inventory control. Will MRP help fully-automate a manufacturing process? Not on its own. Manufacturing Automation magazine recommends a combination of product lifecycle management apps (PLM), ERP/MRP systems, and manufacturing execution systems (MES). MRP does have its place in the cycle, mostly through these three primary features:
Master Production Scheduling
The core of any manufacturing operation is its production process. Master production scheduling (MPS) allows for the creation of a highly detailed schedule to map out your production. This schedule will account for all things necessary and act as your “master” file to work with during manufacturing. Such things that will be accounted for include resources, staffing, and inventory needs. Mapping these core 3 items will ensure that your production process will be optimized. Together this will tie in all forecasting and business planning with details, and let management have oversight of current orders.
Once your MPS is fully rolling, you can start to better plan your purchasing. This will optimize your inventory levels by looking at inventory that is needed to complete production (already figured out in the master production schedule), and determine the best time to order them. The goal is to keep raw material inventory on your shelves for the shortest amount of time, so you can constantly be creating new product and limiting an item becoming dead weight on your shelves (purchased, but not being used for an active order).
Knowing demand means knowing when you’ll need to purchase inventory. The main goal of demand forecasting will be to ensure that the proper resources are available for production. A proper MRP system will allow manufacturers to reserve inventory spots to carry out their orders. This ties in with inventory reservation and availability.
More than 70% of buyers are looking for the three above MRP functionalities. They are the three features most suited to address common manufacturing pain points, which overall will help make the manufacturing process more organized and transparent.
Is auto-quoting in the early automation stages of a small to medium sized machine shop necessary? Do small run factories need to have this type of process in place?
Auto-quoting will act as a sophisticated internal pricing system, and help analyze things such as part shape, material, finish, and more to help give you a finished price. The end result of auto quoting is to save time and hopefully improve the design process to begin with in theory, it should also help put the same level of priority to all inquiries, whether for 1 or 10,000 parts.
Nick Pinkston, Founder and CEO of Plethora, a company that provides computer numerical control (CNC) machining on demand, has described experiences he’s had in his line of work and how it affects the development of software they develop. Mostly, he describes a desire from all sizes of clients to implement instant quoting directly inside of CAD. Eventually, this feature was made into a reality and eliminated the need to transmit or translate data back to any other systems to gather pricing. This, in turn, helps save time on tiring to provide customers with quotes.
But how did we get there? After all, much of the hesitation for management to implement this type of a process comes from the thought that much complex decision-making on top of many variables goes into determining quotes. If context matters, how can a machine or software solution possibly pick up on certain nuances?
Certain work will always require traditional quoting and design for manufacturability on the front end. It may be a long time before most jobs can drop the human element or completely take a human out of the loop. However, auto-quoting will offer the benefit of providing instant pricing and parts within days, IF you can work out the quoting and negotiating issues. Currently, finding the right piece of technology that is intelligent enough to do that for you may be the most difficult part of that equation.
Can a small business go this route? They likely need to ask themselves how important automation is to them, and whether or not they can afford to be without the “middleman” and have the resources necessary to handle the upkeep on an intelligent software solution to create custom-machined parts on demand.
These three major features came from the emergence of MRP in the late 1970s. This, in turn, led to real-time data collection and brought about scheduling software applications becoming the process automation applications of today.
Overall, the emerging level of automation that is required out of your manufacturing plant to keep up with the competition is something you should not ignore. Along with other topics such as the industrial Internet of Things (IoT), data can be used and collected by artificial intelligence and software to gain better insights of your manufacturing plant in real-time, and hopefully, allow you to implement best practices.
About the Author
Russ Davidson is a Manex blog contributor and a Digital Marketing Specialist at Software Connect, a company that provides free manufacturing and MRP software recommendations based in Milwaukee, WI. Since 1996, they’ve helped thousands of companies find the best solution for their needs by understanding software requirements and pointing them in the right direction.