Manufacturing AUTOMATION

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Editorial: Ensure automation decisions are backed by business strategy


February 7, 2020
By Kristina Urquhart
Kristina Urquhart

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Manufacturing management connects with customersPhoto: stocknroll/Getty Images

It’s the beginning of another new year and while 2020 is getting off to a slow start, orders-wise (see the Canadian manufacturing outlook according to IHS Markit), there is much to look forward to this coming decade. If the recent conferences I’ve attended are any indication, more small and medium-sized manufacturers are exploring what automation and digitization can do for them.

The industrial automation market is teeming with solutions to help you digitize your operations, increase production efficiency and reduce waste. There is so much out there, in fact, that if you’re looking to automate processes this year, whether for the first time or to make upgrades, the decision-making might be a bit overwhelming.

Our annual trends roundup is here to help you wade through which strategies and systems are worth looking into. Automation experts from four research firms and industry associations delve into which technologies are most relevant in 2020 and beyond: Craig Resnick (ARC), Jeff Burnstein (A3), Eric Cosman (ISA) and Adrian Lloyd (Interact Analysis).

Choosing which automation system is right for your operation depends on what your business strategy is and what you expect your return on investment to be. Perhaps your goal is to introduce flexibility, or reduce production bottlenecks, or increase safety measures, or expand your workforce. Or maybe it’s to streamline your warehousing and distribution.

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Logistics automation is going to be one of the biggest opportunities for companies this decade. Consulting firm Westernacher estimates that at least 10 per cent of manufacturers in the United States are already using complex, automated warehouse systems. And in its report “Automation in logistics,” research outlet McKinsey expects warehousing to see significant impact from a number of new technologies, including optical recognition, automated guided vehicles (AGVs), pick-and-place robots and multi-shuttle systems. In this month’s issue, I chat with Andy Battler, director of operations of the new AGV division at JMP Solutions, to learn more about how this market is emerging in Canada.

No matter what type of automation you are considering, it won’t replace your human workforce. In fact, cultivating highly skilled employees is more important than ever, with all of this new automation requiring operators and service technicians. With precious few available to fill those new roles, industry experts are urging manufacturers to look to their existing workforce with an eye on retraining. (For more on that, read trend #1 for 2020 from Eric Cosman, president of the International Society of Automation.)

But there’s also the untapped workforce to consider. According to Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters, women make up just 28 per cent of the manufacturing workforce in Canada. Build a Dream, an Ontario-based organization and subject of this month’s cover story, is grooming a generation of young women to explore careers in the skilled trades, engineering, emergency response and entrepreneurship. Founder Nour Hachem-Fawaz and her team are doing wonderful work to bring that untapped workforce to light, and I’m pleased to share their progress in this month’s cover story, “Builders and Dreamers.”

Questions, concerns, goals for 2020 – send them my way. And from all of us at Manufacturing AUTOMATION, all the best for a prosperous new year.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.