I’m an engineer at heart. I love to solve technical challenges. When I walk through a modern factory I’m looking for just that: challenges to solve. Most factories today have done an admirable job of automating their primary processes. When I visit factories, I see machine centers humming away, dutifully performing the tasks they have been designed to do. But when I look closer I still see challenges. And here’s the main reason why: Almost every factory I visit is still operating with automation silos—highly efficient and productive islands of automation that are not connected and whose inputs and outputs are still manual.
I call the space between the automation silos the Manufacturing White Space. And it is ripe for automation.
In the discipline of process management, this “white space” is where important handoffs happen. It is also where many organizations have the greatest potential for improvement. The manufacturing white space is chock full of people handling product and information. And anywhere a manufacturer has people touching product or dealing with information, that place or process is a candidate for automation.
Advances in technology, specifically robots and vision, have opened the door to more automation in the white space. For example: bin picking. Until recently, the picking of randomly presented parts was a manual task. An operator picks a part out of a bin by hand, and presents it to the machine center for processing. Then, when the part has been processed, the operator places it back in another bin to be taken to the next machine center.
Modern 3D vision technology and intelligent software, combined with flexible robots, means this tedious and repetitive task can now be effectively done with automation. An intelligent robotic work cell can scan its environment, determine the location of the parts, identify which part to pick up and determine how to pick it. If the parts are not presented in a way that allows the robot to pick one up, the robot will change its environment by shaking the bin, moving the parts, or some other method.
Likewise with information technology. Despite the availability of enterprise-wide information technology systems for the plant floor, manufacturing team members are still writing stuff down on clipboards, recording stuff on white boards, and compiling data at the end of the shift. This is later compiled into spreadsheets to gain some intelligence about what actually happened.
Though these enterprise-wide systems have been available for some time, they haven’t taken off in manufacturing. I believe the reason for this is that these systems have been expensive, bulky and complicated. Any operations manager who has investigated such a system knows the drill: Make a call to the vendor and the next thing you know you’ve got 10 experts on the line, each trying to explain one element of the system but none knowing how it all works together. How can such a system be effective on the plant floor? In many cases they are not effective. The implementations get stalled and never completed, or worse, the manufacturer invests the money to implement the system, only to see it gathering dust in a corner.
However, there are systems on the market today that are scalable, cost effective, and can be simply explained by one person. They can be implemented on just one machine center or many. And the infrastructure investment is negligible.
The next time you walk through your factory, look at the manufacturing white space. I think you’ll find that your organization has tremendous potential for improvement.