Generally, the ROI of automating a production system is often pretty high on paper. However, manufacturing robots can pose serious challenges.
The truth is that many automation projects fail. When the CMC team visits Chinese manufacturing factories, we often see expensive machines either inactive or used at a fraction of their capacity. So, do factories choose between inertia (the same good old manual processes) and automated equipment? Fortunately, no. Here are 4 often-overlooked process automation alternatives.
The 4 Alternatives to Process Automation
1. Re-Engineer Your Manufacturing Processes for Higher Productivity
You can re-engineer your current processes to increase efficiency. We have increased output by 30% in some factories while reducing labor by 20% or more, without significant investment!
Let’s take an example with a simple production line counting 10 people, with an extra 1 person busy doing rework, and you hire an industrial engineer who applies for the following program:
Improve the logistics around the line so that people don’t have to get up and look for parts;
Improve the layout of the production line so that parts required at each workstation are always within easy reach of the operator;
Introduce helpful fixtures to go faster and to error-proof the process;
Train the operators and their group leaders to understand the benefits of the changes so they buy into the new setup.
What can realistically be expected from this re-engineering project after 4-5 months?
Getting the line down from 10 to 7 people
Reducing rework from 1 to 0.3 people on average
Reduce turnover from 60% to 20% a year – the operators are more motivated since they received training and could contribute their ideas.
(Note that the industrial engineer can work on improving several lines at the same time. This is not 4-5 months of his time, but maybe 1 month in total.) Over time, you can squeeze more waste out of that process.
2. Semi-Automate Your Manufacturing Processes
In addition to the re-engineering program mentioned above, let’s say you gradually semi-automate some of the process steps. With machines and equipment that provide semi-automated or user-assisted operations, the workers can carry out their job functions much easier and faster than before. Fewer people can do the same amount of work. As you semi-automate the processes, it allows you to get the number of employees down, one by one.
How is this different from the typical complete process automation projects?
Investment is much lower
Investment can be made in phases, gradually over time
The factory needs a brain to push this project – typically an experienced and creative tooling specialist
3. Go for High-Mix, Low-Volume Orders
If you applied the suggestions laid above, your operations have improved efficiency and have remained flexible. It means you are now able to get business from customers that give high-mix, low-volume orders. And most of these customers are buying from China since the average Chinese factory has more manual (and hence more flexible) processes than the average American or European workshop.
And who is NOT in a position to get those orders? Manufacturers with advanced, high-tech manufacturing process automation. Their expensive equipment is perfect for making large batches, but their “economic lot size” is much larger than yours. Why? Because changing over from one type of product to the next generally takes a long time, and they want long runs of similar products.
4. Subcontract to An Automated Manufacturing Factory
Do you have some low-mix, high-volume orders? You can subcontract them to a manufacturer that has purchased expensive equipment. Since they invested massively, they tend to be more careful with the contracts they sign. And hopefully, they will do an excellent job for you. (If their equipment is down at the wrong moment, which is a real possibility, you can limit the consequences by using your in-house production capability.)
Overall, it makes sense to start with process re-engineering and semi-automation and go in the direction of full automation once these alternatives hit their limits. The good thing is that semi-automation teaches technicians to maintain machines, so they will be better equipped to sustain high-tech machinery when the time comes to purchase it.
Have you followed this logic in your factory, or have you seen this at work among your suppliers? What obstacles did they run into? Please add to the community by sharing your experiences as a comment below.