Decisions in the business environment can be boiled down to a trade-off between quality, cost, and time. Traditionally, it has been impossible to prioritise one without compromising the others – and that is where automation comes in.
When many think of the benefits of automation they only consider one component of cost - labour savings. However, when designed correctly, automation can be seen as a way of having your cake and eating it – achieving higher quality, faster and cheaper. In this article, we have highlighted the additional benefits that our clients have achieved through automation.
It is widely accepted that mechanical systems can outpace humans when performing simple, repetitive tasks. When these are performed at high volumes, investment and design time can easily be justified to reduce cycle times to a fraction of the time it would take a human operator. Amazing examples of this can be found throughout the food and beverage industry where many high-volume processes – from mixing to filling – have been automated. It is due to these advantages that automation has been widely adopted and the food automation industry was reported to be worth $15.5 billion in 2020. (1)
It’s not only large multi-national corporations like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Nestle that can achieve this advantage, it’s also accessible to SMEs producing at lower volumes. As an example, Remix supported a UK SME with the development of a semi-automated assembly tool that enabled their team to reduce production cycle time by 50%. This reduction in cycle time resulted in lower productions costs and reduced time to market, increasing customer satisfaction.
Although humans can perform some tasks faster than an automated system, a well-designed robotic system can always be counted on for consistency.
Mechanical systems do not suffer from the distraction, unclear instructions and fatigue that lead humans to vary their output. This consistency can be relied on for the type of accurate planning that enables a leaner production process and minimises the risks of bottlenecks.
The same factors that lead humans to produce at an inconsistent rate can also lead to inconsistent quality. In addition, limitations in physicality and skill can also lead humans to make errors that reduce quality and increase costs associated with waste. As a result, 23% of unplanned downtime in the manufacturing industry is caused by human/user error. (2)
Automated systems designed to be precise and robust do not have the same flaws - they can be relied upon to consistently produce at high quality. The effects of improved quality from automation have been especially noticeable in the manufacturing of semi-conductors where the consistency of robots is particularly important in the production of small and delicate parts.
One of the greatest challenges British companies faced in the last 5 years has been the risk of labour shortages. Covid-19 & Brexit both had significant impacts on the availability of labour. These two events highlighted the importance of using robotic systems to smooth out inconsistencies in labour supply.
The Covid pandemic accelerated the implementation of automation within the logistics industry as warehousing and fulfilment companies recognised the urgent need to maintain a consistent level of operations whilst protecting and safeguarding their human workforce.
As a result of the labour shortages surrounding Brexit, Remix supported a contract packing company who saw their supply of labour decline by 30%, making it impossible for them to hit their seasonal production goals. The solution developed was a collaborative robot packing system to work in partnership with their remaining work force allowing them to hit their goals and maintain customer satisfaction.
When human operators undertake a task, it is always challenging to keep an accurate record of the exact steps and process they used. This lack of visibility means that any variability in processes or instructions are difficult to monitor and as a result learn from.
In contrast, automated systems can easily be integrated with sensing and data storage to keep track of a key processes parameters. This enables organisations to trace issues back to their root cause as well as allowing real time monitoring for sub optimal performance and bottlenecks. As a result, increased traceability can improve quality, reduce lead times while simultaneously reducing costs.
Part traceability is of particular importance for companies producing safety critical components. Remix supported a manufacturer of aerospace interior components to develop a fully automated production facility with full part traceability. The system monitored both the process parameters and environmental conditions for each component allowing the client to apply for aerospace certification.
Robotics can reduce the number of “3-D jobs” (dirty, dangerous, and demeaning) that humans need to perform. From dealing with hazardous materials to tasks that cause repetitive strain, there are many activities which we may question the safety and ethics of using human labour when a robotics system is available. The use of cobots has been shown to reduce up to 72% of the common causes of injury in manufacturing environments. (3)
Another advantage of automation highlighted by the Covid pandemic was the large-scale deployment of cleaning robots. These robots have been able to protect the human population from Covid-19 whilst effectively cleaning and sanitising potentially hazardous areas.
As automation is intrinsically focused on efficiency, many of the advantages listed here can also help an organisation become more sustainable - reducing errors and waste, streamlining operations to reduce energy consumption, etc. As well reducing costs this is an increasing priority for customers.
Most importantly, automation can reduce the cost of sustainable processes and bring them to parity with less sustainable alternatives. Great examples include using machine vision to optimise recycling and using robots to clean wind turbine blades. Reports from recycling plants indicate that robots can sort pieces of recycling up to 2.5 times quicker than humans, providing a significant boost to the rate of sorting in such facilities. (4)
Although we began with the statement that reducing labour cost is not the only advantage of automation, it is important to consider that labour savings continues to be the foremost reason that organisations seek out robotics. This is due to the simplicity of calculating the savings of reducing labour vs the investment required to implement an automation system. However, when performing these calculations, one should be sure to calculate the indirect costs - heating, lighting, training costs, etc. in addition to the direct costs of labour.
Although we believe that automation will become a huge component in many companies’ strategies there are always trade-offs when deciding whether to automate. The next article in this series will look at some of risks and disadvantages of automation and how to mitigate them. Sign up to our mailing list to be the first to read it.
If you are interested in learning more about how your organisation can gain the benefits discussed, please get in touch for a free consultation.