Why Automate my Operation?

While at an industry function recently I overheard an intriguing conversation. As I eavesdropped on their discussion I overheard one logistics manager relying to another about a big automation project they are considering.

My curiosity was peaked. My mind went into overdrive thinking of what space-age innovation might be part of this operation that was certain to reduce labor costs, reduce product damage, etc. As the dialogue continued I became disenchanted with its direction. What was sure to become great gossip was replaced by the reality that this “automation” project consisted of 30 ft. of gravity conveyor installed in a receiving operation.

This illustrates the point that automation means different things to different people.

So what is automation? For any manufacturing company, automation means a series of repetitive tasks used for the assembly of products. Warehousing facilities look at automation as some or all of the steps used to move and store items. Even if we agree on these definitions, what are the barriers, those “business” reasons that prohibit companies from implementing automation? One barrier to automation can be a company’s culture.

While most companies know how to make their product, move and store items, and understand the important parameters, their willingness to adapt change can limit what they see as the possibilities for automation.

Some companies are slow or even unwilling to accept new improvements to their operations. “It ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is soon followed by “Why are the Japanese building cars at such a high efficiency rate?” Is your company an innovator, an early adopter, a follower, or an ostrich regarding change?

A second barrier is lack of organizational infrastructure. A critical component necessary to support change or an automation project is an organization’s ability to understand process. While the interest in automation is high, a process-oriented organization skill set has been implemented only by few companies. Some of the reasons for the limited process orientation of existing companies are existing information technology infrastructures, which support functional organizations but hinder the transition towards process-oriented structures. Having an IT department tasked with supporting any kind of operational automation is not only key, it’s essential.

A second critical infrastructure component is industrial engineering. The goal of an effective industrial engineering department is to solve customers’ problems and fill their needs. This is accomplished in several ways:

  • Focusing on their customer’s needs. This means devising plans that meets your budget, schedule, paying close attention to detail on the small as well as the large projects, and completing all work.
  • Extensive preliminary engineering to fully understand the issues involved and to reduce the amount of surprises found later in the project.
  • Close communication with management, other engineers, maintenance technicians, operators, and all other affected parties.
  • Complete documentation is the key to all future maintenance, upgrades, and work on the components of the automation project.

A third barrier is company decision-making skills. People in supervisory, managerial or leadership positions face a unique challenge when making decisions. They have to decide in ways which enlist others to implement the decisions, to “buy-in” or have “ownership” in the decisions because the ultimate test of a good decision is one which is actually implemented, which makes a difference.

Consequently, people in these roles have two decisions to make whenever they have to make a decision: first, decide who should be involved in making the decision so that there is ownership and commitment to implement the decision; and second, what process needs to be followed by these people in making the decision.

Is decision-making encouraged at your company? Is risk taking the exception or the norm? How important is gaining “buy-in”? Do things “die on the vine” in never-ending committee meetings? Companies embracing change illustrated in implementing automation projects encourage decision-making.

What automation projects have been approved and implemented at your company in the last 12 months? Chances are if the answer is “little to none”, you may need to assess your organization’s culture, organizational infrastructure, and decision-making skills to determine if they are on life support or alive and thriving.

Jon Paul is vice president of sales and marketing for Willoughby, OH-based Morrison Co.

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