Automation is central to modern manufacturing. Integrated technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and the Internet of Things (IoT) automate processes from order to production.
This isn’t just about enhancing productivity—it's also about fostering innovation and sustainability. Automated systems reduce waste, lower energy consumption, and save time, allowing human workers to focus on creative and strategic tasks.
However, while the appetite for automation is strong, implementation is complex. It requires multiple technologies to function in concert, from sales to the factory floor.
This article explores manufacturing automation, how it works, and strategies for implementation.
What is Manufacturing Automation?
Manufacturing automation applies technology to streamline production processes and reduce human labor. Spending on automation is reaching an all-time high, forecast to account for 25% of industrial expenditures over the next five years.
The main goals of automation are to increase production speed, reduce costs, and deliver higher-quality, customizable products. The benefits are well-established, with more than 90% of workers reporting that automation boosts their productivity and 85% saying it enhances collaboration, according to Harvard Business Review.
In recent years, automation has evolved, catering to rocketing demand for customized, made-to-order products. For example, Deloitte found that more than 50% of consumers are interested in customized products. The same report found they’re also willing to pay a premium for them and ideally want to play a part in the design process, too.
But how does that impact automation? Well, conventional fixed automation (also known as hard automation) handles singular, fixed tasks—as is the case for production lines that create the same product every time. That can be cumbersome for manufacturers managing custom projects.
To align with modern demand for product personalization, manufacturers must adopt new approaches to automating design and production.
Ideally, newer automation systems are easily adjusted to customized or small-batch product designs without long pauses for equipment updates. Processes are interconnected and managed through software systems to support customizable, made-to-order products. That includes everything from sales and product design through to engineering and manufacturing.
Before we investigate how to achieve this, let's explore the benefits of manufacturing automation in more detail.
Benefits of Manufacturing Automation
When automation technologies come together, they can reduce manufacturing costs by 10 to 15%
, slashing order processing times in the process. Other benefits include:
- Increased Production Efficiency: Automation accelerates production cycles, leading to higher throughput. This helps businesses meet increased market demands and maintain their competitive edge.
- Improved Product Quality: Automated processes ensure consistency and precision, resulting in superior product quality. Adherence to quality standards minimizes errors and enhances customer satisfaction.
- Cost Reduction: Automation leads to long-term savings by reducing labor costs and minimizing material wastage. This translates into lower operational costs and increased profitability.
- Enhanced Safety: Automation improves safety on the factory floor by taking over hazardous and repetitive tasks, reducing workplace accidents, and ensuring compliance with health and safety regulations.
- Scalability and Flexibility: Automation offers the flexibility to adjust production levels and adapt to new processes, allowing businesses to respond swiftly to changing market demands and customer needs.
- Data-Driven Decision Making: With IoT and AI, automation systems provide valuable insights into manufacturing processes. This informs decision-making and continuous process improvement.
- Workplace Culture and Digital Transformation: Automation is a marker of a tech-savvy business. It helps companies attract and retain talent, including younger workers, which is exceptionally important in a time of talent scarcity.
Let’s move on to explore how different technologies support automated, flexible manufacturing.
Automation Technology on the Factory Floor
Effective manufacturing automation relies on several advanced technologies working together. These include:
The Internet of Things (IoT)
IoT technology lays the foundation for cutting-edge manufacturing automation. It creates a network of interconnected devices and sensors throughout the factory.
The number of sensors in modern industrial plants is colossal. For example, a modern off-shore oil rig features some 350,000 to 500,00 individual sensors.
The role of IoT includes:
- Data Collection and Transmission: IoT provides real-time data from the factory floor and machinery. This is crucial for analyzing equipment performance, production monitoring, and measuring environmental conditions.
- Operational Efficiency: By offering insights into the manufacturing process, IoT helps to identify bottlenecks, optimize resource usage, and detect anomalies.
AI and Machine Learning
IoT data means nothing without a system that understands it.
AI and machine learning technologies handle vast quantities of data, including those created by IoT technologies.
There are hundreds of ways to use IoT data with AI, for example:
- IoT and AI enable predictive and preventive maintenance. For example, sensors can detect vibrational changes in components like cutting blades and indicate when they need to be replaced.
- They can also analyze temperature and humidity and adjust cooling and climate control, ensuring that machines operate optimally.
- Computer vision (a branch of AI where computers can derive information from images and videos) can analyze precision products like circuit boards and detect microscopic flaws undetectable to the human eye.
- AI also supports production decision-making. For example, AI models can forecast demand to adjust production runs on the fly.
Robotic manufacturing technology involves industrial robots, such as robotic arms on car production lines, and collaborative robots (cobots) that work with humans.
Cobots are designed to work closely alongside humans, acting as an extra arm or pair of hands.
Additive manufacturing, including 3D printing, is often used to create customized parts. This method supports flexible, on-demand production and reduces material waste.
Linking Automated Processes Together With Configure, Price, Quote (CPQ)
A well-integrated manufacturing system functions with minimal human input, but it requires software like advanced CPQ solutions to do so.
CPQ solutions act as the layer between the business and manufacturing floor, streamlining every process from sales to the finished product rolling off the production line.
Here's a breakdown of what they do:
- Configure: CPQ systems allow sales teams and customers to configure customizable products based on a set of predefined rules and options. The system ensures that all product combinations are viable and compatible.
- Price: Once a product is configured, the CPQ software automatically calculates the price, considering selected options, quantities, discounts, and variations in region, sales channel, or other factors.
- Quote: The CPQ system creates a detailed quote after configuring and pricing the product. The quote can be shown to the customer, including a comprehensive breakdown of the product specifications, pricing, and other relevant information.
- Document Automation: CPQs create proposal drawings, CAD files, and manufacturing documents like BOMs and cut sheets without human input and route them to production.
In essence, CPQ connects sales, engineering, and manufacturing teams. This innovative software solution helps businesses meet demand for personalized, customized products while supporting automation on and off the factory floor.
Benefits of CPQ in Automated Manufacturing
CPQ automates processes across manufacturing, design, engineering, and sales. It optimizes workflows, ensuring that complex product configurations are handled precisely.
Here are the key benefits:
- Reducing Bottlenecks: CPQ systems target and alleviate bottlenecks, particularly in the transition from sales to engineering. This increases product turnaround time.
- Optimizing Workflow: CPQ enhances operational flow by routing information across sales, design, engineering, and manufacturing departments. This simplifies tasks, reducing the need to send and retrieve sets of complex designs and documents.
- Cost-Efficiency: Automating design and quoting saves money by reducing manual intervention. CPQ generates quotes as the product is configured, ensuring accuracy from the outset.
- Reduced Dependency on Engineering Teams: CPQs’ ability to automate CAD drawings and BOMs reduces the engineering team's load, enabling them to focus on innovation. Simultaneously, automation speeds up design approval so production can start without delays.
- Data-Driven Manufacturing Decisions: By collecting and analyzing data from the configuration process, CPQ systems offer insights that can guide manufacturing strategies and product development.
- Informing Sales: That same data can inform sales teams of user behavior, enabling them to follow up on interactions and close more deals.
- Minimizing Ordering Errors: CPQ systems provide a controlled environment to support custom orders, reducing the risk of errors. Since inventory and price information are synced in real-time, customers can only order products that manufacturers can deliver exactly.
Using a combination of AI, IoT, and software like CPQ, automation transforms manufacturing.
CPQ bridges the gaps between sales, the design phase, and production. It simplifies product configuration and pricing, supporting sales, engineering, and manufacturing teams.
Additionally, CPQ systems automate CAD processes, which improve production speed and accuracy.
It’s the missing link in many businesses' manufacturing automation ecosystems.
Manufacturing Automation FAQs
What do you mean by manufacturing automation?
Manufacturing automation refers to using various control systems, automated machinery, and software technologies to automate production processes in a manufacturing facility.
This can include assembly, material handling, quality control, and packaging tasks to improve efficiency, reduce human error, and increase production rates.
What is an example of automation in manufacturing?
An example of factory automation in manufacturing is robotic arms in car assembly lines.
In an automated manufacturing system, robots and other automation tools can perform tasks such as welding, painting, and assembling parts with high precision and speed, significantly increasing productivity and ensuring consistent product quality.
What is manufacturing system automation?
Manufacturing system automation integrates various automated technologies and systems to create a cohesive and efficient manufacturing process.
This includes machines, robots, and software that control production, manage inventory, and handle supply chain logistics.
What is the role of automation in manufacturing?
The role of intelligent automation in smart manufacturing is to streamline production processes, reduce labor-intensive tasks, enhance product quality, and increase efficiency.
Industrial automation also plays a crucial role in reducing operational costs, improving safety, and enabling manufacturers to respond more quickly to market changes.
What are the four (4) types of industrial automation?
The four main types of industrial automation in manufacturing are:
- Fixed Automation System: Used for high-volume, repetitive tasks where the product does not change frequently.
- Programmable Automation System: More comprehensive manufacturing process automation suitable for batch production with frequent product changes.
- Flexible Automation System: Combines fixed automation's high output with programmable automation's flexibility for various product types.
- Integrated automation system: This involves a fully automated production system in which advanced software systems interconnect and control different processes. It also involves multiple manufacturing automation solutions working in tandem.
How does CPQ integrate with manufacturing automation?
CPQ systems are an essential automation solution that integrates with advanced manufacturing automation by bridging the gap between customer order configuration and actual production. This helps a manufacturing company bridge the gap between sales and production.
CPQ systems help customize products efficiently by translating customer needs into manufacturing instructions. They often work in conjunction with CAD systems to streamline the entire process from product design to production.
What benefits does CPQ bring to automated manufacturing?
CPQ systems enhance process automation in manufacturing by reducing the time from order to production, minimizing errors in product specifications, and ensuring that the manufacturing process aligns with customer requirements.
Process automation involves everything from generating technical documents to facilitating inventory management, contributing to a more efficient and responsive manufacturing cycle. This allows the manufacturing sector to connect the gap between sales and production.
Can CPQ systems improve supply chain management in the manufacturing industry?
Absolutely. CPQ systems provide accurate information on product configurations and requirements in real-time. This helps plan and manage materials and resources.
Surveys reveal that deploying automation technology across multiple parts of the business, such as on the factory floor and in sales, leads to higher automation success overall.
CPQ supports automation technology, leading to more efficient production scheduling, reduced inventory costs, and a more streamlined supply chain./p>
Production automation benefits from production-ready CAD drawings and BOMs, which CPQ delivers. CPQ also integrates into other software, such as manufacturing execution systems (MES), via the industrial internet./p>