For many companies, robots and automation are becoming still more important tools for reaching strategic business goals. Now is a good time to ask yourself: Have you incorporated robots into your business strategy? Have your competitors? Where are they in 3-5 years?

Increased globalization and competition in the latest years has made robots and automation an important factor in reaching strategic business goals. With industry 4.0 knocking on the door, more companies are looking to automate, but how can the new technology help them reach their business goals? How can it be incorporated into the business strategy?

Robots can help you deliver on your business goals – if properly implemented

Technological advances in the latest years have made robot and automation technology cheaper and more robust. A wide range of processes can be automated with standard, off-the-shelf solutions.

By working around the clock with cutting-edge precision, robots can, if properly implemented, streamline production tasks and cut costs. They can increase product quality and give you a more predictable quality level.

Robots and automation can also be an answer to some of the demographic challenges the industry is facing. Rising wages and falling unemployment rates in many countries have companies searching high and low for manpower. Apart from handling some tasks themselves, robots can attract specialized talent and actually create more jobs – not take them.

It is, however, not that easy. In order to be successful, investments in complex technology like robots and automation require extensive planning and analysis. When companies buy first and ask questions later, their robot projects tend to fail.

View robots as a strategic initiative and think big – but start small

A good robot project begins with determining the scope. Viewing robots and automation as a strategic initiative instead of a short-term investment can benefit the company in the long run. But one must be careful not to overdo it.

Many robot projects fail because companies decide on so-called “Rolls Royce” projects or “100% solutions” – they want the robot to solve all of their problems at once. Most of the time, this simply is not possible, and projects become much too complex and risky, and investments go bad.

A good piece of advice is: Think big – start small. Thinking big means viewing robots as a long-term, strategic initiative that is not limited to one budget year or one strategic period of e.g. 3 years. This might have you challenge the payback and investment practices of the company, but the technology requires you to be more far-sighted.

Starting small means harvesting low-hanging fruit. Begin by automating one simple task and gain some experience, optimism and whet the appetite among employees. But keep the big picture in mind. Some companies focus too much on their immediate needs and automate tasks without considering the entire line or flow of the factory. Such projects risk standing in the way of later, long-term focused initiatives.

Automation is more than a technical matter

Having decided on the strategic approach, you need to plan the actual robot project. It is important to recognize that robot investments are more than a technical matter. A successful project rests on a solid business case and must ultimately be driven by employees.

What does it matter that a process can be automated, if this won’t deliver on your strategic business goals? Calculating a business case is a way of keeping the project in line with the overall business strategy, whatever it may be. It will help ensure that the robot project actually cuts costs, provides the organization with robot experience, or allows for global scalability etc.

For example, one could automate a process and thereby increase the product quality. But if there is no demand for higher quality –– if e.g. customers do not care if the metal plates you produce have less marks from manual handling – the automation project does not make sense from a financial point of view.

Another all-important factor is the organization and the employees. Introducing robots to the organization can dramatically change work procedures and operating models. Robots have to be operated by employees, and if people are not sufficiently trained and motivated for the change, the project won’t be a success, regardless of its technical or financial prospects.

Consider therefore what the robot solution requires in terms of skills and competences and identify the current capabilities in the workforce. What training is needed for the employees to handle the robot solution?

Consider also how the introduction of robots should be communicated throughout the organization. Often, robots will not eliminate jobs but present an opportunity for employees to learn and further strengthen their profile. If the robot journey is not successfully communicated, however, many cases show that employees will fear for their jobs and obstruct the robot project before it can even begin.

Some questions to ask yourself before automating

Robots and automation hold great potential for companies that wish to cut costs, increase efficiency, and combat the demographical challenges that are facing the industry. Robot initiatives, however, need to be properly planned and integrated into the overall business strategy.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself before automating and thereby avoid some of the common pitfalls:

  • What are my strategic business goals?
  • How can automation help me achieve these goals?
  • What are my actual needs in the production?
  • Where do I have the greatest potential for initiating a low-risk automation project?
  • Are some departments or factories more mature than others with regard to digitalization?
  • Have some departments already undergone change and are therefore more agile than others?
  • Do my employees have the proper skills? Can they be trained to handle robots?