The changing face of the manufacturing industry has many of us looking to advanced technologies, like robotics and artificial intelligence.
While it may not be the glamorous stage, digitizing operating systems and automating processes leads to reduced inefficiencies and drives improvements and streamlining in manufacturing.
Behind the scenes, business process automation tools and workflows help many in the industry to enhance their quality processes, respond faster to maintenance issues, increase data integrity, and improve operational performance.
Ushering in Business Process Automation in Manufacturing
At Nukon, we explain process automation as being similar to a conductor for an orchestra—they don’t play an instrument, but they instruct people to play their instruments in sync with a flow of music.
To replicate this ‘orchestration’ of systems, machines and people in a manufacturing operation, there needs to be a digital representation of the process. Enter business process modelling and notation (BPMN—a graphical representation that can model a process).
BPMN can be used to develop automated processes and bring automated workflows to life—pulling information from disparate systems while integrating signals and events from machines and devices.
Automated processes could involve running production work orders, preventative control plans, or raw material workflows by compiling information from Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP); Manufacturing Execution System (MES); Warehouse Management System (WMS); and a number of other information sources and formats, such as Excel spreadsheets.
What manufacturing problems does this solve?
Almost any process with a defined series of steps can be improved with automation. Process automation can manage multiple tasks and communications, bringing them together in one workflow. It can manage repetitive patterns and take actions based on set parameters.
These automated workflows bring together different information systems to provide manufacturers with a number of benefits—such as less variation between processes, improved data integrity and storage and more transparency to your operations.
Automated workflows make these processes more efficient by freeing up time for both operators and managers. The focus shifts to tasks requiring human thinking or intervention, while workflows can start work orders, put away finished goods or run quality processes.
How automated processes make a difference
When modelling the business processes in a digital representation, business stakeholders spend time thoroughly reviewing and understanding the processes they wish to automate.
There are some huge benefits to this. Graphically mapping these processes allows for complete transparency of the current operations, enabling improvement opportunities to be identified.
For example, a common concern for manufacturers is production delays. While delays may not be completely avoidable, automation can be used to minimize downtime if a machine should fault.
· The machine stops.
· The operator notices the line has stopped, but they aren’t immediately sure where the problem is occurring.
· It takes a few minutes to locate the machine, then a few minutes more to determine what to do and who to notify to correct the problem. The operator may run through a basic checklist or trial some fixes before calling a maintenance person.
All of this results in lost time—plus the response time and subsequent actions taken can vary depending on the operator.
If the same thing happens with process automation in place:
· The workflow immediately detects the machine stoppage. It may be connected to instrumentation devices such as vibration sensors, temperature gauges and/or the programmable logic controller (PLC) to understand each machine's current state.
· The workflow alerts the operators to the stoppage, creating a user task that prompts them to respond (this might be stopping the line or rectifying the damage).
· At the same time, the automated workflow raises an instant maintenance request for emergency response, providing the location of the faulting machine and any information about the fault.
This can all happen in a matter of seconds, reducing the response time and ultimately the downtime cost.
Automated workflows come with dashboards that display the workflow and its performance through heat maps and graphs that show bottlenecks, timing delays or output.
With greater visibility of key data, everyone is kept up to speed on tasks in progress. Less time is spent on collating data for reports or on completing manual checks every few hours.
Implementing process automation and workflows is one of the most valuable additions manufacturers can make during the move to digital operations.
This stage will help to improve manufacturing capabilities moving forward, leveraging efficiencies and allowing teams to access the information they need in order to take action. They can do this knowing their decisions are informed by data.
Ultimately, the integrated information systems, data transparency and consistent processes that automated workflows provide will enable manufacturers to deliver improved products and better service to an increasingly demanding market.
Rafael Amaral is the chief technology officer at Nukon, a SAGE Group brand. SAGE is a certified member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about SAGE, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.