Improved Capacity through Automation
AUTOMATION AS A TOOL
There are dozens of ways to look at automation: to engineers, it’s a capability; to accountants, it’s capital investment; to the sales team it is increased capability; and to production it is a means to free up personnel to do some higher value tasks. One of the useful things that automation brings to any process is both uniformity and flexibility. It is the flexibility aspect that arguably makes automation most accessible to a wide variety of industries. After all, a lot of what gets automated are tasks that are repetitive, dangerous, and potentially harmful to humans (think about repetitive motion injuries). The growth trend in automation makes people often wonder if robots might take their jobs. There have been a lot of articles with this subject and the answer is that no one really knows. By automating a process (which includes robots) you take a worker out of a potentially dangerous situation. But to make the most of the investment in automation you need someone who can program the automation sequence, perhaps do some design modifications, and provide regular calibration and maintenance. These are higher level tasks. In a sense the operations side of the business has replaced one set of job requirements, with a new, more specialized set of requirements. There is no question that thousands of jobs have been created in the robotics industry – an industry that didn’t exist 30 years ago. And new job requirements have been created as a result. It is not a direct one-for-one replacement, but as the robotics industry has grown, there has been an increased need for people that can design, build, test, operate, program and maintain robots and a decrease in strictly manual labor jobs in those industries that have automated. Add to that the Internet of Things and AI, and it’s easy to see how the students in grade school today just might be teaching machine learning algorithms on the factory floor in the future.
THE CHANGING FACE OF WORK
It’s important to have a robust set of business process as we all learned during the pandemic of 2020-2023. Supply chains got disrupted and significant numbers of the demographic group of Baby Boomers decided it was time to take their exit, adding to labor shortages. Automation has stepped in to help with the flow of manufactured goods. In a typical production line, the final steps involve erecting a box, loading it with product, sealing it and then palletizing it and securing it for transport. Since all product must go through this last step, it can often become a bottleneck. One of the advantages of automation is the flexibility to run at a speed that matches demand. In essence, it creates variable capacity.
Regardless of debates about how much automation versus hand labor makes for the right balance in an automation environment, it is clear that the future will require new skills. For anyone born within the last 50 years this should be abundantly clear and for anyone born in the last 20 years, it is just considered normal that this should happen – since they have never known differently. This is the challenge of automation. In one sense the whole cycle of demand-produce-deliver is one big control loop. If you oversupply then the product loses value and if you undersupply then you lose out on sales opportunities. The automation engineer of the future might very well spend time developing smart demand algorithms. The results would trickle down to the factory, equipment utilization, maintenance cycles, re-design requirement and so on. Regardless, their view needs to be broader and well-informed at a global level. The skills of this future workforce may include data analytics, programming, AI and Machine Learning, as well as communications technologies. To be ready for tomorrow, the time to start transforming the workforce is today.
MAKING IT HAPPEN
For years CRG automation has worked in the automation space and followed along with developments and new technologies. A lot of their work has focused on the End of Line (EOL) part of the automation puzzle. Not only is it a common bottleneck, but also one of the most cost effective areas to apply automation technologies. As mentioned earlier, controlling the product delivery at the EOL to match demand is a great way to utilize the capacity. CRG have also developed expertise in upgrading existing handling equipment, increasing capacity within a given footprint and automating the palletizing operation – a highly critical final step that absolutely must be done right to avoid loss or damage to package contents. They are one of the premiere automation specialists and recently won a regional award as one of “The Best Places to Work” in Kentucky for 2023, so you know they will be a dedicated and competent partner for your project.