The manufacturing sector has seen one of the biggest shake ups in its history as more companies adapt and evolve as part of the Industry 4.0 movement. Manufacturing is no stranger to automation, but typically this has applied to the front line with robotic arms and computer-controlled machines now commonplace. What is less common however is the adoption of virtual automation to improve processes. In last year’s Proservartner Automation Index procurement and supply chain were seen as areas where technology could assist, but many businesses are holding off on further investment against a background of uncertainty.
Processes ripe for automation
In 2018 we saw that 25% of manufacturers were utilising automation to assist with procurement or supply chain. In an ideal world, the process of identifying a need (for example a material), locating a suitable and approved supplier, sending out a quote and then extracting and comparing the data could all be automated. However, the reality is that many suppliers are not mature enough for this to happen. In many cases the best prices can be found through personal contact or by phone on the day. Automation can still save significant time in vendor set-up and updates, but may not reach its full potential in the short-term.
There are a number of variables from machine availability to quality of materials that can affect manufacture, even where a component or product might be common. Automation can be leveraged to combine data from production, staff shifts, maintenance cycles and compliance in order to give a clearer overview of production. Currently, much of this information sits on disparate systems and must be assembled and digested by a human, often after-the-fact. Robotic Process Automation can be leveraged to gather information from different systems and give live and accurate information, crucial to production planning.
ERP update alternative
Where there are significant process efficiencies that may be unlocked through the right data, one major obstacle is the heavy investment that may be needed in a new ERP system. This is especially significant where medium and small businesses are concerned. RPA can act as a much cheaper alternative and stop gap to unlock some of the functionalities of a new ERP. For example, this could be taking information from an existing ERP and using it to fill in regulatory information on restricted materials.
“Any manufacturing firm has a clear focus on operational efficiency and yet a lot are not aware of the opportunities that virtual automation offers to streamline their back-end processes.
The major challenge for manufacturing in the UK over the next 20 years is a severe skills shortage. A downturn in the 80’s left a generational gap where today’s workplace is largely comprised of baby boomers and millennials. As the baby boomers are retiring, their knowledge is being lost and there is a shortage of skilled workers to take their place while the next generation comes through.
As someone who came into the manufacturing industry with no prior experience, and was tasked with keeping production busy, I was often reliant on a combination of an ERP system, handwritten notes and physically going and asking the shop floor so I would fully understand where parts were in production. The system that I would need to collate this information was simply out of our grasp as a medium sized business but now I have seen the possibilities of RPA I have seen that this was achievable without a huge investment.”
Govert Duitscher, Senior Director