Inside Sourcing newsletters The Role and Relevance of Intelligent Automation in Manufacturing
We have grown up seeing sci-fi movies where robots perform human tasks and seamlessly co-exist with their human masters helping them endlessly. Well, these futuristic movies are quickly becoming reality in the manufacturing world. “Machines building machines” and smart factories are becoming more common. There is a buzz around how robots can transform business processes. We have been talking for years about robots – the droids that mimic humans in a factory – but now we are on the verge of seeing robots that replicate the human brain, rather than only arms and legs, making crucial decisions without human interference. We are fast approaching the world of Intelligent Automation
Relevance of Intelligent Automation
Technology improvements like Manufacturing 4.0, Internet of Things and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communication and other similar futuristic visions of manufacturing refer to an increasing level of factory automation and rely on a simple principle: everything in a factory environment must be connected. The technological capability of automation to replace or supplement human activity in manufacturing is increasing. As automation technology becomes more intelligent so does the capacity to supplement the cognitive aspects of a task as well as the physical. Tasks that were previously the exclusive domain of skilled human operators, can be supplemented or replaced by intelligent automation.
The new manufacturing revolution as explained in Wall Street Journal “is a wave of technologies and ideas that are creating a computer-driven manufacturing environment that bears little resemblance to the gritty and grimy shop floors of the past.” The explanation doesn’t solely imply that machines and robots are taking over the heavy and dirty tasks that humans don’t particularly want anyway. There is a lot more to it. The vision is of smart factories where every product control how it is produced, resulting in a decentralized manufacturing system. As the nature of work has changed, so too have the methods of automation.
Role for Intelligent Automation
Increasing quality requirements, shorter delivery times, falling prices and growing pressure from competition: these are the challenges faced by companies in the manufacturing sector. Intelligent Automation is a solution that can meet all these challenges and much more. Robotic process and intelligent automation tools can help businesses improve the effectiveness of services faster and at a lower cost than current methods. A range of societal and business challenges are creating demand for intelligent automation:
Before developing automation solutions, it is vital to understand the processes that need to be automated and the likely viability of any solution. In particular, there is a requirement to capture the human skill elements of manual processes to understand every decision that is made, including the automatic adjustments that a skilled worker will make without consciously thinking about them. Products in a factory will find their way independently through a production process, and a cutting tool insert will know how to fine tune precisely to get the perfect cut and adjust dynamically. It would also know when it is wearing out and has to be replaced.
For any proposed automation solution there is a further aspect to understand. While a technical automation solution may be possible, it will not always be financially viable. Intelligent Automation is likely to be more expensive than the automation of the past. Unlike previous automation tools, which are very broad in their applicability, Intelligent Automation solutions require more extensive configuration and machine learning that is specific to a much narrower business purpose and the complex scenarios it may encounter. Also, Intelligent Automation solutions often take longer to implement. Lack of awareness about the impact of implementing automation systems in various sized industrial enterprises is proving to be one of the main barriers to wider adoption of automation systems by current industry. This problem is even more critical in small businesses that cannot afford high risk automation costs without adequate assurance on their return of investment.
The future posed by visionary film creators and novelists is still a bit further away, but the technological advancements which could make it possible are coming, and potentially with great speed. One thing is certain: intelligent automation has a lot of potential in manufacturing facilities, regardless of size, complexity or industry.