Automating manual processes

Streamlining the most basic of operations on the factory floor is often overlooked, but it can have very positive impacts for operations and the workforce.

By Randy Otto May 15, 2022
Courtesy: Chris Vavra, CFE Media and Technology

 

Learning Objectives

  • Automating manual processes can reduce the worker toll and make their jobs easier and more fulfilling.
  • Examine how the company executes manual tasks and find ways to improve it with automation.
  • A paperless plant floor can streamline operations and make tasks less complicated.

Imagine a situation where your plant floor employees require less training to become fully functional for operations. Also imagine a situation where employees can be interchanged on different equipment and operations instead of relegated to one machine, cell or role. Now imagine this is done in a way that employees feel engaged and are achieving results accurately. Sound impossible? It’s not.

Every sector of employment has been hit by the employee shortage of the last few years. COVID-19 has exacerbated this situation, and all types of employers have felt it, from the most unskilled labor positions through the highest level of professional employees. Manufacturing has been hit from all sides, and many companies struggle to fill technical and non-technical plant floor, logistics and other areas.

Switching to more-automated processes

Employee shortages are forcing many manufacturers to take a hard look at their operations and streamline however they can. Some outsource manufacturing and professional functions, and some embrace technology with software for automated human resources (HR), accounting, payroll, logistics, and enterprise resource planning (ERP) interfaces. Streamlining the most basic of operations on the factory floor is often overlooked.

This is often the result of mindsets that accept older equipment and processes as “they are what they are” or that newer, highly automated equipment is as automated as it can get. Are either of those situations true? World-class companies find ways to get more from their vintage equipment, and they tie additional, ancillary steps into their newer automation investments. The bonus can be that this can empower employees, as well.

There are huge opportunities in this regard for most manufacturers. When people hear the word “automation,” they think of automated physical operations that occur repetitively and at a speed and accuracy that human operators could not mimic. That is correct in many cases, but it’s only after the proper materials have been sourced and readied for production.

It is also true after the equipment or devices ancillary to an automated cell have been placed into the proper position or mode for operation. These types of functions and operations could yield high returns if companies thought to incorporate them into their machinery, processes and records.

Operator terminal: benefits of a paperless plant floor

It’s also worth launching a paperless plant floor, which has accurate instructions and permanent records without having to transfer paperwork or manually collect (and quantify and store) information upon the completion of an operation. Operators can arrive at a given work area and receive simple, step-by-step instructions from one electronic terminal that walks them through every facet of manual setup and verification before and during a production run. Everything an operator needs to be told can be added to an interface screen and, in many cases, can be added to the physical machine interface terminals that already exist on the floor.

This might include electronic verification of traveler paperwork, raw materials preparation, setup standard operating procedures (SOPs) with e-checklists, diagrams, embedded .PDF documentation and in other ways. Many operator terminals can present information in multiple languages simultaneously.

Not only does this powerful use of technology provide the means to instruct any user through how to set up manual items, but it also provides a seamless way to record responses before and during regular operation. This could include simple verification of instructions check off and include timing of operator input to prompts. All of this can be integrated into permanent records in a way that doesn’t require intricate knowledge of post-production manual paperwork processes. Operators simply observe the automated process, input information when prompted clearly, and the system adds that information to other collected information.

Streamline operator experiences

All of this is a means to add simple steps to make all manual tasks easier by making them more specifically directed and repeatable without having to engage in an extensive amount of training to achieve the desired results. If existing physical terminals can be updated, then this becomes a relatively low investment compared to large-scale physical automation projects. All of this results in a more streamlined experience for operators.

Now is as good a time as any to perform this review. Examine how the company executes manual tasks. Talk to operators about any piece of their overall work function that is manual. Then learn how those functions can be creatively rolled into living pages on automation terminals. The more companies can roll into these types of operations, the easier it will be to apply effective human capital to execute the repetitive tasks.

Randy Otto is CEO of ECS Solutions. Edited by Chris Vavra, web content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

MORE ANSWERS

Keywords: automation, system integration

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Randy Otto
Author Bio: Randy Otto is the CEO of ECS Solutions and brings more than 25 years of experience in diverse industries, including glass fibers manufacturing and custom assembly machine manufacturing. Before joining ECS, Randy spent 10 years managing the delivery of assembly equipment for Integrated Systems Manufacturing and process control systems for Premier System Integrators. For most of the last 12 years, he has managed business development and sales for ECS. Randy graduated from Purdue University with a degree in electrical engineering technology. He has an MBA from the University of Southern Indiana.