The question of automation at all levels of industry is a matter of “when” rather than “if”. In the world of manufacturing, automation holds obvious benefits for business owners spanning cost, reliability and quality of work considerations. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the need for automation in the sector has been accelerated further, but is now the right time for your manufacturing business to rethink its current automation strategy?
Here’s a brief assessment of how and why the COVID-19 pandemic has created better conditions for automation driven manufacturing businesses, and why your operation should be joining them.
The breakout of COVID-19 saw the breakout of automation
Whether businesses liked it or not, the automation of the manufacturing industry, particularly at the top level, was already well underway. However, the changes around working patterns in the industry brought on by the pandemic have only sought to accelerate the growth of automated influence in manufacturing processes.
Lloyds Bank’s Business in Britain report found that almost three quarters (74%) of manufacturers have utilised conditions during the COVID-19 breakout to alter and increase the efficiency of their processes. This primarily entailed simplifying their supply chains and increasing automation. Off the back of this, 38% of British businesses intend to boost their automation and the use of robotics in the next 24 months.
Safety is more paramount than ever
The safety of factory and plant staff through this period has been the key driver in much of the installation of new automation technologies. While COVID-19 has made it compulsory that staff stay away from their place of work, automated processes will continue to provide business owners and their employees with safety benefits beyond the reach of the pandemic.
With automation having found itself best utilized in the low skill but typically more high-risk elements of the manufacturing process, staff can be redistributed to higher skill elements within the production line. Not only does this keep them away from some of the more dangerous elements of the job, but it also offers potential boosts in productivity for the wider business.
Keeping businesses afloat
Of course, the great fear of the average worker is that the introduction of automation will take away their role within the business and remove them of their post. One can argue that may be the case at the lower end of the skill base, however proponents for the value of both human and automated labour will argue that the two can work in harmony, with automated processes taking care of the “dirty work” while skilled workers complete the top end processes.
This proposal presents an optimal scenario to business owners who want to cut labour costs at the bottom end while maintaining their best people. Especially in the financially testing times of the last nine months, the cost benefits of automation, particularly on larger scale projects, cannot be ignored.
With many manufacturing processes, the devil is very much in the detail. For cost savings beyond those of labour reduction, automated processes can increase the reliability and quality of production by eliminating the potential for human error. Creating a smoother process overall presents benefits on an efficiency, productivity and cost basis, and these can be achieved via the introduction of the smallest automated technologies through to major installations.
Some notes of hesitancy
With the impressive benefits of automation discussed, it is important to counterbalance them with some considerations as to why automation installed on an arbitrary basis might not produce palpable benefits for every business:
- The matter of safely and effectively bridging the skill gap in manufacturing is still a question mark hanging over the head of automation. Brendan O’Dowd of Analog Devices said on the matter: “We want to take some of the dirty dangerous jobs away from people and automate them. But there’s a huge gap in terms of the higher skilled roles that are required to develop the systems, manage and run them and keep them operating. And making sure that you can operate automated systems safely is one of the barriers – if you have to put a big cage around everything, then it hits productivity.”
- While automation makes complete sense for larger businesses who can expect a swift ROI, the same may not be the case in the short term for smaller business installing costly automated technology. Of course, the long-term benefits still absolutely exist for these businesses, but cash strapped manufacturers may find this isn’t the time to invest.
Fundamentally, automation offers lucrative benefits to business owners looking to reduce labour costs, increase productivity, improve quality of processes and boost the safety credentials of their operation – and the onset of COVID-19 has only sought to highlight these prospects further.
While automation can provide benefits to businesses at all levels, the considerations mentioned above mean small business owners should think carefully about their current automation strategy and weigh up the present value of progressing further before doing so. Nevertheless, the positive impact of automation at every level of the manufacturing pyramid is inevitable, it’s just a case of working out when the right time is for your business to get on board.