“The More We Automate Sections Of Our Factory, The Less Flexible Our Plant Becomes” (Lesson 7)

I’m sure this very real and genuine dilemma keeps even the most experienced business CEOs and general managers awake at various stages of their working careers.

As facilities embrace increasing levels of specialised and sophisticated automation, they will often compromise the many avenues available for adapting product offerings, so they can respond to frequently evolving customer requests and new market opportunities.

If you’ve previously installed equipment that was able to double, triple or even quadruple your original start-up production capacity, there’s a good chance your biggest customer or your soon-to-be biggest customer will ask for a product change that simply can’t be adapted to your high-speed equipment.

Or, even if the equipment you recently purchased was so flexible that it could handle many product or packaging variations, I’d still place a bet that the next product change requested by your best customer will have no compatibility with your current machines.

Murphy’s Law of “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” always seems to bite in these situations in the most brutal way. So, this possibility alone seems like a justifiable argument for not embracing automation within your facility.

But, before you accept this situation as rationale against expanding and automating your facility, you should consider the other side of the argument for it.


Manual Labour vs. Automation

You managed to get your operation up and running, probably with the minimum capital funds outlay possible at the time. Most likely, this included your product processing equipment and your filling machine, if this couldn’t be completed by manual labour.

If you’re relying on manual labour to complete the remaining tasks of the production process, then consider some of the typical hindrances for a highly manualised production facility:

  • missing out on expanding your sales volumes due to internal constraints on production capacity means there may be current bottlenecks that significantly hinder your output capacity
  • struggling with quality issues or elevated safety risks
  • restricting potential sophistication, complexity or elegance of the product(s) being produced
  • having to cancel planned production runs due to high staff absenteeism

Acknowledging “yes” to any of the above items doesn’t automatically step the decision-making process up to “you need to embrace the automation expansion journey,” but it should direct your attention towards investigating and better understanding some of the underlying issues.

Many times, you may be aware of these underlying issues. These are probably already keeping you awake at night!

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s important to perform a regular analysis of your operations. This should focus on finding immediate zero-to-low-cost fixes that can be implemented to:

  • reduce wastage or wasteful processes
  • reduce unnecessary waiting or holding times
  • improve process layout, and
  • improve existing machine reliability issues by standardising machine changeover/set-up practices and maintenance practices.

If all these opportunities are drawing blanks or no longer deliver the improvement they once may have given, then automation expansion is the next logical point for consideration.