Strategic automation the solution to many manufacturing challenges

Companies in the U.S. need to keep their technological edge by expanding automation as a strategic, long-term initiative

By Paul Galeski, MAVERICK Technologies October 16, 2013

It’s understandable why Americans have not completely warmed to the idea of automation. The perception that automation, robots, smart machines, and technology replace blue-collar jobs is founded in reality.

Throughout the recession, many manufacturers pared back their staff and simply made the investments that were absolutely necessary to stay in business. Now that a recovery is underway, manufacturers should seek to seize the moment and make the right technology investments now.

The fact is many U.S. manufacturing jobs will disappear if we don’t maintain our technological edge. While automation might eliminate some lower-level manual jobs, it will bring in higher-level, higher-paying jobs, where a deeper technical expertise is required. Automation—done right—is the solution, not the problem. We either automate or we perish. Period.

So, what are the things that make it right?

View automation as a business strategy

Reluctance to automate can be well founded. Many have had personal experiences with automation investments that simply didn’t produce improved financial performance. The solution is to revamp how automation projects are envisioned and then execute this vision on the plant floor. Previously, automation may have been viewed as a series of stand-alone projects, as opposed to an integrated, strategic-level approach on a plant- and enterprise-wide basis. This approach may have resulted in poor or inconsistent return on investment; certain projects may have been technically successful, while not fully achieving desired results because they didn’t positively affect the bottom line.

In today’s complex manufacturing environments, decisions made and actions taken in one area, such as migrating to a new technology, can sometimes have adverse and unforeseen effects on others. These effects can range from a higher total cost of ownership to concerns over employee training and plant safety. In order to stay ahead of the curve, companies should not view automation as a series of unrelated projects. This fragmented approach will limit overall positive impacts, sub-optimize operations, and won’t sufficiently improve competitiveness.

A smarter approach to automation means that automation must be viewed holistically, by first identifying the strategic challenges of the business, and then finding ways automation can be used to meet those challenges and attain business objectives. From there, other important facets must be considered, such as cultural fit, flexibility, and adaptability.

Investment in automation is vital for establishing and maintaining not only the plant’s longevity, but global competitiveness as well. 

Take advantage of current market conditions

Over the past 20 years, a series of cutbacks made for depressing plant floors. But today, the plant floor environment is much different; there is opportunity to grow. There’s room and money to drive innovation forward—and that includes automation. Doubts about the direction of the economy might make a company hesitant to risk capital and hire the manpower needed for critical automation projects that drive innovation and improve competitiveness.

Fortunately, now is a good time to invest in manufacturing operations—especially automation—for a number of reasons, including:

  • Global competition is increasing.
  • Capital is readily available.
  • Domestic demand is strong and rising.
  • Required infrastructure is very well developed.
  • Highly educated workforce is available.

Automation initiatives often have the largest return on investment and can most quickly impact the bottom line. The opportunities are abundant—but only if we can find the manpower to build business cases, develop and design solutions, and implement projects on budget and on time. 

Talent is the key

Don’t be shortsighted about savings at the expense of developing the employees of tomorrow. While outsourcing overseas may sometimes seem to be the most cost-effective solution now, you must ask yourself: Am I robbing myself of key training and development opportunities for the next generation of the workforce?

Opportunities to close the skills gap are all around us, and we must not wait until college graduation to get young people interested in automation. It is important that we start early by educating our youth about career opportunities in automation. From there, we need to recruit young talent right out of college. Each year, U.S. universities graduate many of the world’s best potential manufacturing employees. These graduates are naturally attracted to domestic jobs, in large part because the United States has a favorable reputation for innovation and technology advancement.

We must also remember that we can’t stop training, challenging, and rewarding skilled professionals once they join our team. It is worth the investment to absorb some costs in the name of training the next generation of automation engineers. These are the people who will drive innovation—not just for us today, but for the future of our entire nation. 

Drive the change

There’s never been a more exciting time to be a plant automation engineer than today. Now more than ever, the plant engineering staff directly influences the optimization, sustainability, and net profitability of the plant in a measureable way.

In order to effect change within your company and execute automation as a plant engineer, you will need to view automation holistically—from a people, process, and technology perspective. You will need to know how to better enable plant staff to make better decisions. You will need to examine how to improve processes with better visibility and know what’s going on in your operations in real time. You must be confident that your people are armed with accurate and timely information—which can have a big impact on the overall bottom line. After implementing automation strategy from a technology standpoint, you may also have fewer, more flexible technologies that will help the business become more agile. You’ll learn quickly that technology is important, but the real value lies in how it’s used.

With this new mind-set in place, it becomes easier to align business and automation strategy, and to see how the two are closely linked. This realization will result in transformational change as automation projects start to become business solutions. It will drive results for the entire enterprise, allowing the attainment of business goals and objectives through smart automation investments, not sub-optimization of individual processes or functions.

Looking forward

Automation is the path forward. Without it, many manufacturing jobs are lost for this country.

To advance, we must view automation as a key part of our overall business strategy and day-to-day execution—not simply as a series of individual projects. We must strategically and smartly invest capital in automation. Smart companies will take this approach a step further, offering the technical training employees need to succeed in the new environment, as well as recruit and retain young talent.

From this business strategy and vision, you, the plant engineer, will guide and drive the change. You will connect automation systems to the overall enterprise in a systematic and well-choreographed manner—holistically combining people, process, and technology for the betterment of all stakeholders.

Done right, automation will create new jobs and protect existing ones. Let’s show America what a manufacturing comeback really looks like. 

Paul Galeski is CEO and founder of MAVERICK Technologies.