It’s essential to understand the complete – and ever-widening – range of benefits that industrial automation brings. As the COVID-19 pandemic has upended supply chains and manufacturing, it’s worth considering why automation is something to be welcomed, not feared.
1. Industrial Automation Lifts Productivity
First, and perhaps most apparent, industrial automation massively increases the productivity of tasks, processes, and businesses in factories and on shop floors. Processes that once took armies of workers (think car manufacturing or food processing plants of 20, 30, or 40 years ago) now involve a fraction of that labor – a significant consideration in the context of today’s supply woes and the labor shortages that come with slowing population growth in many parts of the world.
But it’s not just about reducing labor costs and getting more done more quickly. The digitalization of manufacturing, especially the advent of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), also means increased throughput and avoided downtime as machinery is more efficiently employed and maintained. McKinsey estimates that using sensors on machinery reduces maintenance costs by 10-15%.
IIoT also provides the extra flexibility to adjust output to demand. For example, new open software approaches are more easily upgradeable. If orders change, operators spend less time reprogramming or re-engineering, increasing machine availability.
Finally, accurately configured industrial automation systems reduce error and variability and thus boost productivity. They automate repetitive tasks such as stamping, soldering, welding, material handling, and packaging, yielding consistently high-quality products.
2. Industrial Automation Arms the Industrial Workforce
Companies that were slow to deploy industrial automation tools before COVID-19 are now being forced to rethink their operations. Lockdowns and social-distancing measures meant workers were often unable to physically get to production sites, warehouses, and logistics centers.
This has highlighted the importance of tools and technologies that allow staff to access, monitor, operate, and service machinery, control systems, and other equipment safely and from a distance.
This includes everything from augmented-reality glasses and other wearable technologies to IIoT connectivity, advanced analytics, and cloud-based technologies, which improve how industrial operations are monitored. Supervisors can make data-driven decisions, adjust output more accurately, and improve real-time operational efficiency – all remotely.
Meanwhile, data sharing and digital traceability technologies have vastly improved companies’ ability to gain visibility and transparency to authenticate the origin of parts and products across their value chains. When businesses are increasingly held accountable for the actions of suppliers and partners, this is now an indispensable way to build trust while making operations more resilient to potential supply issues.
3. Industrial Automation Can Lower Industry’s Impact On the Environment
The third main benefit of industrial automation – and one that’s less obvious – is how it can help reduce our impact on the environment.
Energy and carbon-intensive industries need better control of operational indicators and efficiency levers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Digital automation tools can help with that, as showcased to significant effect in a new breed of industrial plants, which manage production, resources, and business processes eco-efficiently by overseeing asset and operational data across multiple sites and entire value chains.
Powerful visualizations on dashboards display thousands of data points to track real-time production, giving deep insights into resource management, overall equipment effectiveness, and enterprise-wide optimization.
Even notoriously, big-emitting industries in hard-to-abate sectors are converging industrial automation with energy management technologies from a central command point to understand better where to save energy and minimize waste.