Overcome Automation Challenges to Create a Better Smart Factory
Automation has thoroughly disrupted the manufacturing industry, and it will only grow from here. Countless companies have sung the praises of robotics, which can bring significant benefits, but manufacturers often encounter obstacles when implementing it in practice. The industry must recognize these automation challenges to enable more widespread growth.
Most manufacturers are already familiar with the benefits of automation at this point. Fewer understand all the challenges it may present and how to overcome them. As a result, many facilities implement automation poorly, leading to underwhelming results.
Manufacturers must know what challenges they face and how to overcome them to make the most of these investments. Here are the most common automation challenges and how to address them.
High Costs and Unrealistic ROIs
One of the most common issues manufacturers encounter with automation is its expense. Robots come with high upfront costs, and many organizations are overly optimistic about their ROI. Thankfully, the solution here is relatively simple. It starts with realistic expectations.
Manufacturers must understand that robots often require additional infrastructure, raising the price of implementation. Experts suggest realistic cost estimates lie around three times a robots’ price tag, and ROI is often slow. Facilities can expect to reduce labor costs to roughly 25% per workflow, not eliminate them entirely.
After setting more realistic expectations to guide their decisions, manufacturers can take other steps to lower costs. Automation should be need-based, always solving a relevant problem instead of automating for its own sake. Smaller companies with lower budgets may want to consider robots as a service (RaaS), which reduces upfront costs.
Another issue manufacturers may face with automation tools is safety. While robots typically make workplaces safer, they can pose a hazard to people working in close quarters with them. Mobile machines could run into workers, and moving parts could catch employees’ clothing or fingers.
Manufacturers should look for automation solutions with built-in safety features to prevent these accidents, especially manual overrides. Many available automation systems today come with these tools, but company leaders should never assume they do. Depending on the specific use case at hand, facilities may have varying safety requirements, too.
Manufacturers should analyze their workflows to identify key risks with their robots. Digital automation testing tools may be able to provide more insight into this area. Knowing where the most relevant risks lie can inform appropriate safety measures like protective barriers and protocols like lockout/tag-out procedures.
Integration and Scalability
Common automation challenges also include complications with integration and scalability. Since many solutions require additional physical or digital infrastructure, integrating them into current workflows can be challenging. The same applies to upscaling, which can require manufacturers to reorganize and disrupt workflows.
When looking for automation solutions, manufacturers should keep infrastructure and setup needs in mind. Many solutions take four hours or more to retool, while others can set up in 30 minutes. Considering these factors can help manufacturers find the least disruptive solution to implement. Some facilities may even want to implement a custom solution.
Cloud-based automation tools are often easier to implement and scale since they require minimal to no on-premise infrastructure. These are becoming increasingly common, too, so manufacturers should prefer these alternatives.
Lack of Flexibility
While automation is often more efficient and cost-effective than manual labor, it’s also less flexible. Robots are typically designed with specific tasks in mind and operate on the assumption that other factors will remain consistent. Consequently, any disruptions or unusual occurrences in a workflow can cause them to malfunction, slow down or make mistakes.
When issues arise from this lack of flexibility, it’s often from a misunderstanding about automations’ abilities. One-size-fits-all approaches to automation overestimate what robots can do, leading to these disruptions. The solution is to take a more specialized, granular approach to robotics implementation.
Manufacturers should apply automation in specific processes, expecting them only to perform one specific task. For example, a robotic arm could weld one joint in one part of a product, and the next welds another. Workplaces should also pair robots alongside workers instead of replacing them, as humans can adapt to unforeseen circumstances when robots can’t.
Manufacturers also typically look to automation tools to resolve staffing issues, but it can create them, too. As workplaces embrace more advanced technologies, it can be harder to find workers with experience with these systems. Many facilities lack workers with sufficient expertise, and finding new talent can be challenging.
Experts predict that manufacturing will have 2-3 million vacant positions by 2030. The tech sector faces an even more severe labor shortage, so manufacturers may not be able to attract new talent. The answer is to look inward rather than attempting to hire IT specialists from outside the company.
Reskilling and upskilling are faster and more cost-effective than finding new employees in the face of such a labor shortage. Increased automation will displace jobs anyway, giving manufacturers an available workforce to retrain to work with new technologies. Providing this opportunity for career advancement will also improve worker retention.
A newer but growing automation challenge is cybersecurity. Today, many factories are looking to integrate connected robots as part of Industry 4.0, but this poses some security risks. Wirelessly connected machines could be vulnerable to hackers, who could remotely control them or use them to access sensitive data elsewhere on the network.
Manufacturing is the second most-targeted industry for cybercrime, accounting for 21% of all ransomware attacks and experiencing four times more email compromise issues than any other sector. Thankfully, a few relatively straightforward fixes can mitigate these risks.
Hosting robots on a separate network from other devices and data decreases manufacturers’ attack surface, mitigating cyber-risks. Manufacturers should also limit network access, ensuring no one can obtain anything they don’t need for their job. Encrypting all wireless communications among robots, updating bots regularly and enforcing strict password controls will also help.
Automation Challenges Are Manageable
Manufacturers may face several automation challenges, but none of them are insurmountable. When facilities know what risks they face and how to address them, they can deploy these technologies safely and successfully.
By following these steps, manufacturers can use automation to its full potential. They’ll be able to overcome persistent challenges and rise above competitors. Without understanding these obstacles and their fixes, automation could prove a hindrance more than an advantage.
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