It's Time to Buck Up

Smart manufacturing with its variety of synonyms continue to intimidate big and small manufacturing players alike. However, it’s about time they shed their inhibitions and went for automation to level the playing field.

There are several buzzwords doing rounds in the manufacturing space which are picking up steam by the day. These are Industry 4.0 (I4.0), Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), Smart factories, Smart automation, Appropriate automation, Digital factories and so on. Although there are numerous companies, that after having understood these technologies and the benefits they entail, have already started to implement them, there is still a large chunk that is struggling to make sense of them and wondering how to take the first step
towards them.

Appropriate Automation
The foundation for a digitally enabled manufacturing enterprise or I4.0 enterprise or smart factory starts with a very basic implementation of appropriate automation. The journey from appropriate automation to I4.0 has several steps like machine connectivity, data mobilization, data mining and analysis, visibility, feedback, and actions taken based on the informed feedback and so on. The generally asked question is from where in the pyramid, i.e. from the shopfloor to the top floor, should one enter in order to take the first step in the direction of I4.0. The decision, however, is entirely dependent upon the implementing enterprise, based on its present status of automation.

Automation in large Companies
For larger enterprises, their sheer scale can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it exposes them to the risk of losing competitiveness because implementing changes is slower for them, on the other, it also means that they develop the resources to implement pilot reference projects to gain experience and knowledge needed to steer their organization towards keeping their competitive edge. They should first investigate the strategic and competitive advantages of automation and, accordingly, identify operations which are low hanging fruits from an automation perspective – easiest to automate and get the ball rolling. It may be easier to go first for the machine tending operations of load unload on the machines using robots or gantries.

During this process, they realize and learn that they need to first streamline their process for the automation to work effectively.

Once the standalone tasks have been automated, the logical second phase is to do process automation and go on to implement a full line with a combination of robots, SPMs, mechatronic solutions, vision systems etc. robots or LCA as per the requirement. This is the time where they can get substantial learning of the dos and the don’ts of automation, and then expanding further onto other lines becomes relatively easier.

SMEs are still Apprehensive
SMEs often straightway jump into calculating ROI and do not have resources like the bigger companies. They also fear losing trained manpower to larger companies. While losing trained manpower is a genuine concern, a far more serious concern is losing the skills which were imparted to their people. It is tantamount to losing their companies’ assets.

A common stumbling block for many organizations, both large and small, is making sense of an ROI calculation for any automation project before implementing it. Getting an ROI on any investment is important, but it is often hard to know the ways it might be enhanced by any automation until the automation project has been implemented. The chief reason is that ROI is calculated using direct costs and numbers, whereas it is hard to gauge how productivity, quality, repeatability, process predictability, etc. are enhanced and how much they can collectively contribute to the ROI. Hence, rather than taking a big bang approach and automating a process across the board horizontally, one must start small with a single implementation, which allows for experiencing all the benefits with a smaller investment and a smaller change.

There is a reference of an SME in Gujarat which used to work only during the general shift. The company forayed into automation a couple of years ago by deploying a robot on its machine. Now, it has become so comfortable running the machine with the help of the robot that it even works during the night with all people gone home. This has given a massive boost to its production volumes, not to mention its confidence.

Automation and Manufacturing Cost
Many times, there are several other reasons where automation is done not just to reduce the cost of manufacturing or reduce cost per piece, but to also help in creating a competitive and cost advantage in the longer run.

Besides, we are gradually moving from large volume production to small batch size production. If a small batch size model is to be changed frequently, then the sunk cost of the fixturing and things very specific to that may be very high. In such a scenario, it makes sense to have flexible automation with minimal sunk or non-recoverable cost.

The general perception of calculating ROI is the capital cost of automation vs. how much salary will I save. This is where the things generally go wrong. A high cost capital equipment where automation is being implemented is supposed to run during lunch breaks, tea breaks, when people remain absent, when they do their personal things, while on duty, during mass absenteeism on festivals etc.; it is supposed to run all through. It is generally observed that if a cell is automated, the hike in the yield would be somewhere around 12-15 percent. If all these are computed, there is a likelihood of automation ROI to work.

There are plenty of cases where the productivity has grown several folds with automation implementation with the right strategy. Hence, it would be best if the companies, regardless of their size, automated their plant since it’s about time they did that in order to stay ahead of the curve in this manufacturing boom.


Rather than automating a process across the board horizontally, one must start small with a single implementation, which allows for experiencing all the benefits with a smaller investment and a smaller change.

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