Getting the automation zone “just right”

Many automation companies struggle with finding the “Goldilocks Zone” for their automation projects. Learn how companies can find that right balance by asking four questions before starting to automate.

By Chris Vavra October 11, 2019

Because choosing the right amount of automation for a project can be challenging, presenter Matt Hartman, senior automation sales, Blentech Corp., knew why people had come to hear his presentation “Where is Your Automation Goldilocks Zone?” at Process Expo in McCormick Place in Chicago. They wanted to confirm the message behind the title.

Turned out to be pretty simple. “I came up with the idea,” he said, “after talking to customers and seeing how they struggle with the automation piece of their project. It’s either too much or not enough. So many struggle with the Goldilocks [part of it], which is finding the right amount of automation for their projects.”

Hartman started with automation being about the gap of where you are where you want to be. What is the company trying to achieve, and how is it going to get there?

The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), which has garnered a lot of attention for its potential in manufacturing, can be a great tool. However, Hartman said, there needs to be purpose behind using it.

IIoT: Insights, not data

“Everyone is talking about IIoT, and its great stuff,” he said. “But in the end, it’s about data. What is interesting about data is while people want it, but the problem really is you don’t really want the data. It’s basically irrelevant. You’re looking for the insight. If you’re doing it just to do it, that’s the wrong reason. You’re looking for the insight or the analogy.”

Many manufacturers haven’t thought that far down the road because they’ve been too focused on the potential rather than its practical applications.

“We haven’t thought about what we want it to do for us in automation,” Hartman said.

Four questions to ask for an automation project

So how can a company find that Goldilocks Zone? Hartman highlighted four questions that he believes can help get to the root of the problems:

1. What problem are you trying to solve?

When it comes to solving an automation problem and making it better, the key, according to Hartman, is understanding how the manual process works. If the project team knows how the manual process works, they will be able to create new efficiencies when they try to automate a part of their plant floor. If they go in and assume everything will be fine before testing, there’s a good chance the results are going to be negative because the basic process isn’t understood.

“If you don’t clearly understand the problem going in, you’re not going to solve it,” Hartman said.

2. Why is this important?

What immediate benefits will be gained on the plant floor through automation? Will product quality and efficiency be better? Will people have to worker fewer shifts on the weekend? Will safety and the workplace culture improve by bringing in automation? Will production increase (or continue) because automation can do the work of people the plant is unable to find and hire? Knowing the challenges ahead of time will help companies at least understand why they’re doing this in the first place.

3. How is this impacting the organization?

What efficiencies can be found? Companies seek to improve because they’re losing customers, or their competitors are growing while they remain stuck, and they realize they need to do something. “If it’s not impacting the organization,” Hartman said, “then it isn’t relevant. You’re going to struggle finding the answers and finding the Goldilocks Zone.”

4. Where is the return on investment (ROI)?

“If there’s no ROI, then why are we doing it? Where does it come from?” Hartman said.

Preventive maintenance and process analytics are two ways to realize ROI. Improving operations efficiency, process repeatability and reducing downtime are all ways companies can realize project ROI.

Build on success for the future

Achieving ROI and improvement on the plant floor doesn’t happen overnight, though. Hartman advocates a 90-day window to realize ROI and to start with something small and attainable.

“Once you start getting those first advantages, now you can use that money to get after bigger projects and more low-hanging fruit,” he said.

Having a structured problem-solving methodology can help project teams discover those insights and keep the team focused on the task at hand instead of getting ahead of themselves.

It’s also crucial to make sure operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) teams are on the same page and sharing. “If you don’t,” Hartman said, “you’re going to have islands of automation, and it’s going to cause struggles with your project.”

Keeping them invested and getting the right people involved and focused in this 90-day project also will reduce the chance of the project getting away. “If you can’t get it done in 90 days,” Hartman said, “you’re trying to accomplish too much.”

For some, it might be tempting to push forward after getting a taste of success and seeing what could be done. That’s great, Hartman said, but there will be time for that after the first project is finished.

“Create a wish list,” he said. “And when the project is done, you can ask ‘What’s the next high-value target I can get done in the next 90 days?’ Grow the scope and keep winning victories and creating real automation value for your company.”

Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media & Technology,

Author Bio: Chris Vavra is web content manager for CFE Media and Technology.