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Chapter 3

2. Efficiency ofinternal logistics

Aided by Automating more than machines

In manufacturing, every second of process overhead, and every penny count. Often, low margins mean that competing manufacturers are locked in a battle to become the most efficient, highest quality, and cheapest producer. In the past decades, a lot of these efficiency gains came with automation. Replacing low-skilled jobs with robots that could do the same work faster, more accurate, and cheaper.

Problem definition

Most menial and repetitive actions have been shifted from human hands to robots and computers, leaving humans to perform only the more specialized tasks within primary processes. Often it was too expensive or too complex to automate those tasks.

With primary processes already as heavily automated and optimized as the previous generation of tools could handle, manufacturers were left facing the same problems of needing to increase efficiency and lower costs, without the means they have used for so long. The need to optimize however, is growing rather than slowing down. Competition from competitors producing in lower-wage countries has increased, and cannot be matched. So what can manufacturers do to increase productivity? Why of course, automate even more!

Automating more than machines

Let’s start with the obvious; technological progress is speeding up at a previously unimaginable rate. That means faster computing, smarter AI, and lower cost.

Older automation tooling was either too expensive, or just plain unable to perform complex jobs. Now, a new generation of tooling (think of robots) are more flexible, more versatile, more precise, and above all cheaper than those used in many manufacturing environments today. These robots can be “trained” by frontline staff to perform tasks previously thought to be too difficult for machines — tasks such as picking and packing irregularly spaced objects, and resolving wiring conflicts in large-scale projects in, for example, the aerospace industry. Artificial intelligence is also making major strides that are increasing the potential for automating work activities in many industries: in one recent test, for example, computers were able to read lips far more accurately than professionals.

The increased cognitive skills and flexibility of modern robotics also allows manufacturers to look at other processes for automation. Most modern day manufacturing organizations see their machines and factories as their most important capital assets, and have thus invested heavily in modernizing these assets. While primary processes have long been the focus of automation, there is still enough automation potential left within the four walls of manufacturing sites.

Supporting processes, systems and applications have long been out of the spotlight when it comes to automation. Often, these supporting, but business critical systems and processes remain in a legacy state, with logistics, warehousing, supply chain management and procurement lagging behind primary manufacturing processes. With new developments in smart robotics, it is now possible to automate warehousing with Autonomous Mobile Robots. AI can help manage inventory and optimize purchasing and SCM.