Businesses across the world are seeing increasing and ever-changing demands from their customers. Many companies are looking to automate processes with the intent of increasing productivity. They are turning to conveyor, robotics, and software to meet customer demands while combating the increasingly hard to find and rapidly rising costs of labor. This increase in automation can be beneficial in boosting productivity but can have the downside of limiting a company’s flexibility. The key to getting the full benefits of automation, while being in a position to adapt to any future changes in business, is combining the proper plan with the right level of automation.
Planning for Automation
When considering automation, starting with a well thought out plan often differentiates those whose projects succeed from those that fail. Some key steps in planning for automation are:
Define Restraints: Generally speaking, there are only a handful of reasons that companies consider automating processes, and the most persistent motivators today are: to increase productivity, to supplement labor in cases where there are shortages, to combat the rising cost of labor, and to provide a safer working environment. The different ways to address these automation drivers are numerous. The key to fixing the issue is understanding and clearly defining what is restraining the operation.
Determine Business Objectives: Determining what is holding the business back is important, but on its own it does not paint the full picture. The goals of a business are equally important in determining what to automate and how much automation is justifiable. If, for example, the objective of a business is to decrease the ship time of an order, it would need to be paired with the restraints that hinder the ability for the business to ship same day. This pairing will define the framework for what needs to be automated.
Have a Plan for Growth: Having a strategy for growth in place prior to the implementation of automation allows a business to move quickly when growth occurs. Designing the system to handle more volume than originally needed, having a plan for a future system expansion that is minimally invasive to the operating business, and having clearly defined metrics to determine what course of action to take are all things that can be done to facilitate future business growth.
Have a Full Understanding of the Impact: Newton’s third law has taught us that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” This holds true for the implementation of automation. Addressing the restraint of a function within the business will have an impact on other connected or tangential areas. For instance, if the business’s objective is to reduce labor in the picking process and the decision to automate to increase productivity in picking is made, this increase in productivity may have a negative impact in packing and shipping. It is imperative to be able to follow the change through the system and have a plan to address all areas that the change could impact.
Determining the Right Automation Fit
Just because an action can be automated does not mean that it should be. Determining the right automation to address the objective, remain flexible, and provide a positive return on investment can be a daunting task. In most instances, it is not going to make sense for a company to go from a completely manual operation to a fully automated, lights-out, facility. A few things that can determine the right level of automation are:
Knowing Where to Focus Automation Efforts: Technological advancements have made the automation of virtually any task possible. With options being limitless, knowing where to focus your attention is important. Tasks that are repetitive and labor intensive, require a high level of accuracy, and those that require a high level of precision are great candidates for automation.
Implementing a Crawl, Walk, Run Approach: The definition of crawl, walk, run will vary from business to business. One company’s run may be a brisk jog through the neighborhood, while another’s may be Usain Bolt’s record setting 100M dash. The key in the crawl, walk, run approach is to determine what level of automation makes sense at each step and at what cadence. You can build your growth plan for walk and run if you design crawl correctly.
Avoid Automation Pitfalls
Inflexibility: Plan for growth and future change. Implementing a system that is too rigid can impact the direction of future business decisions. It is important to plan for growth and have multiple uses for your automation where possible.
Validate: Exert the effort required upfront to fully validate the automation and its application to your operating environment. Choosing a solution and then later discovering it only supports a fraction of your business may erode the benefit and lead to unnecessary process complexity.
Overspending: It’s easy to get caught up in all of the great things that automation can do for your business. Making sure that your ideas are not larger than your budget is imperative. Building a realistic ROI business case prior to implementing any automation solution is essential.
No Plan After Implementation: Implementing the right level of automation is only part of the battle. If there is no plan for support in place after the implementation, the project will fail. Ensuring that procedures are followed, metrics are tracked, and the system is properly maintained after implementation is critical.
Josh Duane is the Director of Sales for Hy-Tek Integrated Systems Southern Operations Division. Hy-Tek designs and implements material handling and automation systems across a multitude of industries. Josh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ray DeMelfi is responsible for leading the Johnson Stephens Consulting operations practice, which includes supply chain strategy, facilities planning/design, and process improvement services. He can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the September/October, 2021 issue of PARCEL.