Many companies are considering modernising their production, using automation and optimisation elements of the “so-called” Industry 4.0.
This is a major investment, with planned use across many years (an expected life span of 15 to 20 years is not uncommon).
The simplest approach would, of course, be to purchase brand new production technologies – fully automated machines, robots, conveyors and software that will manage and optimise production – without the need to consider the limitations of current, often outdated equipment.
However, many businesses cannot afford such an investment. Therefore, they ask us whether we can find solutions for them that would bring their businesses closer to Industry 4.0.
In most cases, a suitable solution exists. But before a company's management can start considering a specific solution, it must answer several key questions.
Align Your Expectations with Reality
As with any other project, it is necessary to consider, at the outset, what benefits automation of production should bring.
For example, do we want to get a better understanding of the production process and key performance indicators (KPIs)?
Do we want to optimise the production process on the go, produce more or improve quality?
Do we plan full or only partial automation? A frequent incentive for wider automation is a critical shortage of employees, where the company needs to produce the same or a larger volume but has limited access to talent.
Answers to the above questions help management settle on what automation solution they need. If the company does not have its own automation experts, it is best to call on external consultants at this early stage. Management's expectations and demands must align with objective reality and possibilities.
Moreover, the consideration stage is also a time for addressing other aspects related to automation that are often overlooked. These are typically human resources related.
Greater automation allows us to produce with fewer employees, and those workers need to have very different skillsets. If the company is uncertain whether it has that kind of personnel or would be able to procure them, then automation must go together with retraining or recruiting new workers.
Alternatively, is it time to start considering outsourcing or subcontracting certain aspects of automation? It is typical, for example, to have repair and maintenance done by an external, specialised firm.
Is Your Company Ready?
After resolving basic issues related to the modernisation and automation of production from the management standpoint – and before beginning implementation itself – it is also vital to determine whether basic technical requirements for operation are met and whether that may change in the future.
For example, do you have enough input power; do you have an adequate and secure data network infrastructure; or will this require further investment as well?
Do you have enough space for new technologies on your shop floor? And above all, will the new implementation meet all the standards and requirements placed on operational safety and security of production?
It is often best over the full course of preparing and realising such a project to cooperate with experts and consultants with experience in similar projects. We also recommend you consider creating a detailed model of the production facility and its operation.
Such a model would allow many questions to be resolved ahead of time and prevent many problems you might encounter only after the implementation of the project is underway or, worse yet, once everything is up and running.
Investing in modern automation, whether it will be in the form of new or modernised production capacities is an essential step that will determine the direction and competitiveness of a company.
Therefore, such projects require a holistic approach since the simple acquisition of new technologies will not meet your goals.