The 2017 Chicago Manufacturing Summit provided great insights into the future of automation in manufacturing. The largest trend across the board was automation in areas outside the production line to improve operations. In the past, we've seen automation on the production line but that mechanization is now creeping into other areas in the manufacturing world that historically had been cost prohibitive.
The Era of Automated Systems is Upon Us
While manufacturing and assembly line automation is not new, there has been a shift in the market recently. With labor costs rising and the cost of robotics on the decline the industry is at a tipping point.
Installing automation is now a very real and manageable investment for many companies.
Advanced manufacturing is not just about welding metal anymore. Have you ever thought about having a suit made by a robot? The Ministry of Supply is already doing it.
3D printing and related advanced manufacturing technologies are adding an entirely new dimension to our sense of automation. While 3D printing started out as a hobbyist’s approach to creating small gadgets and spare parts, the knitting 3D printer used by the Ministry Of Supply is an indicator that the technology is ready for wider commercial use.
Watch for 3D printing and other additive manufacturing processes to grow in efficiency and effectiveness. The technology is a great fit for today's get it now, on-demand needs.
Robots are Taking Over Material Handling Jobs
Robotics used to be limited to the manufacturing line. Advances in control systems, vision technology, and positioning systems has meant that automation is now taking over the role of material handling as well.
Amazon was one of the first to make major investments in their warehousing, bringing in automation to replace material handlers and pickers. Their Kiva robots where something of a novelty way back in 2014.
While that was an interesting experiment, what we have seen is the explosion of smaller tote caring material handling equipment. Anyone walking the floor at the 2017 Promat conference in Chicago this year would have been bombarded by literature talking about the latest order fulfillment and material handling robots.
One of my favorites in this category is the solution by AutoStore. To any industrial engineer looking to maximize the usage of their warehouse cube, this system looks like a dream. Mind you, it's targeted for smaller products. It's designed to work with small plastic totes. Seeing a swarm of robots retrieve items and deliver them to a work station for final pack out for shipment proves that automated material handling is here to stay.
Subscriptions to Data from Your Own Equipment
IoT (The Internet of Things) has been a hot acronym for several years now as well. When the term was first used, there was tons of potential but little clarity on what it all meant aside from stuff talking to stuff over the internet.
Flash forward and we see a trend in data subscriptions. Manufacturers are willing to pay 3rd parties to attach sensors to their equipment or machinery that captures data and sends it back to a central repository where it can be collected and analyzed. Companies are given access to the data based on a subscription fee. This data can then be mined for insights.
Data including operating hours, temperatures, and power consumption are invaluable to a plant maintenance team. The data allows for the scheduling of routine maintenance or identifying potential points of failure, and resolving a mechanical or electrical issue before a production line goes down.
The leaders in the IoT space were smart in designing sensors and transmitters that are backwards compatible and can be mounted on legacy manufacturing equipment. With some heavy machinery having a decade long service life, being able to inexpensively upgrade older equipment that represented a massive capital investment at the time is a win-win situation for manufacturers. They can keep benefiting from their previous investment but at the same time bring their monitoring capabilities up to the modern era with a reasonable investment.
Manufacturing Shift to SaaS
The final trend we see is a shift in software solutions. Control systems and warehouse execution systems were traditionally maintained by the manufacturer themselves. This was likely in part due to the concept of separating an industrial computer network from a traditional computer network for security reasons. It just made sense.
Manufacturers are realizing that while they may have a corner on a specific process and be experts in their field, other companies are probably better and more efficient at providing knowledge and solutions to address issues outside of the company’s core competencies. Manufacturers are now looking to outside vendors for solutions to non-core business processes.
According to Gartner, 45% of manufacturers are currently using Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions today. Software as a Service solutions are being used for Sales and Marketing, WMS, Payroll and HR.
Why the shift? Companies are realizing by moving to SaaS solutions for functions like HR and Marketing they are getting more functionality, creating more efficient internal teams, and paying less than if they kept their legacy systems in place.
Automation Extends from the Shop Floor to the Back Office
To summarize, the trend is clearly a focus on automating everything from the manufacturing line to the HR department. Data storage and processing has become cheap. This allows us to collect, analyze and make decisions based on past experiences. This trend will only grow with time. As artificial intelligence and decision making algorithms become better we'll see automation creep into areas of our businesses we never thought possible.