The Automation Outlook in 2021

Whether your manufacturing business thrived or survived 2020, it was a year of unpredictability, adaptability and new technology for many.

In this article, I’ll discuss the automation outlook for 2021. The manufacturing industry is in a unique position. It has the power to transform its ways of operating to create more robust operations.

Robotics Made Easy

A recent article focused on the difficulties around recruiting and retaining labour in factories across the US. In fact, some manufacturers were so low on workers that they recruited their executives to work on the factory floor. This speaks to significant challenges around labour sourcing, attraction and retention. Of course, the social distancing requirements and lockdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic make deploying human labour in manufacturing facilities all the more challenging.

McKinsey reported that companies who scaled their use of Industry 4.0 technologies prior to COVID-19 were better placed to respond. Regardless when the pandemic comes to an end, manufacturers have the potential to emerge more robust and flexible. 

A key trend Facteon has seen in market is the shift towards robotics. A study projected a robotics installation increase of 39% between 2019 and 2022. Once again, this speaks to the drive towards creating more flexible and resilience manufacturing facilities.

We have also seen many manufacturers looking to take that critical first step into robotics who are exploring collaborative robots (commonly known as cobots). A cobot is a type of robot designed to safely work alongside humans, as opposed to fully replacing them on the production line.

Here’s a simple example: If you have a pair of people working in close proximity on a production line, the implementation of a single cobot in the place of one person may fulfill social distancing requirements. You can then redeploy the person elsewhere in your facility. Cobots are, of course, not simply a COVID-era technology. They can complete dull and repetitive tasks with accuracy and consistency unmatched by human operators.

With the current travel restrictions across the world, manufacturers and technology partners are adapting to new ways of implementing technologies. In pre-COVID times, engineers often travelled to customer sites by plane for maintenance or trouble shooting purposes. Global travel restrictions have made this approach highly complex or impossible. This has pushed equipment vendors to discover new ways of fulfilling service level agreements.  

Within one hour of your cobot arriving at your facility, you can unbox, mount and program its first task. This ease of implementation achieves the speed of deployment required in an uncertain operating environment. It also provides manufacturers with relative certainty that their own team can implement their robotic solution without relying on an external robotics expert. Learn more about robotics here.

Good Data Drives Intelligent Decisions

Another key trend set to accelerate manufacturing in 2021 is the use of data-driven insights to make smart decisions at the factory floor and executive levels. There is a clear trend of using data that has always existed in new ways. Data collection isn’t a new concept. However, with advances and cost reductions in sensor technologies, manufacturers are capitalising on the power of data to drive decision making. Rather than simply responding to changes in machine health as they occur, manufacturers are scheduling maintenance to prevent unplanned downtime.

For manufacturers struggling to secure labour, it is critical that every shift achieves maximum productivity. This challenge is intensified by manufacturers experiencing unprecedented or pent-up demand. Component manufacturers in the auto industry are struggling to keep pace with the demand of large auto manufacturers, such as General Motors. Due to its size, General Motors reports being largely unaffected by worker absence as it drew on a more flexible workforce. Learn more about the power of data here. 

Product Traceability

This year, Midwestern Pet Foods Inc. actioned a voluntary recall after fatal levels of a toxin were found in some of its products. The repercussions for the manufacturer’s brand, the detrimental impact on consumer trust and the immediate hit to profit margins all speak to the importance of implementing a traceability system. 

Manufacturers now recognise the necessity of product traceability that stretches beyond the factory walls. PwC predicts a near term increase in the cost of supplies sourced from China. In parallel, the same research reports that companies are identifying alternative sourcing strategies. With supply chains becoming increasingly complex, simplistic “one step back and one step forward” tracing no longer serves manufacturers. Many now have a heightened focus on knowing the movements of a product once it leaves the manufacturing facility. This level of visibility is now possible with modern data collection and analysis tools.

A common misconception is that you must gut your factory to make way for state-of-the-art equipment to achieve modern traceability. While this is one possible solution, many manufacturers are taking a staged approach. The installation of a single robotic cell or the addition of sensors to an older machine have the power to provide unprecedented access to machinery data which can be utilised for traceability purposes or machine maintenance and performance analysis. There are a range of options available to manufacturers of all sizes. Learn more from my colleague, Reinaldo, here.

Final Thoughts

2021 is set to be the year in which automation is more accessible than ever. For manufacturers who have delayed their automation journeys due to a lack of funds, resources or time, now is the time to get started. McKinsey research found that 94% of respondents reported that Industry 4.0 helped in keeping their operations running during the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of when the pandemic comes to an end, manufacturers will continue to face labour shortages, increasing costs and complex supply chains. For that reason, make 2021 the year you take those critical first steps on your automation journey.

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