Development strides in Artificial Intelligence, the continuous drop in the cost of cloud storage, ample availability of data and access to engineering talent is making digital labor the new engine of smart manufacturing.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution powered by Digital Transformation brings to manufacturers a treasure trove of benefits including cost efficiencies, quality improvements, agile process execution and most importantly, better user of manual resources.
At the core of this Digital Transformation in manufacturing is Robotic Process Automation (RPA). RPA is the use of software tools that can be easily configured to perform routine tasks. They help in automating manual tasks while increasing pace of delivery as well as reducing errors. A premier business consulting agency even found that implementing Robotic Process Automation could bring in up to €750,000 in annual cost savings (Source).
Large-scale manufacturers are racing to adopt automation to improve their production efficiency by reducing manual errors. The cost-savings that accompany are also a big draw to this race to automation.
At least 87% of manual and routine jobs performed by laborers in a manufacturing utility are automatable, says McKinsey. Rules-based clerical jobs involved in manufacturing like preparing bill of materials, order management, work order status updates, etc. can be carried out by intelligent systems with an efficiency that rivals human abilities. Technologies like Robotic Process Automation (RPA) can pull human laborers out of dull, strenuous and often mundane tasks by putting robots in their place.
Infographic – RPA Tool Comparison and ways to approach
Robotic Process Automation – The Digital Catalyst for Manufacturing
Long-term cost savings
The cost benefits of leveraging RPA for manufacturing would arrive only in the long-term. The RoI in the initial years may not be positive due to the one-time costs involved in setting up and putting the system to work. However, in the long run, the system would save businesses a large chunk of funds otherwise required for manual labor costs, their maintenance and upkeep, insurance and healthcare, administration and much more. Also, the manufacturing facility would be able to work round the clock without interruptions since software does not need a break or have working hour restrictions.
RPAs are made up of software components. RPAs are often lightweight in nature making them easy to setup and deploy without calling for extensive IT resources. Even business-operations executives with little system knowledge would be able to learn the processing of setting them up quickly. As a result, the manufacturing process would become agile and responsive to dynamically changing market scenarios.
Extendable manufacturing capabilities
A single chatbot can handle dozens of queries in a fraction of a time that otherwise would need three to four individual workers. Also, their machine memory and fast processors ensure that the information provided is accurate with zero possibility of errors. This makes RPA a versatile system that can be scaled and extended for several manufacturing capabilities.
High-end RPAs enabled with optical sensors and algorithms can read text as well as synthesize visuals of materials. They can integrate the real-time information collected into the manufacturing workflow enabling human workers to take spontaneous actions. This helps to accelerate the production timeline.
As much as RPAs can be deployed for manufacturing utilities, they can also be deployed for several other routine and rules-based activities. To cite an example, an RPA system can be programmed to sift through hundreds of inventory requisition notes and classify them on a departmental basis. The systems can also be additionally integrated to the backend of an inventory management system or an ERP to fetch real-time inventory levels. Based on the availability of inventory, the immediate production plan can be executed or fresh stock ordered for. The highlight is that an RPA can do all these activities simultaneously and faster than humans.
RPAs can build momentum for a manufacturing process by combining machine memory and human intelligence. By collecting data from equipment sensors and disseminating them for real-time insights, they can provide decision-makers with digital intelligence. Such digital intelligence would empower the decision-makers to steer the manufacturing assembly lines in an optimal fashion.
The end result would be better inventory management, minimal wastage and a healthy bottomline. Toyota, the automaker which follows the minimalist Kaizen way of manufacturing was able to augment its manufacturing efficiency by integrating RPAs into manual processes.
Reduces errors and wastage
One of the challenges that every manufacturer faces is to keep errors and inventory wastage under control. Most often, to ensure that produced units are of top-notch quality and comply with quality standards, a dedicated quality assurance team is engaged. This adds a layer of cost to the entire manufacturing operation. Also, manual labor is prone to inconsistencies. As a result, there is inventory wastage, which often ends up as irretrievable sunk costs.
Robotic Process Automation in manufacturing can dispel both these critical challenges in one shot. The programmed and rules-based functioning of RPA systems ensures that errors are reduced to a bare minimum, or at least they are negligible. As a result, wastage rates also decline significantly.
Top 6 RPA Use Cases In Manufacturing Industry
The three broad areas where RPA can find immense scope to smooth out processes and improve operations as well as outcomes are finance & accounting, operations, and customer service. Here are a few specific areas where automation in manufacturing can go a long way.
Generation of Purchase Order
Most manufacturing businesses generate numerous purchase orders on a daily basis. For this, businesses depend heavily on manpower, which is expensive and time consuming. Moreover, an error encountered is likely to impact the other processes down the line, leading to a downtime. Automating the entire process using RPA can guarantee prompt results and minimal errors. Bots can help extract data from across systems, seek approval from concerned departments or authorities, and process the request for a purchase order in no time. Deploying RPA to automate internal processes within the operation cycle reduces the turnaround time and increases productivity.
Bill of Materials
In the manufacturing industry, the Bill of Materials (BOM) is a crucial document that lists important details such as quantity of raw materials, components with sub-components and other details necessary for the manufacture of a new product. BOM includes everything that a manufacturing employee needs to know about a product from its stage of creation to the time it is shipped. To understand and implement the tangible document that basically lays out the product concept is a difficult thing to do.
Manually, it requires a lot of effort and time with obvious chances of errors. Errors can be game-changing leading to the manufacturing companies incurring massive loss, costing the company a lot of time, effort, and money. RPA in production automation ensures the product gets manufactured without any defect and at a faster pace. RPA eliminates the need for paper spreadsheets and manages BOM systems to improve production time and product accuracy.
Management of Inventory
In a supply chain process, manufacturers and suppliers need to be aware of and supervise their inventory levels to make sure there are enough products to meet the market demands. Using automation, it becomes easier to effectively manage inventory levels in a well-organized manner. RPA helps in real-time reporting and generates detailed audit trails that can optimize and improve business patterns, helping manufacturers respond to changing patterns of demand efficiently. With automation in manufacturing, generating automatic notifications on stock levels and initiating an appropriate response when stock levels drop beyond a threshold becomes easier.
Automation of Logistics Data
Every manufacturing business has a logistics department that handles the transport of finished products to the market. In this process, errors can be minimized and efficiency can be improved with the integration of RPA. Functions such as shipment scheduling, shipment tracking, order tracking, load capturing, forecasting and logistics planning can all be automated leading to improved transportation process. Automation comes in handy especially when companies have multiple carriers and multiple insurances, as the RPA software can reduce errors and automatically report on the best cost, best routes, best insurance, and best transit times, optimizing the entire supply chain mechanism.
Support Desk & Customer Service
Standard and mundane support desk and customer service tasks can be automated using RPA in manufacturing units. Deploying automation for front-desk activities reduces the need for human executives to navigate through various systems, improving the turnaround time for redressal and enhancing customer service. Other processes can also be handled efficiently by bots with no manual interference, offering human executives a chance to focus on and resolve higher complex issues.
RPA comes as a boon for those manufacturing companies that have multiple business units. Using automation, all the various branches and units of offices and factories can be connected on a central server. It then becomes easier to access data across branches, track activities happening in other branches, and if required, change data of any of the branches from anywhere. In this manner, the entire chain of business functions as a whole with the ownership of every process on all the parties, improving the transparency level of the business as well.
The Final Takeaway
Robotic Process Automation will help manufacturers replace their inefficient and error-prone manual processes with super-efficient and cost-effective digital systems. They can help quicken the pace at which routine tasks, including paperwork, is done, thereby helping the manufacturing facility improve what it does. RPA will lead to better man-machine collaboration, thereby pulling out humans from mundane tasks. Their time and talent can be spent for better purposes that require human intelligence and involvement.