Automated processes with the fastest ROI

Manufacturers have long known the benefits of automating manual processes. Some of the most readily apparent include cost reduction, quality improvements, and increased safety.

But what processes should manufacturers prioritise in their journey to Industry 4.0?

Most manufacturers have taken a marathon-like digital strategy since the start of the term "Industry 4.0" in 2011. In other words, proceed slowly but steady. Manufacturers have found that a gradual deployment of automation is the safest and most successful method for digitalizing their facilities. This especially true for manufacturers who are not blessed with an endless stream of cash and expert in-house specialists.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the global socio-political balance has forced manufacturers to digitalise at full throttle. This has effectively turned their Industry 4.0 journey from a marathon to a sprint. More pressure is on plant managers to make the best decision between digital procedures or manual ones.

Each manufacturing facility has unique requirements, but managers should always consider three variables while developing an automation strategy. The speed of the return on investment (ROI), the ease of implementation, and the impact of the project on the workforce. Let’s see a few examples of digitalisation projects that win on all three fronts.

Pick and place machine

Picking up a component and putting it in the right position for further processing is tedious work. This is enough to test the patience of even the most motivated employee. When parts are heavy, in near proximity to hot surfaces and dangerous machinery, the task turns from tedious to hazardous.

Luckily, pick and place applications are some of the easiest and most cost-effective to digitalise. There is a wide variety of robotic arms on the market that require little upfront investment. Which, also can be programmed with no coding expertise, and drastically facilitate employees’ work.

For example, igus’ latest cobot, part of the igus Rebel family, costs less than EUR 5,000. Moreover, it can be programmed remotely through an online integration service that offers fixed-price consultations. This plug-and-play cobot can carry up to 2kg and is working within a couple of days.

For heavier lifting, such as in palletizing applications, prices are considerably higher. A standard solution handling one layer per minute starts at around EUR140,000, excluding integration and extra accessories. Programming and maintenance can also be quite complex and generally requires the assistance of a systems integrator.

However, automatic palletizers can have a huge impact on staff wellbeing. This is since manual palletization is a demanding physical task that can often lead to accidents and repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). Capital recovery might be slower than in other automation projects. However, the benefits in increased safety and staff retention will be worth the investment in the long run.

Quality assurance in manufacturing

The strict standards of Industry 4.0 make quality assurance (QA) an essential step of the manufacturing process. However, the cost and complexity of traditional machine vision solutions mean that many factories still rely on manual inspection.

Unfortunately, human inspectors cannot reliably check complex products for eight hours a day without missing defects. Think of a printed circuit board (PCB) — a single item can contain dozens of hardly visible sub-components. However, each of them can present defects that compromise the functionality of the whole board.

Luckily, new solutions that transcend the limitations of traditional machine vision are reaching the market. For example, German-Israeli company Inspekto has developed a cost-effective Autonomous Machine Vision system. The INSPEKTO S70, can be set up by the plant’s own personnel, without the help of a machine vision expert. The system comes pre-trained for a wide variety of use cases, which drastically reduces installation time.

Since machine vision systems like Inspekto's help decrease defect costs, they generate a rapid return on investment. This can include material waste, re-working costs, late delivery fees, reputational damage and more.

Moreover, automating quality assurance can free up personnel to perform more engaging tasks that add value. There are a wide variety of machine vision companies on the market. They provide many low-code and no-code solutions. Ensuring that manufacturers can find a QA system that matches their budget and technical skills.

Data entry

Fast and reliable data entry is essential for all processes that require accurate, up-to-date information. From monitoring sensor data for predictive maintenance, to processing bills of materials.

Manual data entry can often become a bottleneck for businesses. This is because data entry clerks might not be able to keep up with the need for real-time information. Therefore, they might introduce errors while reporting figures. This is where automated data entry systems can help.

Data entry software can use optical character recognition to read information from various sources like PDFs, e-mails, and websites. It can then absorb this information into a centralised data storage application, whether it is a database or a simple spreadsheet.

Automated data entry has a wide range of applications. The most common and well-known is automated invoice scanning. However, data entry software can help in countless scenarios, such as preparing reports for audits and quality controls. As well as, managing business enquiries, processing the results of customer satisfaction surveys, and more.

On top of these benefits, data entry software is generally simple to install and manage and can be extremely cost-effective. Culverdocs, for example, offers an all-inclusive package for a monthly fee of only £20 per user.

Cashflow, employee retention and a technical skills gap are some of the biggest challenges manufacturers are currently facing. Manufacturers may accelerate their digitalization marathon by taking the jump they need to obtain a significant competitive advantage. This is by considering the return on investment (ROI) of their automation initiatives. As well as, their influence on the workforce, and how easily they can be deployed and maintained.

Visit EU Automation's free Knowledge Hub to stay up-to-date with the latest innovations in smart manufacturing. Access a wide range of resources, including audio blog posts and two e-books.

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