How automation can enable success and improve workforce culture

Automation technologies can enable many positive changes, but it needs buy-in from all levels of the workforce to achieve true success.

By Chris Vavra January 19, 2024
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Automation insights

  • Automation serves as a workforce enabler by creating job opportunities, standardizing career paths, offering growth incentives, and ensuring automation success through upskilled labor.
  • The transformative impact of robotics and automation in traditionally manual processes like sneaker manufacturing, driven by customer needs, labor shortages, ergonomic challenges and quality expectations.

Automation is a major driving force in manufacturing and many technology advances such as the rise of artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, the industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and more are propelling companies to heights and capabilities they never imagined.

While technology is certainly a key part of how companies do their work, it’s only part of the equation. If the people inside the company aren’t behind these changes and are shown how they can help improve their jobs as well as their lives, these advances are only theoretical in the end.

At the A3 Business Forum in Orlando, a roundtable discussion “Automating the Future: Exploring Emerging Applications in Robotics and Automation” highlighted how cutting-edge applications and philosophies are shaping the future.

Chetan Kapoor, head of optimization and automation, Tyson, said automation should be a workforce enabler and provides four benefits when successfully applied:

  1. Job creation and definition. Automation provides a roadmap for the plant workforce to grow and excel by giving them jobs and tasks better suited to their needs.

  2. Career path standardization. Creating a standardized and defined path to talent acquisition, job creation and training where everything is clearly defined.

  3. Incentive to grow. Performing tasks they feel empowered by gives them the impression the company is investing in their future.

  4. Automation success. Upskilled labor is crucial for operational effectiveness.

Automation, Kapoor said, is about opportunity, and they have had success focusing on developing a standardized approach to automation and going from a custom approach and more toward modularization to reduce mistakes and improving worker safety.

Chetan Kapoor, head of optimization and automation, Tyson, said they are emphasizing modular configurable solutions in their day-to-day operations.

Chetan Kapoor, head of optimization and automation, Tyson, said they are emphasizing modular configurable solutions in their day-to-day operations. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

Automating once manual processes

Sarah Mendelowitz, a manager at MADE Automation and Robotics, New Balance, is emphasizing bringing robotics and automation to a company that makes sneakers, which has historically been viewed as a manual process.

She said the emphasis since she joined the company in 2022 has been on three areas: Manufacturing footwear, material handling and quality control with the goals of improving safety, quality and output while reducing overall costs.

“We are driven by customer needs,” she said. “There is a lack of skilled labor, ergonomics challenges, increased quality expectations as well as reshoring driving productivity.”

Bringing robots and automation to a process viewed as a manual one is something Adi Leviatan, the president of 3M’s abrasive systems division, is working on during the roundtable discussion “The Users Speak: The Next Automation Challenges.”

Historically, Leviatan said, industrial products such as abrasives, tape and adhesives had to be finished manually.

However, that’s changed thanks to advances in vision systems, sensors, data processing and the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) algorithms, companies are able to automate these processes.

Advances in vision systems, sensors, data processing and more are making manual tasks much easier to automate.

Advances in vision systems, sensors, data processing and more are making manual tasks much easier to automate. Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

 The importance of research and development

Gregory Brown, vice president of strategy and R&D for UPS, is focused on finding a single message that can be achieved throughout the company rather than one area. That’s especially given how many moving parts there are for a logistics company like UPS. Everything is on the move and there are challenges aplenty.

From the R&D side, Brown said there are four areas they focus on:

  1. Aspiration. Develop new capabilities and frameworks to evaluate and select technologies that will help provide a digital experience powered by an end-to-end digital network.

  2. Strategic focus. This is provided with technology-enabled operations, transform the base core, delivering personalized experiences, building a digital-first business that still emphasizes sustainability.

  3. Inputs for impactful objectives. Brown said they work to identify internal pain points and developing relationships with customers and external partners.

  4. Enablers. Keeping a lean-oriented approach is important, Brown said, as well as being focused and flexible for their design and R&D sprints.

The key objectives, Brown said, are improving the company’s agility in the organization and in R&D projects and staying ahead of the curve in a fast and ever-changing environment.

This is a goal for all manufacturers regardless of what they’re trying to achieve as they enter a new and exciting era in the years to come.

Chris Vavra, web content manager, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.


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