Adam Smith

Engineering and Technology Specialist at Corematic

Industrial Automation provides a significant challenge to Australian manufacturers as labour costs rise and robotics become cheaper and more advanced. Understanding how to undertake an improvement project to automate a process is essential in achieving success.

To help Australian manufacturers remain competitive in the current economic environment, it’s crucial to reshape their mindset by implementing new industrial practices that take full advantage of process skills, active listening, and critical thinking – a methodological mindset that enhances communication and adaptivity with humans front and centre. 

Set up your goals through methodology: why having a methodology matters and how to implement it.

For any business, experience tells us that process improvement is often a goal, however it is rarely undertaken methodologically.

The key element in any improvement initiative is to have a clear team with clear goals.

  • What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • What is the desired outcome?
  • Who are the stakeholders?

Considerate the human element: Talk to the people

Technology is not the only fundamental element of transformation.

Whilst there are other steps, in my experience the biggest gap in resolving any problem, is getting to the root cause of the problem itself. There are  a range of tools available to be used for the business improvement practitioner, Kaizen, Lean Six Sigma, and TQM (Total Quality Management) among others. However the one spoken about the least is communication!

None of these tools will get to the root cause, this is done through talking to not only the process owner but also the process doer!

Find the real root cause using data: solving causes, not symptoms!

How is the task performed? Why is the task performed? What are the pain points?

Using a methodology doesn’t provide the answers to these questions. Empathy is the required trait to begin to understand what the frustrations are for the person performing it every day.

It is this communication that allows the true identification of the problem at hand. A lot of businesses make the mistake of incorrect assumptions at this first step, so be sure to remember that the true root cause of a problem can only be identified by understanding the problem! Approaching in this manner is a great way to build trust and make everyone a part of the process of improvement. By doing so we get cultural change!!

Analysis of business problems provides tangible quantitative and qualitative baselines to represent improvements. Using a Lean Six Sigma approach to waste reduction and performing statistical analysis can provide significant efficiency gains to all manufacturing industries.

By spending time with the person performing the task, not only do we begin to understand the problems and issues faced, we can see and feel them. Through this, we can understand why analysis looks a certain way, or why there are missing pieces of data to allow for proper analysis. Firms that can leverage these technologies and use them to innovate will thrive; others will not.

To analyse information there must be something to analyse and this is the second place where continuous improvement can fall over.

What is being analysed? Is the data available? If not, why? What is required to capture this data?  

Importance of ROI: It creates value for all businesses

By having a return on investment approach, projects can show the value they add and how urgently their implementation is required.

Make sure you have access to a range of solutions involving automation and sensing systems to capture data and provide the information needed for decision-making. It is then possible to use process analysis tools to show where value is lost and what waste streams are in need of addressing.

Process flow diagrams, Mean Time Between Failures(MTBF), Factory OEE and Failure Mode and Effects analysis (FMEA) are great tools to begin analysing gaps and time losses. We can begin to understand in detail how losses are occurring and where the root cause of a waste stream or repeated downtime truly originates from.

The importance of post-implementation review

Implementing automation requires a systems based approach to ensure the process being automated remains at the required standard. From the analysis process, we can identify where gaps are within the process and what needs improving.

Implementation generally involves the installation of sensing and control systems, which involves an array of technologies, including PLC, HMI, remote monitoring and control systems programming. To implement these technologies it’s crucial to understand the process and what the automation objectives are. This will help the Automation engineers to develop a system with the required inputs and outputs to achieve the desired results.

Conceptualising, testing and review needs to be conducted to ensure firstly that the idea is viable and able to be engineered.

Testing is often overlooked and issues can surface post installation rather than identifying solutions during early implementation and before commissioning.

It is critical when automating to understand that sustainability is vital to ongoing improvements, just because a task is automated doesn’t mean there aren’t additional improvements to be made. It is critical to review all projects post implementation, not just automation based works. Reviewing the process again and measuring against original baseline targets helps with understanding what gaps exist in the implementation phase and what can be improved to ensure better outcomes for future projects.