22 Jun 2022


Automation of Manufacturing

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Academic level: University

Paper type: Research Paper

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1.0 Introduction 

Currently, manufacturers face various challenges such as the need to implement different safety measures and remain competitive in the industry owing to rapid technological changes across various sectors. Thus, firms must stay up-to-date with changing technologies to ensure their future survival. Automation offers firms the potential to transform their operations by allowing them to decrease costs, become more productive, and streamline their operations. Besides, studies show that manufacturing-based activities consume 749 billion working hours. Nearly 478 billion of these hours can be automated, which can help firms save about 2.7 trillion dollars in labor expenses (Chui et al., 2017). Additionally, new technological advances in the robotics field enhance the versatility and flexibility of automation besides being cheaper, which can help firms reduce long-term costs while increasing their scalability (Chui et al., 2017). The global COVID-19 pandemic also highlights the potential of automation. In particular, the pandemic forced manufacturing companies to reduce their capacity and schedule working hours to restrict the number of workers in specific locations at a specific time (Chernoff & Warman, 2021). In turn, this resulted in challenges such as the need to coordinate employees and machines besides being a tedious activity. Automation, concerning both hardware and software, can help firms schedule jobs and coordinate machines efficiently. 

Moreover, automation has the potential to ensure efficient operations since robots and machines have the potential to complete more tasks within a specific period compared to manual operations (Chernoff & Warman, 2021). In turn, this can result in short production lead times and an increased production rate. Automation can also help firms to engage in challenging manual operations that necessitate accuracy and precisions (Chernoff & Warman, 2021). For instance, automation can allow firms to generate diverse products in various designs and sizes and for different functions (Chui et al., 2017). Automation systems are more advanced today with additional capabilities such as the ability to adapt without human intervention to maximize production or minimize costs (Tilley, 2017). Expert robots can adjust the speed of the entire production line automatically based on critical constraint activities for specific products. These robots can also adjust the line speed to enhance the overall equilibrium of each line and enhance efficient operations across the entire production system (Tilley, 2017). Even though automation practices today largely focus on high volume and high-speed manufacturing processes, advanced automated systems can adjust independently by shifting between different products seamlessly without halting production to reconfigure tools or change programs. Specifically, existing automation technologies such as computerized numerical control allow firms to adjust geometry without changing tools, which enables the production of different products (Tilley, 2017). Thus, automation supports flexible operations, which leads to short lead times and close connections between demand and supply. In turn, this accelerates the launching of new products and simplifies the production of customized goods. 

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Another significant issue that manufacturers must address today concerns safety owing to the frequent accidents and injuries in the manufacturing field. Safety-related issues cost manufacturers about 62 billion dollars annually (Calderone, 2018). Robotic technology can be used to complete dangerous tasks, which eliminates the need for workers to operate in hazardous settings. Thus, manufacturers should implement automation to enhance workplace safety. Automation in the manufacturing sector is relevant and beneficial owing to its ability to reduce costs, simplify operations, improve resiliency, enhance safety, and increase productivity. 

1.1 Background 

Manufacturers usually focus on being reliable, productive, and ensuring superior production systems (Smith, 2017). Achieving this necessitates the optimization of technology including automation (Wyrwicka & Mrugalska, 2018). Automation has the potential to help companies enhance their competitiveness and operating efficiency. Specifically, firms can use computer systems to automate their operations. Manufacturers generally automate their operations using technologies such as computer-integrated manufacturing, flexible manufacturing systems, robotics, and computer-aided design and manufacturing systems (Gitman et al., 2018). The unexpected COVID-19 crisis compelled manufacturers to consider ways of adapting their operations to ensure their survival. Some firms automated all or part of their workflows while others focused on integrating the automated process into their business management systems to enhance cost savings and increase revenues (Richter, 2020). 

1.1.1 Benefits of Automation 

According to Richter (2020), automation is beneficial because of several reasons. It helps firms eliminate traditional data silos by automating business operations, ensuring ready availability and accessibility of data, and supporting effective communication across the firm, which improves efficiency and productivity. In particular, the generated data from robots and the advanced data analysis approaches offered can help firms understand the causes of poor quality products or production delays to improve manufacturing processes (Tilley, 2017). Automation also helps firms achieve smart workflows as it supports the automation of high-level roles, offers actionable insights, ensures early problem detection to reduce the rate of product failures, contributes to low operating and maintenance expenses, increases system uptime, mitigates risks, and ensures rapid design to manufacturing processes. Moreover, automating processes and machines mitigates labor costs, improves productivity, and ensures tight process controls. 

Automation also supports sustainability since automated processes eliminate material losses or misplacement or reduce spoilage or expiration of products, which reduces waste. Automation also eliminates the need for paperwork because images, attachments, and data are exchanged, which supports sustainability and saves time. Furthermore, automation enhances product quality since firms can automate their quality assurance processes, which reduces costs, enhances overall quality, and streamlines the management of scrap, rejects, and rework. Automating processes ensures real-time tracking, monitoring at all production stages, which improves response times and helps firms deliver high-quality products on budget, and on time. Figure 1 summarizes the different benefits of implementing automation. 

Figure 1. Benefits of Automation Implementation for firms 

Source:    https://www.laserfiche.com/ecmblog/what-is-robotic-process-automation-rpa/ 

Automation is also becoming increasingly cheaper owing to the availability of cheap robots (figure 2). Tilley (2017) finds that the increased production of robots has resulted in low priced robots. Specifically, the average price of robots has reduced by 50 percent over the last three decades compared to labor costs. Other factors such as accessible talent including robotics engineers, ease of integration due to advanced technologies today, and the production of smarter robots with new capabilities increase the economic and technical viability of robots and enable robots to be assigned new roles at lower costs (Tilley, 2017). 

Figure 2. Robotic prices variation overtime 

1.1.2 Factors Influencing Automation Implementation 

While there are numerous benefits concerning the use of automation, implementing the technology successfully is challenging due to several factors. For instance, there are concerns about job losses due to the possibility of automation replacing humans (Andrews, 2017). However, studies show that automation usually changes the role of humans in various processes rather than replace humans from their work (Andrews, 2017). Specifically, automation is generally applied to repetitive and manual operations, which requires workers to monitor the system or task regularly to ensure it operates within the established parameters (Andrews, 2017). Besides, humans are better at supervising mechanical operations due to their ability to make flexible decisions. Thus, while firms are increasingly implementing automation in the manufacturing sector, the technology will not replace people or take over manufacturing in the feature because it cannot make decisions like humans (Andrews, 2017). In particular, automated systems are programmed to accomplish specific tasks, which requires the intervention of humans to ensure they are working properly. Still, people must gain the required expertise and skills to work with automated systems and processes. 

Besides, companies must consider the human factors concerning the capabilities of people when interacting with various automation elements (Vijayakumar et al., 2021). Integrating the human factors when implementing automation ensures that the system will help people achieve their needs. Specifically, even though automation is beneficial concerning the physical needs of the company, it also affects the capabilities of employees (Kaber, 2017). Nevertheless, numerous firms consider the physical factors of manufacturing without assessing the human factors when implementing automation (Habib et al., 2017). Relevant human factors include situational awareness and trust (Vijayakumar et al., 2021). System operators develop trust towards automation based on the robustness, consistency, and dependability of the system (Endsley, 2016). Individually, the openness, adaptability, and personality of the operator influence their trust towards the technology (Endsley, 2016). Besides, situational factors such as the selected limitations on task balance, work, and time influence trust (Endsley, 2016). Trust is relevant because it affects the way people relate to technology (Boubin et al., 2017). 

Regarding situational awareness, it concerns the perception of people of a specific situation and their knowledge when performing tasks (Shalamanov et al., 2020). In particular, people interact with automated systems when supervising and monitoring the system in which the complexity of the task influences their situational awareness (Endsley, 2016). Operators work effectively and reach informed decisions when they have a high situational awareness (Shalamanov et al., 2020). Nonetheless, the automation level influences the situational awareness of people, which results in the out-of-the-loop dilemma among operators (Kaber, 2017). Thus, preventing such issues requires firms to implement automation by considering the situational awareness of the operators as this will ensure operators work effectively (Kaber, 2017). Therefore, involving operators in the automation implementation plan or process offers context to the relevant factors to be considered from the perspective of the operator or worker. In turn, this mitigates potential failures. 

The human-machine interaction is also a relevant consideration in which automation and people should work collaboratively (de Visser et al., 2018). In turn, this necessitates effective communication in which the operator accesses the right information through interfaces and systems (de Visser et al., 2018). Therefore, the human-machine interaction between the implemented system and the operator is relevant as the interaction affects the situational awareness and trust levels when performing tasks and the engagement between people and machines. Integrating people throughout the implementation process will help firms shift the capabilities of the automated systems to assist the tasks of operators. 

Another relevant factor that must be considered when implementing any change in a manufacturing process entails change management to ensure successful implementation and acceptance by stakeholders (Kuzhda, 2016). The process includes various elements that support a smooth transition and prevent resistance to change. For instance, top management and leaders must assess the downstream and upstream processes to avoid introducing new issues into the system. Besides, proper evaluation mitigates delays and high costs during the implementation stage. For instance, the organization must define its plan and goal concerning automation implementation (Kuzhda, 2016). Lack of clear goals and plans impedes further progress due to the lack of a firm foundation. Besides, an organization must establish a structured and diverse team that prepares and implements the change. The team must have a leader (Kuzhda, 2016). The presence of a team ensures efficient communication and collaboration. It is also critical to ensure that all the stakeholders affected by the implementation are informed about the changes before the implementation process as this enables them to be ready and participate in the implementation (Kuzhda, 2016). Consequently, change management focuses on people in which their input must be considered at each step of the implementation 

However, Richter (2020) cautions that automation implementation should be considered gradually in which firms evolve with technological and economic changes and customer needs. Firms must also consider the required investment in both machines and software. Thus, firms are required to align their automation needs with the long-term objectives of the firm to save costs and generate revenues. 

The objective of the present report is to explore the best practices that a manufacturing can follow when implementing automation into its operations. An internet search method is used to gather the required information. The report is organized as follows: the first section includes the introduction that describes the importance of the topic besides offering background information about the topic. The second section includes the methods sections that explain the method used for gathering information. The third section is the result part in which the results from the literature search are described. The discussion section follows in which the results are discussed in detail and the recommendations are presented. The last section offers the conclusions of the report. 

2.0 Methodology 

This section describes the methods used for collecting data including the criteria used to identify the relevant data sources and the findings from the sources. Gathering information on the subject entailed searching the internet for relevant literature about the topic. Internet searches involved using keywords such as ways of incorporating automation into a manufacturing company, different ways firms implement automation, various ways manufacturing firms implement automation and implementing technological changes in companies. The keyword searches generated 100 articles concerning the topic in which the researcher included relevant articles based on several criteria. Specifically, the articles considered: 

Must have been published within the last five years, 

Must be scholarly, 

Must have sufficient content i.e. at least 900 words, and 

Must be credible i.e. have at least the author, publication date, and publisher organization 

The criteria resulted in the elimination of 60 % of the articles. The researcher then selected 18 articles from the remaining 40 articles based on their publication date, subject, and adequate content in which the most recent articles were selected. The final number of articles selected was 18. 

The findings from the articles demonstrate the potential for automation to influence manufacturing firms significantly and the various ways in which firms can implement automation. An effective approach for implementing automation requires firms to make various decisions at different company levels. In particular, firms must select the processes or operations to be automated, the required automation level such as programmable logic controllers and sophisticated robots based on complex algorithms and sensors, and the technologies to be adopted. 

The literature also demonstrates the importance of adapting organizational processes to benefit from automation fully. An essential factor to be considered entails aligning the organizational structure with automation. If automation objectives do not align with the mission and vision of the organization, the implementation process will fail or generate negative results. In turn, this can lead to disappointments across the organization, resource wastage, and unmet expectations. Thus, the automation approach must align with the mission of the organization and make sense to the concerned stakeholders. Specifically, if workers consider automation to be valuable, they will play their role during the implementation process. All stakeholders should be aware of the importance of the technology to be implemented in assisting them to achieve their needs, decrease errors, increase their effectiveness, and complete repetitive tasks. 

The findings highlight numerous topics concerning the implementation of automation in the manufacturing sector. Nevertheless, many studies do not demonstrate ways of implementing automation or the specific places to automate. Only basic information about the topic is offered. All ideas from the literature relate to the need to adopt automation and the relevant factors to be considered. Thus, since technological innovations including automation are inevitable in the present era of manufacturing, the objective of this report is to offer recommendations regarding the best practices that aid in the successful implementation of automation. The next two sections offer a detailed discussion of the findings. 

3.0 Results 

This section offers a summary of the results. The results are organized into three parts including the need for automation, factors affecting the implementation of automation, and the importance of developing implementation strategies. 

3.1 The need for automation 

The research demonstrates that implementing automation is a complex undertaking because of the need to consider several factors. The findings highlight the importance of articulating the business problem that requires automation, which is essential because some processes are suited for automation than others. For example, tasks such as obtaining data from systems and changing the data to another digital output before transferring it to another system can be automated. Besides, automation is suitable for manual and repetitive processes with recurring patterns. Thus, automation is unsuitable for non-repetitive processes. Figure 3 demonstrates processes that can be automated. 

Figure 3. Processes Suitable for Robotic Process Automation (Willcocks & Lacity, 2016) 

3.2 Factors fueling the implementation of automation 

Different factors fuel the implementation of automation within firms in the manufacturing sector. The most significant factor concerns the potential cost reductions. Other key factors for organizations include compliance, accuracy, and execution speed. Automation also allows firms to free-up employees from repetitive tasks and use them in accomplishing suitable tasks to ensure increased productivity. 

3.3 Articulating strategies for implementation 

Even though automation offers significant opportunities and benefits, firms must still develop appropriate strategies and implementation approaches to harness the technology. It is also essential for firms to invest in technology and possess the required expertise and knowledge. The best practices for implementing automation entail identifying the relevant automation technology, determining the effect of the relevant technology on return on investment, consulting all stakeholders, and aligning automation implementation to the overall business objectives and operations strategy. Nevertheless, successful implementation requires the intervention of workers with profound knowledge about the required process to be automated and the rules and boundaries to be considered before the implementation. Consequently, implementing automation requires a clear articulation of the problem, investments in technology, alignment of the relevant technology with the organizational strategy and objectives, and the presence of qualified staff. 

4.0 Discussion 

In this section of the report, a discussion of the results obtained from the previous section is offered. The discussion is organized into three sections, which is followed by the recommendations the firm can follow when implementing automation. 

4.1 Identifying the system requirements 

When implementing automation, describing the requirements of the technology is essential as it helps stakeholders to determine the criteria to be met. Stakeholders can also use the requirements to measure the effectiveness of the implementation process by determining whether they have been attained or not. Documenting the requirements is critical because they may change during the implementation process. Identification of the requirements, however, creates the foundation for the implementation process. All concerned stakeholders including the employees should offer their contributions to the requirements to ensure alignment across the organization and identify any gaps in knowledge. 

4.2 The need for expertise 

The research also demonstrates the importance of possessing expert knowledge and skills when implementing automation. Thus, attracting and retaining skilled workers is essential because they will help the firm standardize the technological requirements, install the system, and operate the system. Skilled workers will help the firm to align its hardware and physical requirements with the proper standards before implementing any system or software. Organizational stakeholders including employees are a valuable element to the implementation process and their concerns and views should be considered when documenting the system requirements. 

4.3 Return on investment 

Regarding the effect of automation on return on investment, investing in automation optimizes various aspects of the organization through its effect on the efficiency of machines and workers operating the machines. Therefore, the firm needs to be smart when considering the effect of automation on return on investment by identifying opportunities to continue creating meaningful and productive employee achievements as this increases the potential to achieve more return on investment. However, it is vital to consult all stakeholders in the firm such as the finance department, the technology department, and workers before investing in automation. Consultations contribute to the development of a strong, cohesive, and personalized plan to fund the investment in automation. Approaching the automation strategy sequentially benefits the firm and creates a ripple effect in the firm, which affect all stakeholders positively. 

Thus, the following are the recommended strategies to help the firm implement automation effectively. 

4.4 Recommendations 

The first step required to initiate the automation process entails involving employees at the beginning of the implementation process. Since the workers are the ones who will be working with the automated systems, their views must be considered before initiating the implementation process to ensure that the anticipated changes will address their needs. 

Align the automation approach with the operations and business strategy of the organization. As discussed previously, automation offers several benefits to firms such as enhancing safety, decreasing expenses, increasing flexibility and enhancing quality. Consequently, effective implementation of automation can help firms enjoy these benefits even though the importance of the benefits rely on the automation approach and the involved technologies. It is, thus, crucial for companies to achieve the right balance by basing the implementation on the overall business objectives and operations strategy. 

Firms must also articulate the problem clearly before implementing automation. Articulation may entail describing the reasons for adopting automation, identifying the automation type to be implemented, identifying the various ways in which automation improves the different units of the organization, and explaining the way the intended benefits are related to the overall strategy of the firm. Specifically, it is crucial to map out what is already available in place before integrating automation equipment and processes. Conducting a needs assessment internally can be useful as it simplifies the integration process by uncovering various tools and systems that are available or unavailable. An internal assessment also helps in the documentation of the requirements of the intended technology. 

It is also vital to consider the return on investment that will be achieved after implementing automation. The firm must avoid overspending, overcomplicating, or over-specifying their investments in automation. Specifically, it is essential to select the right complexity level to address existing and future business needs to be based on an in-depth knowledge of the manufacturing system and processes of the organization. 

Another essential step required to implement automation concerns the need to attract and retain qualified talent in the automation field. Effective automation implementation necessitates possessing talented workers even if automation results in fewer workers. In particular, using robots, sensors, and intelligent machines requires some human skills for installing the equipment, understanding the generated data, and creating coherent consoles to monitor progress. Employees with these skills must be cultivated and retained since automation requires different skills that must be considered. Besides, it is essential to establish teams and encourage collaboration and communication between teams. 

5.0 Conclusion 

The present report explored the best practices that the firm in the manufacturing section can follow or use when implementing automation. It was found that automation offers several benefits such as cost savings, increased productivity, enhanced efficiency, and improved safety. Despite these benefits, implementing automation is a complex process, as it requires firms to consider numerous factors. However, the firm can implement automation successfully by involving all stakeholders in the implementation process, articulating the business need for automation, aligning the automation strategy to the operations strategy and business objectives of the organization, considering the effect of automation to return on investment, and attracting and retaining qualified personnel. 


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