Automation of manual processes

Streamlining the most basic of operations on the factory floor and making them more automated is often overlooked, which can be a real missed opportunity for manufacturers.

By Randy Otto March 18, 2022
Randy Otto is the CEO of ECS Solutions and brings more than 25 years of experience in diverse industries, including glass fibers manufacturing and custom assembly machine manufacturing. Courtesy: ECS Solutions

Imagine a situation where your plant floor employees require less training to become fully functional for operations.  Also imagine a situation where your employees can be flexibly interchanged on different equipment and operations instead of relegated to a single machine, cell, or role. Now imagine this is done in a way that employees feel engaged and that they are achieving results easily and accurately. Sound impossible? We don’t think so at ECS Solutions, Inc. (ECS).

Every sector of employment has been hit by the employee shortage of the last few years. COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated this situation and ensured that all types of employers have felt it, from the most unskilled labor positions up through the highest level of professional employees. Manufacturing has been hit from all sides and many companies struggle to fill technical and non-technical plant floor, logistics, office, and professional openings.

Times like these force many manufacturers to take a hard look at their operations and streamline however they can. Some outsource both manufacturing and professional functions and some embrace technology with software for automated human resources (HRIS), accounting, payroll, logistics, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) interfaces. Often streamlining the most basic of operations on the factory floor is overlooked. This is frequently the result of mindsets that simply accept older equipment and processes as “they are what they are” or that newer, highly automated equipment is as automated as it can get. Are either of those situations true?  World-class companies find ways to get more from their vintage equipment and they tie additional, ancillary steps into their newer automation investments. The bonus can be that all of this can empower employees as well!

At ECS Solutions, we believe that there are huge opportunities in this regard for most manufacturers. Frequently people hear the word “automation”, and they immediately think of automated physical operations that occur repetitively and at a speed and accuracy that human operators could not mimic. That is correct in many cases but only after the proper materials have been sourced and readied for production. That is also true but only after the equipment or devices ancillary to an automated cell have been placed into the proper position or mode for operation.  Often that is true only after the setup paperwork has been completed. These are the exact types of functions and operations that could yield high returns if companies thought to incorporate them into their machinery, processes, and records.

ECS can help to launch your truly paperless plant floor, one that has accurate instructions and permanent records without having to transfer paperwork or manually collect (and quantify and store) information upon the completion of an operation.  Your new operators could arrive at a given work area and receive simple, step-by-step instructions from a single electronic terminal that walks them through every facet of manual setup and verification both before and during a production run. Everything that an operator needs to be told can be added to modern interface screens and, in many cases, this can be added to the physical machine interface terminals that already exist on the floor.  This might include electronic verification of traveler paperwork, raw materials preparation, setup standard operating procedures (SOPs) complete with e-checklists, diagrams, embedded PDF documentation, and more. Many of these modern terminals provide the ability to present information in multiple languages simultaneously.

Not only does this powerful use of technology provide the means to instruct any user through how to set up manual items, but it also provides a seamless way to record responses both before and during regular operation. This could include simple verification of instructions check off but can also include timing of operator input to prompts. All of this can be integrated into permanent records and does so in a way that doesn’t require intricate knowledge of post-production manual paperwork processes. Operators simply observe the automated process, input information when prompted clearly, and the system adds that information to other collected information.

This is truly a means to add some simple steps that will make all manual tasks easier, more specifically directed, and repeatable without having to engage in an extensive amount of training to achieve the desired results. If existing physical terminals can be updated, then this becomes a relatively low investment when compared to large-scale physical automation projects. All of this adds up to a simpler, more streamlined experience for operators.

Now is as good a time as any to perform this introspective review. Examine how you execute methodical, manual tasks. Talk to operators about any piece of their overall work function that is manual. Then speak with the team at ECS about how those functions can be creatively rolled into living pages on automation terminals. We encourage you to get creative with this, as the more you can roll into these types of operations, the easier it will be to apply effective human capital to execute the repetitive tasks.

Author Bio: Randy Otto is the CEO of ECS Solutions and brings more than 30 years of experience in diverse industries, including glass fibers manufacturing and custom assembly machine manufacturing. Before joining ECS, Randy spent 10 years managing the delivery of assembly equipment for Integrated Systems Manufacturing and process control systems for Premier System Integrators. For most of the last 18 years, he has managed business development and sales for ECS and more recently as a part of his duties as CEO. Randy graduated from Purdue University with a degree in electrical engineering technology. He has an MBA from the University of Southern Indiana.