The Future of Automation in Manufacturing
December 7, 2023
As manufacturers know, automation enables a range of high-value benefits, such as cost and time savings. The Outlook of Automation in 2023 from Thomas Insights captures these advantages succinctly by noting that “automation promises lower operating costs, improved worker safety, a higher return on investment (ROI), better product quality, operational efficiencies, and competitive advantage.”
While automation isn’t new, manufacturers have been automating processes for decades as opportunities to expand it into new areas of the factory floor continue to emerge. Meanwhile, customizing and modernizing automation to fit a manufacturer’s unique needs can bring additional benefits, such as filling the gap caused by a labor shortage, making manufacturing processes more efficient, and meeting the changing needs of contract and original equipment manufacturing.
As automation continues to shape the future of manufacturing, automating data-driven processes will likewise make growing volumes of data readily available to support manufacturing use cases. The data can also make existing manufacturing processes more efficient and potentially more sustainable.
Automation in Modern Factories Comes in Many Varieties
Manufacturers see automation as a priority area for investing. According to a Deloitte survey, 62% of large companies plan to invest in robotics and automation, making it the top focus. The next highest area of investment is data analytics at 60%.
Digital transformations, which have swept through almost every industry, have helped lay the groundwork for the future of automation. In fact, according to a survey by McKinsey, 94% of respondents said digital solutions will be important to their future automation efforts. Other key technologies that are enabling the future of automation, according to McKinsey, include soft programmable logic controllers, digital twins, and teach-less robotics.
Most people probably immediately think of robotics when they think of automation in manufacturing. While the use of robotics has certainly advanced the industry, automation also extends into areas that many people don’t see.
For example, I’ve worked on projects that were as straightforward as transitioning from paper-based processes and manual entries on a computer to automating digital workflows that didn’t require human intervention. This type of project delivers time and money savings, and transparency into processes, even though it’s not as visible as a robotic arm on a factory floor.
Automating Both Data and Manufacturing Processes
Traditionally, automation has played a key role in manufacturers’ process controls. This includes supporting quality assurance processes, identifying risks, and predicting outcomes. The driving force for all of this automation at an enterprise level, not surprisingly, is data. However, getting a consolidated and normalized view of data is challenging. It requires a modern data platform that offers data warehousing and integration capabilities that bring together data from all needed sources and automates data pipelines.
The more disparate that the application landscape, ecosystem, and infrastructure become for manufacturers, the more they are going to need efficient and scalable data preparation and management capabilities. Legacy technologies and outdated processes that still require a lot of manual intervention will delay insights and are not scalable.
One proven way to solve this challenge is to use a small footprint, low maintenance, high performance database management system like Actian Zen. It can be embedded as part of an Internet of Things (IoT) strategy to advance manufacturing operations, including automation. With Actian Zen, manufacturers can also reap the benefits of edge applications and devices, which enable data-driven improvements all the way down to the process controller level.
Performing analytics at the edge and transmitting the results, rather than moving the entire data set to a data warehouse or platform for analysis, avoids the task of transferring data. This is certainly a big advantage, especially when manufacturers are faced with large data volumes, limited bandwidth, and latency issues.
For example, Actian is currently setting up a proof of concept to intercept data streams from a satellite that was shot up by a space organization that tracks GPS data from endangered animals. There’s a big problem with poaching for these animals, but if we can monitor their GPS movements, we can detect and then alert authorities when there are anomalies. This type of capability can help manufacturers pinpoint potential problems in automation by recognizing patterns or behaviors that deviate from a baseline.
A lot of IT applications require 5G or Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM), but these options have limited bandwidth. That’s why smart driving vehicles have not taken off—the bandwidth doesn’t support the vehicles’ massive data needs. Once the bandwidth improves to move data at the speed required for data-intensive applications, companies across all industries can find new use cases for automation in everything from manufacturing to the automotive industry.
Keeping Assembly Line Belts Moving Efficiently
Automation and digital transformations often go hand in hand to drive process and operational improvements across manufacturing. “Organizations are now utilizing automation as their most up-to-date approach for innovating and operating,” according to Smartbridge. “Companies are putting automation at the forefront of their digital strategies, making it a core priority for the entire enterprise.”
Similarly, Boston Consulting Group calls digitization and automation core elements of the “factory of the future.” Part of the reason is because manual processes are not designed for automation. Digital processes are, so they lend themselves to automating key aspects of supply chains, manufacturing tasks, and other operations. For example, manufacturers need to ensure they have enough supplies on-premises to keep their assembly line belts moving efficiently, but without incurring bloated inventory that increases storage costs. This is all in the interest of keeping production moving while minimizing costs, and nowadays meeting sustainability goals.
Accurately predicting and meeting rolling forecasts is the holy grail in manufacturing. Rolling forecasts are continuously updated based on past performance, current trends and operations, and other factors. Automating data processes to feed these forecasts gives stakeholders the real-time insights needed to make informed decisions that can impact all aspects of manufacturing.
Our customer Aeriz is a good example. The company unifies and analyzes data to inform a wide range of decisions. Aeriz is a national aeroponic cannabis brand, but it runs manufacturing processes that are reminiscent of those used by pharmaceutical companies. The organization’s leaders put a lot of thought into processes and automation controls, such as controlling the humidity and temperature for growing cannabis as well as the speed of conveyor belts for manufacturing processes. Like other companies, Aeriz relies on data to tell a comprehensive story about the state of the business and what is expected to happen next.
What this demonstrates is that the more opportunities there are to automate, from data processing to assembly line interactions, the more companies benefit from accuracy and time savings, which can transform standard operating procedures. Every step that can be automated provides value.
Improving Product Lifecycle Management
Bringing automation into manufacturing can solve new and ongoing challenges. This includes expanding the use of automation to optimize efficiencies, encourage sustainable operations, and make processes less complex. When the International Society of Automation (ISA) published a blog on the four biggest manufacturing automation trends of 2023, it called out connecting automation to sustainability goals, using automation to address skills shortages, leveraging automation as a competitive differentiator, and implementing more accessible forms of automation such as turnkey robotics.
These trends can certainly bring welcome advantages to manufacturing. Yet, from a big-picture view, one key benefit of automation is how it advances overall operations. When we think of manufacturing, whether it’s a mid-sized custom manufacturer or a large global enterprise, we oftentimes think of automating repetitive tasks. Once tasks are automated, it doesn’t mean the job is done. There may be opportunities to make changes, even minor enhancements, to improve individual processes or large-scale operations.
For example, manufacturers may find that they can further optimize the movement of a robotic arm to be faster or more efficient. Plus, connecting data from automated robotics with other sources across a factory floor may uncover ways to minimize waste, identify any silos or duplicated processes, and inform planning strategies. All of this ultimately plays a role in improving product lifecycle management, which can include everything from product design to testing and development. Improvements made to product lifecycle management can trickle down to improvements made on the factory floor.
Optimizing automation to drive the future of manufacturing requires not only an accurate overview of everything going on inside the factory walls, but also insight into what’s going on outside. This includes understanding supply chain operations and tier one, tier two, and tier three vendors. This helps ensure the manufacturer doesn’t run out of an essential item that can shut down production and bring automated processes to a halt.
The Future of Automation will Rely on Data
One aspect of modernization that’s been consistent over the decades—and is positioned to be the driving force into the future—is the use of data. As new use cases emerge, all available data will be needed to inform decisions and enable precision automation.
Manufacturers will need the ability to go from data source to decision with confidence. At Actian, we deliver by making data easy. We enable manufacturers and others to access unified, trusted data in real-time. The Actian Data Platform provides data integration, quality, and superior performance, along with native integration and codeless transformations that allow more users to access data to drive business goals.
With new capabilities such as integration as a service and database as a service, the Actian Data Platform meets the current and future needs of manufacturers. Find out what it can do for your business with a free 30-day trial.