The future is flexible automation. Image: Bright Machines.
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- The pandemic and ensuing global supply chain issues have forced many industries to rethink their approach to manufacturing.
- Flexible automation offers manufacturers much needed resilience in an ever-changing environment.
- Industry leaders who embrace digitization and flexibility in their supply chain and production operations will gain a competitive edge.
If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that flexibility has become more of a priority for nearly everyone. Flexibility is about choice, embracing innovation and alternative operating methods so our daily lives can become more efficient, more effective, and more satisfying. So why has this simple concept – flexibility – eluded the manufacturing sector for so many years?
The idea of “flexibility as a competitive advantage” has existed in manufacturing for several decades now. Companies have tried to cross-train human workers, so people weren’t constrained to a specific line. They created a common product platform or chassis so that multiple variations of a product could be made in a single plant. They distributed their production across various facilities, so they weren’t overly reliant on one particular factory or one single country.
Yet, manufacturing overseas could still lead to shipping delays, and there is a ceiling on how many different assembly steps a worker can perform accurately or effectively. And companies who considered reshoring back to the US or Europe faced the issue of higher labour costs or labour shortages. The only way to make the business case work is to turn to automation. But in today’s volatile world, traditional automation – one that simply replaces human-based labour with fixed robotic processes – is no longer sufficient.
To understand why, we need to first be aware of the differences between flexible and traditional automation, along with what organizations are doing to realize the promise of flexibility. Only then can we collectively champion the widespread adoption of flexible automation solutions and practices that will ultimately reshape the sector as we know it.
1. Understanding flexible automation: the before and after benefits
Automation was originally designed for throughput and repeatability – performing one highly repetitive task, over and over. In situations with high volume/low mix production, traditional automation shortens cycle times, increases output, and reduces rework and scrap. But what happens when demand changes? When specific parts are no longer available? When you need to produce a much broader range of products than anticipated? The payback for the investment you made in automation just took a nosedive because it will now require a series of expensive engineering change orders (ECOs) to adjust and adapt to the new conditions. This is what manufacturing looks like without flexibility built in.
Manufacturers who embrace flexible automation, however, can create optionality. Manufacturing with flexibility built in means having assembly lines that:
- Marry the productivity benefits of traditional “spot” automation with human flexibility and dexterity.
- Can be programmed to accommodate different assembly tasks, which can then be changed on the fly.
- Can build multiple stock keeping units (SKUs), on the same line, without swapping equipment.
- Are modular, reconfigurable, and reusable over time.
2. Adopting flexible automation: progress made so far
One global manufacturer actively embracing the new future of flexibility is Stanley Black and Decker, Inc. In April 2020, their retailers had slashed orders by 40%, just as homeowners in lockdown started eyeing all of those repairs and potential renovations they had been putting off. A big bet was required by its CEO to raise production levels ahead of retailer orders bouncing back, and luckily, it was one that ended up paying off.
Still, its leadership realized that they had to change the way their factories – and their overall supply chain – worked going forward. This required deploying intelligent automation solutions that provided flexibility to ramp production up and down quickly, and easily replicate an assembly line when and where they needed it.
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In other industries, the shift has been even more dramatic. For decades, personal computer (PC) design and manufacturing had been steadily shifting offshore to ODMs (Original Design Manufacturers) in Taiwan and China. Brand OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) could then focus their efforts on higher-value activities such as marketing and customer support. As the design capabilities and quality levels of these ODMs increased over time, OEMs like Dell moved even more and more production overseas.
Today, these same OEMs are singing a different tune, as many actively look to de-risk their operations. They are seeking a higher degree of supply chain visibility, and are increasingly focused on efforts to improve sustainability, including regionalizing production and shortening delivery routes. To do so, according to a Deloitte survey, 24% of manufacturing executives are considering moving operations closer to end customers in 2022.
3. Scaling flexible automation: where we go from here
These flexibility concepts and use cases were almost unimaginable just a few years ago but are now achievable and readily accessible due to impressive advancements in software, AI, and adaptive robotics. Not to mention, it creates a win-win for both the manufacturer as well as their employees, who now have an opportunity for higher skilled, more fulfilling work.
Most would agree that orchestrating a flexible automation line with a touchscreen and a few clicks is a lot more attractive than the mundane, rinse-and-repeat cycle of manual assembly. What it takes now is for leaders to take a step forward in their digitization efforts and embrace and implement flexible automation solutions within their operations. As part of this, they should revisit existing solutions and disparate systems to understand if they’re still serving their purpose and where there’s overlap or redundancies, then assess which solutions and systems are available to help them achieve their desired state of operation.
Flexibility offers competitive advantage
Flexibility can look different for every industry, every manufacturer, and every facility, but having the capabilities to adapt to shifting demands and an unpredictable macro environment will always provide a competitive edge. The manufacturing sector has been hit hard, but it is not broken. It just needs to bend a little more to gain the flexibility needed to emerge stronger and more resilient than ever before.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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