Expert opinions, TECHNOLOGY

Production automation: benefits and reefs

With the growth of business, the burden on personnel increases naturally, and increase in turnover entails a multiple increase in costs that becomes more and more difficult to cope with. The company gets a great need to build a clearly working system through production automation – at this moment it is often no longer a matter of just racing for trends, but the issue of business survival. What production automation is and who really needs it? What are the problems of production it helps decide and whether it is able to solve them all? Let’s figure it out.


If you start with the basics, then automation is the process of development of machine production, where the management and control functions, previously performed by man, are transferred to instruments and automatic devices.

Among the advantages traditionally attributed to automation are: increase in production volumes, implementation of labor-intensive technical assignments for a shorter period of time, reduced costs of raw materials as well as reduced waste, and ability to fulfil  work inaccessible to human hands. Such information can be found in advertising brochures dedicated to automation, and on the websites of companies offering to carry out production automation of your enterprise “turnkey.”

But is everything so rosy? I will tell you facts from my personal experience.

Not enough hands

Production automation in our company began with deficit of working hands: we faced the fact that it is difficult to find the right people for expansion of the staff. There was also a second moment that pushed us to think seriously about building a clearly working system in the company via automation. Even people already working in the organization did not always have sufficient qualifications. As result, they made products that had high rejection rate. Unfortunately, these failings were not always possible to identify during the manufacturing process, sometimes they were detected only in the process of receiving feedback from customers.

And in general, when a person works manually, a lot of time is lost – on submission of data,  measurements and manufacturing, on correction of the same defect. At automatic work our task is to reduce to a minimum loss of time in workshop logistics, for this time is a loss of money.

Lower-level automation

To solve the indicated problems once and for all, we began to look for options of automation of at least these processes. At first it was  lower-level automation: machine tools came to replace people – drilling machines with a revolver feed of a cutting tool, with numerical systems of program control, plasma pipe cutting, and so on. We picked up solutions that satisfied us at that time in the ratio “price – equipment performance”: it was important to determine the upper performance threshold not higher than we could process subsequently.

After we bought several machines and taught people to work with them, we have increased sharply the quality of products, cutting almost to zero the defect rate from the procurement section. The manufacturing process began to look like this: the design department develops the part, after which all processes are automated – a person loads metal into the machine, presses buttons and outputs a part that is 100% the same as the drawing. Due to this approach, we have also improved productivity. In addition, we have got savings on the wage fund, as we no longer needed numerous personnel, as before. This difference went to pay off the costs of equipment acquisition.

Let me give you another example of how automation has benefited us.

The engineering department is also responsible for the preparation of product brand lists, which we must produce, and issue tags for each product. Later marking shall be applied on each product with special tool. There is a huge number of  prefabricated elements in products that we produce, and any error resulted in significant losses of time and finance. With labeling automation, we solved all these problems.

And if you look globally?

This is just initial level of automation. To make management decisions properly and timely, it is necessary to understand what is happening in production at every moment, like the big picture: where  we go and whether we are still far from our goals, in details for each unit. You cannot do this without digitizing the business, otherwise you are doomed to take a word for some worker, and there will always be excuses why the goal was not achieved. Therefore our next goal is to create a transparent-to-analytics, flexible, manageable system capable to respond quickly to any deviations and make the right management decisions quickly.

We primarily needed to establish automated data collection from each department and subdivision, so that in the first step we could obtain accurate and reliable information on our production. And just analyzing this data you can manage production processes in real time, setting new plans, and controlling their implementation.

The task is not easy – the implementation or creation of such systems is not easy and not cheap, so a selection error can be expensive in both monetary and temporal terms.

When choosing an automation solution, we paid attention first for the following factors:

  • General system functionality, flexibility of customization for our tasks, readiness of the manufacturing company, if necessary, to make further improvements at adequate cost.
  • Total cost of system ownership (setup, start-up, cost of use) and payback period.
  • If the manufacturing company has successful implementation cases in the companies in our industry or in enterprises with similar tasks – where you can  look at their work “alive”.

In our company today the production process is coordinated and managed with use of a special software – an automated management system Management. This program allows you to combine completely all process areas, starting from the sales department, which enters into the system data of technical assignment, continuing by the work of the production and technical department, which makes a study of the product (drawings, specifications), and till the transfer of products directly to production, to its different subdivisions: supply, procurement, assembling, welding, painting, packing, shipping. All  these steps are transparent and visible in the system, and you can see at any time at what stage execution of a particular order is, understanding the situation for each project and making the necessary management decisions.

Why did we choose AMS “Management”? There is some core in any software that you want to customize to fit your enterprise. Developers’ team of AMS “Management” was able to understand and implement all our desires. In addition, other products on the market that we have met, assumed the presence in the company of one or several specialists who will be engaged in maintenance of this product. A lot of enterprises are following this path.

However, these people need to be paid wages, and we found out that in our case it will cost the company more than the subscription fee for maintenance contract with AMS “Management”. In addition, you need remember that if you lose the hired person who is engaged in maintenance of the program, it can take a long time until the next one learns and understands everything necessary. And this will result in financial losses to the company.

How to do everything competently?

To automate production competently, you need first to understand that a huge task needs to be done part by part: it is difficult to automate everything that works at once, you need to do it in stages. To make the automation process effective, it is necessary to keep two KPI records in parallel: in the old-fashioned way and by accounting in the software. And as soon as each area is closed in the software, you should compare the indicators, and if mistakes found, improve the process quickly.

As each section becomes implemented and established in the AMS, we are getting closer and closer to the target. As soon as we have finished with the last section, you can switch completely to automated accounting system.

In addition, it must be borne in mind that most people are conservative and do not want to change any established habits and views in the work process. To solve this problem, we introduced into the criteria of remuneration the motivating part for mastering the skill of using the program. Otherwise, people will delve into the innovations for a such long time to that the leader may simply lose his motivation.

To motivate employees for innovations, based on our experience, It is worth starting with the area where it is the easiest way to implement automatic processes. And then you measure the result, improve the process to the desired level and go from simple to complex issues, demonstrating to everyone how well everything works on previous stages. Any automation, as a rule, makes it easier to work for employees. And when others come up and ask the employee which changes he felt in the work, and he confirms that it became easier for him, a toggle in people’s heads switches.

And of course, you always need to understand that a miracle will not happen, and you need to go by iterations. First, we install it on a “three from five note” just to have the system work, then we understand what bottlenecks we have and what we need to do in the next cycle. Then we improve the process to a “four,” and then to a “solid five”. And so, we bring each production site to the desired result.

The pitfalls of automation

Of course, it is easy to talk afterwards about how to carry out automation competently. And at first everyone makes their mistakes. We also had them. So, first we hired a specialist whose task was to service AMS functionality – then it seemed a good decision to us. He figured out the system completely and tried to bring each site itself to an ideal. We spent a lot of time on the process in this approach, but, unfortunately, we never got an acceptable result. After some time, we included in the payroll criteria of all employees skill to work in the program – this has become a requirement for obtaining the normal amount of remuneration. And only this approach allowed us switch to automation.

A separate big topic for analysis in the production automation is selection of the appropriate equipment. It is very important to understand how much space the equipment or production line will take and if your plans suit for the areas you have. If you need one line of equipment – or if each technical process needs its own line. In the second case it will be necessary to ensure that all production lines work synchronously – to avoid situation when one line works faster then the other that results in downtimes.

In addition, the lines must be comparable in performance, there should not be so-called “bottlenecks.” The technical support of the equipment is also very important, as well as availability of spare parts, since during automation if the line pauses, then all production will pause. Ideally, when choosing equipment, you should always try to visit enterprises where the equipment is already working and find out the bottlenecks from practical experience. If this is not the case, then you need to look carefully at the technical parameters.

Who really needs automation

Of course, common sense must be present in all business actions. There is no need to chase the universal automation of everything. You need to weigh where exactly you need automation, and where you can work without it.

I will explain what I mean by example from my life. One day we wanted to buy robots to boost performance and get away from the so-called human factor, because it is very difficult to find now a good welder on the labor market. We found several manufacturers, compared technical characteristics of the equipment and, before making a final decision,  made measurements: how many products per unit of time a robot can  make, versus a living welder. Based on the results obtained, we  were surprised to find out, that the robot works twice as slowly as the welder. Moreover, the cost of paying the operator who will serve the robot, and welder’s wages are comparable.

Thus, we concluded that automation of the enterprise is needed only if there is some line, when it is not just the same type of products, but a whole technological process in which equipment can fulfil several operations with raw materials at once. For example, you have a sheet of metal, and the equipment must cut it, bend it, and weld it, that is, it must produce multiple operations. In this case, the equipment will be more efficient, since if a person does it, then it will be too much loss in time.

Thus, automation will be beneficial only if it succeeds to combine several technical processes into one.

In addition, you need to understand that the equipment will need to be recouped. Term of its payback is the most important parameter that should be considered when deciding to automate production. If you must recoup the equipment in 20 years, what is the point of automation?

It is also important to consider that there are enterprises where full automation is possible, but there are companies where only partial one is possible, where it is necessary to keep manual labor. If full automation is possible, then the main issue is regulation of productivity between lines so that each section corresponds to other one by volume. If only partial automation is possible, then, subject to the criteria for the return on equipment and the feasibility of its procurement, it  is worth automating everything that is possible, and where this cannot be done, you will have to cultivate professionals in the old-fashioned way.

By Vadim Adamovich, Director of Stylar LLC

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