Why automation matters for every manufacturer

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can level the playing field with their larger competitors by embracing automation with an approach that best suits their business needs.

By Paul Rivers July 1, 2022
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

 

Learning Objectives

  • Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), face challenges with growth due to supply chain and skills gap issues.
  • Automation can help manufacturers improve overall efficiency and reduce some of the recurring issues many businesses face regardless of size.
  • Performing a small-scale trial can help SMEs realize automation benefits with incurring significant costs.

Small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) represent 99% of businesses in the EU and employing over 100 million people. However, SMEs and larger organizations continue to face the same logistical challenges – from increasing material and labour costs, to a shortage of skilled resources. Particularly for SMEs, it can be more challenging to attract workers – especially while we face a large skills gap within manufacturing.

Yet, these hurdles can, to an extent, be overcome by beginning to embrace automation – whether it is through a gradual or flexible approach, such as implementing one or two robots or renting autonomous vehicles  – allowing SMEs to start to reap the benefits without overhauling existing processes.

Additionally, SMEs have the upper hand. With agility and flexibility on their side, they can capitalize on their ability to pivot quickly and make decisions, such as deploying innovative technologies, without having to go through as many hierarchical levels for sign-off. Therefore, the key question remains – what is stopping them from leveraging the benefits of automation?

Automation is transforming industries around the globe – yet in the SME market, 57% of manufacturing leaders feel that they aren’t confident with technology, and are falling behind in terms of digital adoption. Despite hesitancy, the use of automation in the warehouse holds great potential for SMEs – including improved labour allocation, enhanced productivity and reduced errors.

With the right technology in the right place, SMEs can automate mundane tasks – releasing the workforce to be upskilled and take on more advanced, value-added jobs and better manage process changes as they arise. For example, taking a collaborative and cost-effective approach, one or two robots can be added to any size manufacturing business without the need for disruption, while delivering business improvements –  reallocating staff to more profitable areas and allowing the robot to undertake the repetitive labour. This is particularly beneficial for the small-to-medium business market to improve job satisfaction, and in turn, labour retention.

While different levels of automation exist, today’s smaller businesses may not necessarily understand how automation could benefit their organizations, or how it can fit into existing processes. There is no need to ‘rip and replace’ existing processes, which can result in significant business disruption. Instead, SMEs can realize the benefits of automation with a gradual or flexible approach.

Taking a gradual approach to automation

Firstly, it is key to identify the right opportunities for automation, which can deliver immediate gains. To begin this process, SMEs should partner with an automation expert to undertake an assessment of their current warehouse or production facility in order to assess and advise on the viability of the project. An expert will be able to identify possibilities of where automation can be added, and the benefits and efficiencies that can be gained.

Once the most appropriate processes and matching technology have been identified, a logical next step is to consider a trial period, allowing staff to go through a ‘learning phase’ of working alongside the technology, while also demonstrating the benefits – from improved operational speed or increased efficiency. By ‘trying before you buy,’ SMEs can realize how easy and intuitive the automation process can be; how they can improve their operations; as well as how and where automation and humans can work together.

While reducing barriers to implementation, flexible and gradual approaches to automation also enable SMEs to be able to cope with any fluctuation in the business, particularly during busy or peak seasons. This approach removes the need for investments in expensive and fixed infrastructure, and alternatively, businesses can add more robots or collaborative robots (cobots) as they require, removing the need for seasonal staff, while meeting demand. With the ability to start small and scale up, automation is achievable with minimal disruption and upheaval.

The cost and disruption of automation has previously made implementing new technology a challenge for manufacturing SMEs. As robots and AMRs continue to become more accessible and cost-effective, SMEs should consider the long-term benefits of investing in automation. By partnering with an automation expert and undergoing a small-scale trial, SMEs can understand how automation can be embedded in any organization, of any size, to create an efficient and flexible working environment, which also can help them to remain competitive against their larger counterparts.

Dr. Paul Rivers is managing director at Guidance Automation. This originally appeared on Control Engineering Europe’s website. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

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Keywords: automation, small- and medium-sized enterprises, SMEs

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Paul Rivers
Author Bio: Dr. Paul Rivers is managing director at Guidance Automation.