Automation technology holds great potential for companies challenged by the increased global competition and demographic development. But how is this potential realized? Here are seven proven steps to help you successfully plan and execute automation projects in your organization.
Planning a successful automation project from start to finish is a great challenge. It requires considerations big and small, abstract and concrete – from contemplating business goals and visions to conducting careful analyses on single factory processes.
However, if you employ a strategic approach to automation, this great challenge can benefit your company in several ways. The following 7 steps have been used by large manufacturing companies around the globe and helped them improve their automation initiatives and remain competitive.
Step 1: Incorporate robots and automation into your business strategy
The first mistake many companies make is that of simply buying a robot. That is, buying a robot without knowing exactly what it should accomplish or what the success criteria are.
A good automation project takes the opposite approach and begins with the question: How can robot technology help us deliver on our business goals? These goals then scope the project and determine what kind of robot solution the company actually needs.
For example, if a company has a vision of being a technological front-runner, they might prioritize a solution with global scalability to gain robot experience at multiple locations around the globe. Another company might simply want to cut costs and therefore choose to automate several processes at one location, for example their most underdeveloped factory.
Step 2: Identify low-risk automation projects and gain robot experience
When deciding which processes to automate, it is generally a good idea to start small. This means not trying to solve every need in production at once, but instead look for simple processes that might be automated with well-tested and reliable technology. One should begin with the low-hanging fruits and gain some positive robot experience.
Having successfully completed a low-risk automation project will give your organization a positive experience to start off with. Many companies have thrown money out the window by being overambitious at first – and future robot initiatives have been halted too as a result.
And of course, starting small does not mean automating with blinkers on. Smaller projects should be seen as gradual steps in a greater, long-term plan: One should start small but think big. Thinking big means keeping the end goal in mind in order to avoid automation projects becoming obsolete in the near future, or even stand in the way of later stages on the automation journey.
Step 3: Apply a business case-based approach
Some robot solution might make sense from a technical point of view, but not as an investment. One therefore needs to determine the success criteria in advance: What do we expect to achieve once the robot has been installed?
Applying a business case-based approach can help you quantify the expected benefits. It can help determine the expected savings on man-hours or consumables or estimate the earnings on increased productivity or enhanced product quality.
By making the proper calculations in advance, one avoids the risk of installing a robot that does not have the expected impact on the business goals.
Step 4: Know the robot market and the available suppliers
The robot market is difficult to navigate, and very few actually have an overview of the suppliers around the globe and the technological maturity of their solutions. This means that some companies simply choose their neighbouring supplier or give in to the first salesperson who happens calls them. This leads to suboptimal solutions and investments.
Of course, some companies might be lucky, but your neighbouring supplier, or the most well-known one for that matter, is not necessarily the best option for you. There might be suppliers out there who specialize in exactly what you need. Spending time on identifying these are often well worth the effort. They can be cheaper because they don’t have to develop a solution from scratch, and their previous experience lowers the risk of the investment as a whole.
Step 5: Include the robot’s environment in the requirement specification
When engaging with suppliers, be sure to include the robot’s environment in the requirement specification. The environment must support the robot and help ensure that the solution delivers on the business case.
For example, employing mobile robots may require smooth and even floors, doors that open automatically, etc. Suppliers are not typically responsible for the existing environment, but they can tell you what their solution can and cannot handle.
Initiating this dialogue with suppliers ensures their guidance on the matter, and it helps you identify the exact areas that you are responsible for. Many robot projects fail because responsibilities are not explicitly allocated, and some necessary preparations are left undone.
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Step 6: Prepare your workforce and organization for change
When robots enter the factory floor, many work processes change. For example, a simple welding task could be overtaken by a robot, and the operator must now learn to control the robot instead. His/her job goes from manual handling to e.g. supervision, quality control, programming, data processing, troubleshooting etc.
Therefore, you should consider the current workforce capabilities early in the processes. This gives you time to consider what further training and education employees need in order to operate the new technology. Sometimes, the robot solution even requires you to hire new people with very specific skillsets. If such competences are not in place at the time the robot arrives, the project will drag out.
Step 7: Clearly communicate the vision behind the automation initiative
Introducing robots to the workplace will give rise to a lot of questions from employees, especially those directly affected in their daily work. Addressing the concerns and worries in the organization is crucial for the success of robot projects.
Unfortunately, many employees fear of losing their job, and cases have shown such fear leading to great resentment against automation initiatives, even sabotage of new equipment. It is therefore important that leaders champion the narrative and underline the fact that robots can present a great opportunity for employees to further develop their skills, improve the working environment, and create more sophisticated work processes and jobs on the factory floor.
And of course, if robots do actually end up replacing some employees, it is important that leaders are honest and upfront about this before the change happens.
Remember: The automation journey is longer than 7 steps
It goes without saying that successful automation projects require you to take more steps than the ones mentioned above.
Following the preparation phase comes implementation. At this stage you will need steps securing the capability to evaluate solutions, supplier claims and delivery terms.
And once the solution has arrived, steps must be taken to anchor relevant robot competences in the organization. Employees must be able to operate and maintain the new technology, maybe even troubleshoot and repair during breakdowns and emergencies. Here, strategic workforce planning becomes relevant.
For sure, successful automation projects can be as rewarding as they are challenging. By employing a structured approach and planning ahead – successfully following the seven steps – you will stand a greater chance of realizing the potential of the new technology – and of securing your company a stronger position in an automated future.