Process and control today | Analyze, prioritize, digitize: Top manual processes to automate for a fast ROI

The benefits of automating manual processes have long been known to manufacturers – reduced costs, improved quality and increased safety are just some of the most obvious. But what processes should manufacturers prioritize in their transition to Industry 4.0? In this article, Neil Ballinger, EMEA Manager at automation parts supplier EU Automation, offers insight into which tasks, when automated, deliver the fastest return on investment (ROI).

Since the emergence of the term Industry 4.0 in 2011, the digital journey of most manufacturers has been characterized by a marathon-like approach, slow and steady. For manufacturers who lack endless cash flow and expert teams of in-house technologists, the gradual implementation of automation has been the safest and most efficient way to digitize their premises.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic and its ripple effect on the global socio-political balance has forced manufacturers to digitalize at full speed, transforming their Industry 4.0 journey from a marathon to a sprint. In this scenario, plant managers are under increasing pressure to make the best decision when prioritizing processes to move from manual to digital.

Although the needs of each production or assembly plant differ, when planning an automation project, plant managers must consider three key variables: the speed of return on investment (ROI), the ease of implementation and the impact of the project on the workforce. Let’s see some examples of digitalization projects that win on all three fronts.

Choose and place

The repetitive act of picking up a part and placing it in the right place for further processing is enough to test the patience of even the most motivated employee. When parts are heavy, difficult to handle, or near hot surfaces and dangerous machinery, the task goes from tedious to dangerous.

Fortunately, pick and place applications are among the easiest and most cost effective to digitize. There are a wide variety of robotic arms on the market that require little initial investment, can be programmed without coding expertise, and make employees’ jobs much easier.

For example, the latest cobot from igus, part of the igus Rebel family, costs less than 5,000 euros and can be programmed remotely via an online onboarding service that offers consultations at a fixed price. This plug and play cobot is up and running in just a few days and can lift up to 2 kg.

For heavier lifts, such as in palletizing applications, prices are considerably higher — a standard solution handling one layer per minute starts at around 140,000 EUR, excluding integration and additional accessories. Programming and maintenance can also be quite complex and usually require the assistance of a systems integrator.

However, automated palletizers can have a huge impact on staff well-being, as manual palletizing is a physically demanding task that can often lead to accidents and repetitive strain injury (RSI). Although capital payback may be slower than in other automation projects, the benefits in terms of increased safety and staff retention are worth the long-term investment.

Quality assurance

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

Unfortunately, human inspectors cannot reliably inspect complex products for eight hours a day without missing defects. Think of a printed circuit board (PCB) – a single part may contain dozens of barely visible sub-components, each of which may have defects that compromise the functionality of the entire board.

Fortunately, new solutions that transcend the limitations of traditional machine vision are coming to market. For example, the German-Israeli company Inspekto has developed a cost-effective stand-alone machine vision system, the INSPEKTO S70, which can be configured by factory personnel, without the help of a machine vision expert. The system is pre-trained for a wide variety of use cases, greatly reducing installation time.

Machine vision solutions such as those from Inspekto drive a rapid return on investment through their ability to reduce the cost of defects, which can include wasted material, rework costs, late delivery charges, breaches reputation, etc.

Additionally, automating quality assurance can free up staff to perform more engaging tasks that add value. The wide variety of machine vision companies on the market and the many low-code and no-code solutions they offer ensure that manufacturers can find a QA system that fits their budget and technical skills.

Data entry

Fast, reliable data entry is essential for any process that requires accurate, up-to-date information, from monitoring sensor data for predictive maintenance to processing BOMs.

Manual data entry can often become a bottleneck for businesses, as data entry clerks may not be able to meet the need for real-time information and may introduce errors when reporting. numbers. This is where automated data entry systems can help.

Using optical character recognition, data entry software can read information from a wide variety of sources, such as PDFs, emails, and websites, and absorb it into a storage application centralized data source, whether it’s 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, but data entry software can help in countless scenarios, such as preparing reports for audits and quality checks, managing business inquiries, processing the results of customer satisfaction surveys, etc.

In addition to 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 just £20 per user.

Cash flow, employee retention and lack of technical skills are some of the biggest challenges facing manufacturers today. By considering the ROI of their automation projects, their impact on the workforce, and the ease with which they can be deployed and maintained, manufacturers can accelerate their digitization marathon, taking the leap whose they need to gain considerable competitive advantage.

To stay up to date with the latest smart manufacturing innovations and access a wide range of resources, including audio blog posts and two e-books, visit the free EU Automation Knowledge Hub.

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