Smart Automation Prompts Need for Skilled Workforce

While smart automation tools are designed to take over repetitive fast-moving plant work, the smart tools require a skilled workforce for installation and maintenance.

Can advanced manufacturing deliver a clear ROI? This may be an especially thorny question when it comes to retrofitting a plant with aging assets.

According to TBM Consulting, a firm that helps manufacturers balance their technology and workforce, the biggest mistake manufacturing industry managers make is relying solely on smart automation tools as the solution to downtime and lost revenue. While manufacturers are pressing ahead with data analytics systems, TBM analysts see a skills gap that can hamper the effectiveness of smart manufacturing tools.

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One of the keys to implementing advanced manufacturing is creating a team that can run the smart tools effectively. “With downtime being a silent killer, it’s essential to build a smart workforce around the supplemental systems and analytics that track root cause and counter measure tools in real time,” Ken Koenemann, VP of TBM Consulting, told Design News . “Workers need to understand the results and adjust certain lagging aspects to avoid further issues.”

Searching for the Skilled Workforce

Though advanced tools can help reduce a manual workforce while delivering efficiencies, it may not be enough to offset the need to invest in workers will a higher skillset. “What does smart automation mean when it comes to the type of resources you need? You take people off the production line, but the more automation you have, the more skills you need to maintain the automation,” said Koenemann. “It’s a net-sum game, and in some cases, it’s a net loss.”

Skilled workers are necessary to support data analytics and other new automation, but those workers are in short supply. “You’re going to have to have more skilled workers who can maintain the equipment or that equipment will lose effectiveness. You’ll need more skilled operators,” said Koenemann. “Someone has to load the program and monitor the equipment, and companies are struggling with finding resources such as computer numeric operators. A lot of our clients are having trouble finding good solid engineers.”

Augmented reality (AR) training tools might help solve the problem of a dearth in skilled workers. “Augmented reality could be very powerful in teaching tasks to workers,” said Koenemann. “AR can be used as a training tool without having to have somebody stand there and train the worker.”

Choosing the Right Tasks to Automate

Another challenge in deploying advanced automation is deciding what tasks to automate. The goal is to let the machine do what it does best while letting humans do what they do best. “If you look at what Amazon is doing, you’ll see they’re using automation to bring the products to the people who pack it,” said Koenemann. “That is a good use of automation, and it’s going to drive tremendous benefit to the company. It’s not a matter of packing faster. Humans do that pretty well.”

One of the tasks that is gaining traction in automation is vision systems that can examine fast-moving lines without losing focus or attention. “There are certain processes that cannot be done by humans. Several of our clients are using visual inspection and it’s occurring at high speed,” said Koenemann. “Using an optical inspection


Automation and robotics has been described as best doing the "4D" class of tasks: Dangerous, Demanding, Dirty, or Dull. Inspection certainly is demanding and dull, and so it is a very good candidate for automation. Inspection systems may not require a completely new machine, unless the intent is also to add new functionality by correcting faults instead of just rejecting faulty items. Flexibility, is an entirely different situation, since it really requires a different business plan.

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