The Technologies That Improve Manufacturing Productivity

Manufacturing is in the midst of a profound period of change, characterised by dramatic gains in productivity powered by technology. It’s seen small and medium sized manufacturers gain access to innovations previously available only to their heavily capitalised enterprise competitors, levelling the playing field and bringing new and better products to consumers.

In this article we look at the practical ways present-day manufacturers are using new technology to boost their productivity and build competitive advantage.

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Technology and productivity in manufacturing

Historically the major evolutions in manufacturing have all been linked to technological change. Starting with the first steam-powered industrial revolution, then followed by the step-changes that came with electric power and then the advent of computers, we’ve now reached what’s known as Industry 4.0.

What is Industry 4.0?

Known as the fourth industrial revolution, Industry 4.0 is the digital transformation of manufacturing, production and the industrial value chain.

Digital transformation goes beyond simply using computers. Computing has already changed the factory environment, for instance through CAD product-design software. Whereas a digitised value chain is about connecting suppliers, inventory, manufacturing, production, logistics, sales and marketing for a dramatically optimised operation.

As manufacturing moves into this fourth industrial revolution, product-based businesses must consider how the evolution of technology will improve their productivity.

Technologies for manufacturers within Industry 4.0

For manufacturers, technology is any tool that enables production and maximises each worker’s individual effort. For example:

  • Software as a Service (SaaS). For SMEs, this can mean software for supply chain management, inventory management, batch tracking, bills of material management, assemblies and product innovation, customer relationship management, sales, payroll software, debtor tracking and even AI-powered forecasting
  • Robotics. They’re not new to industry, but they’re getting smarter, cheaper, more connected and more mobile
  • Wearable technology. Moving beyond handheld devices to wearable devices like smart watches, GPS trackers, RFID sensors and tags that map movement around a warehouse, and headsets with heads-up display

 

Seven areas where technology lifts manufacturing productivity

Technology boosts productivity in the workplace in several overlapping ways:

1. Streamlining workflows with automation

Technology simplifies tasks by automating them. For manufacturers, automation can look like:

  • Scanning barcodes instead of typing product codes into a spreadsheet. This eliminates errors and frees employees’ time for more value-adding activities, instead of work that adds little or no value
  • Setting reorder points for stock items that are then automatically reordered by inventory management software once they are depleted to a certain level. Managers don’t have to worry about being caught short on parts or products, especially for high volume items
  • Repetitive yet precise work, such as welding, spray painting, or polishing being done by robots, as is common in the automotive industry

26% of an employee’s day is wasted on avoidable administrative tasks, unnecessary tasks and outdated ways of working.

Source: OnePoll

2. Connecting the workforce

Imagine your sales team out on the road, selling your products across the country. If they didn’t know crucial information such as how much stock was available in the warehouse, a customer’s order history, or product lead times, they could miss out on valuable sales opportunities.

Productive employees need access to business information and their team. Digital tools such as Slack and Zoom help employees stay connected. Cloud-based inventory management software like Unleashed gives widespread access to inventory, sales and purchase information — even when key staff are off-site.

3. Increasing efficiency

Staff can waste hours of their day searching through spreadsheets and large data sets for the information they need. Investing in the right technology keeps your business information organised and accessible so managers and employees alike can quickly find what they need and carry on with value-added tasks.

Warehouses are also full of potential inefficiencies. Technology here cuts downtime, costs and wasted effort. Warehouse workers can see stock data in real-time, use digital pick lists, navigate the warehouse quickly, track a product throughout its journey and more.

4. Improving quality assurance

Manufacturing rework can be attributed to human error, machine faults, improperly implemented design change, or even simply damage in transit. When this happens, manufacturers have to take time to repair products – or else write them off as waste.

Industry 4.0, however, has vastly improved quality assurance, to the extent that it has its own equivalent term, Quality 4.0. Technologies such as cloud-based QMS apps, and robots that inspect products for faults are more efficient and affordable than relying on installed solutions or manual inspections. Cloud-based software functions as a single source of truth for quality data and standard operating procedures, which reduces miscommunication, and simplifies data management.

5. Revealing opportunities and uncovering risks

Analysing the data generated within a digitised production chain uncovers opportunities and risks. For example predictive analytics can aid in inventory planning, waste reduction, and demand forecasting.

And technology has transformed B2B buyer habits. Today’s customer interactions are processed digitally, whether that’s through mobile, social media, eCommerce sites, or automation. Gartner research finds that when B2B buyers are considering a purchase, they spend 27% of their time researching independently online. Analysing this data allows you to create customer profiles, and track and analyse the customer journey. This in turn fosters sales growth and enhances customer relationship performance.

Digitised manufacturing reveals data that enables continual refinement and greater efficiencies

6. Reducing maintenance costs and downtime

Downtime can have a snowball effect on other areas of the production line. Tracking when and where machine breakdowns and downtime occurs is a step towards reducing unexpected downtime. Smart sensors detect downtime immediately and give real-time feedback.

Identifying common causes of downtime, whether that is human error or faulty machines, helps manufacturers reduce maintenance cost and downtime.

7. Reducing waste

Automated programmable logic controllers (PLCs) can monitor and control processes and factors like temperature and time to save energy and manpower hours. Manufacturers have been using PLCs since the 60s. Today however smart sensors can report to the cloud and to networked PLCs simultaneously. This allows them to track and analyse macro-level data for preventative maintenance and optimum performance of the manufacturing process.

The combination of PLCs and cloud-enabled technology gives manufacturers a big picture that lets them create a more productive and efficient manufacturing process.

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How do robots help manufacturers?

The first industrial robot was installed in a General Motors factory in 1961. Since then, robots have played an important role in helping manufacturers lower production costs, improve productivity and remain competitive.

Industrial robots used to be large, loud and massively powerful, often used in cages to keep human staff away. We now have a new generation of robots that reflect the changing landscape of the economy, one that’s focused on agility. Today’s robots are quick to set up, smaller and can work alongside humans more safely. Industrial robots are now a key tool for manufacturers of all sizes wanting to maximise efficiency, competitiveness and productivity.

5 types of robots manufacturers should pay attention to

Here are five types of robots that are transforming manufacturers’ productivity:

  • Industrial robots. The blanket term for the class of robots performing many of the assembly and construction tasks in a production line. Further categorised based on their construction and range of movement they include Articulated, Cartesian, SCARA, Delta, Cylindrical and Polar robots.
  • Collaborative robots. Also called cobots, these robots are designed for direct interaction with a human within a defined collaborative workspace. They can learn multiple tasks so they can assist workers. For example, CaliBurger uses their collaborative robot to flip burgers so their staff don’t have to slave over a hot grill and concentrate on giving great customer service instead
  • Telepresence robots. These are remote-controlled, wheeled devices that have wireless internet connectivity — think of it like an iPad on wheels. They can aid or replace factory inspectors
  • Warehousing and logistics automation robots. These automate repetitive, time-consuming tasks such as picking and packing, labelling and scanning, loading and unloading
  • Self-driving vehicles. Loading docks and factory floors are potentially dangerous work environments for workers. Self-driving vehicles can safely and quickly navigate the warehouse floor, and minimise workplace hazards

Worldwide shipments of warehousing and logistics robots will grow rapidly from 194,000 units in 2018 to 938,000 units annually by 2022. Its worldwide revenue will reach $30.8 billion by 2022.

Source: Tractica

Why use robotics in manufacturing?

Here are four specific ways manufacturers can benefit from putting robots to work:

1. Increasing productivity

Once programmed, robots speed up production by decreasing cycle times. Unlike humans, robots don’t need rest and can perform two to three shifts in the time it would’ve taken a human to complete one. Implementing robotic technology into the manufacturing process translates to savings on labour costs, which lifts productivity. It allows manufacturers to grow without paying additional salaries.

Labour productivity can also be improved through automating repetitive, unpopular tasks. When workers are shifted onto tasks requiring more skill and responsibility, it raises morale which in turn lifts productivity.

Boston Consulting Group estimates that by 2025, the adoption of advanced robots will boost productivity by up to 30 percent in many industries, and lower total labour costs by 18 percent or more in the world’s biggest exporting countries such as the US, China, Japan and Germany.

2. Encouraging cost-effective growth

A common misconception about robotic technology is that it’s exclusively for large companies that can afford it. As more companies start to produce industrial robots, costs have gone down; in the past 30 years, the average price of a robot has dropped by half. The price tag for smaller pieces of robotic hardware are affordable for most small businesses – for example British firm Automata sells small articulated industrial robots for as little as £8,000.

3. Maintaining quality and consistency

Industrial robots can maintain a higher level of production quality, with greater precision and reliability. The ability to deliver consistent high-quality performance in a shorter period of time means that manufacturers can ramp up production without worrying about a drop in quality.

4. Creating more high-value jobs

Robots in manufacturing protect workers from repetitive and potentially dangerous tasks, freeing up manpower so that workers can maximise their efforts in other value-adding areas of the business. Robots also create opportunities for more highly skilled support roles such as engineers, programmers, data analysts and more.

How are robots used in manufacturing?

Robots have many applications throughout the production process. Here are four main ways manufacturers use robots in the production process:

Handling materials

Materials handling refers to robotic arms moving production parts, typically on or off a conveyor belt, or holding objects in place during production. With the right fitting, robots can efficiently and accurately move products from place to place. Robots are particularly suited to moving hazardous items, or those requiring great delicacy.

Welding and painting

Welding is a precision task — a slight mistake can result in injury, ruin materials and disrupt production. Painting can also be a hazardous and taxing job as workers can be exposed to toxins. Robots are therefore perfect for these tasks and are commonly used to weld and paint automobiles.

Assembling products

Assembling products in a production line can be tedious. It’s repetitive work that can often be done by a robot instead. Doing so streamlines the process and reduces the chance of making mistakes. This also frees up manpower so that workers can focus on other parts of the production process.

Finishing tasks

Some products need to be refined before they’re complete. Finishing tasks, like polishing, deburring and grinding can be done by robots instead of human operators. The robots can consistently provide the right force, repetition and accuracy without injuring itself or getting tired.

A perfect example is a wooden furniture manufacturer. Before sale, each piece needs to be sanded down, which takes time and effort, and isn’t very engaging work. Quality can also vary because employees grow tired spending a whole morning sanding. By automating this process with a well programmed robot a furniture manufacturer can get consistently high quality results.

Manufacturers that use robots

Manufacturers of different sizes and industries are quickly recognising robots as a significant competitive differentiator. Here are some notable manufacturers using robots to increase productivity.

Qualitech

Qualitech is a small metal components manufacturer in the UK with a £2-3 million turnover. They pride themselves on being lean and try to automate as much of their processes as possible. They recently bought Eva, a low-cost industrial robot arm, to help them with an essential yet mind-numbing task: loading oiled metal sheets on to a conveyor belt. The team managed to double output on a key production line, without hiring more staff or running additional shifts. They were also able to train up their existing staff for value-add, technical operations.

Tesla

Tesla’s Gigafactory produces electric motors, battery packs, and other energy storage products. Their factory has self-navigating Autonomous Indoor Vehicles that can travel the factory freely using a digital map, and safely avoid obstacles. They are mainly used for moving materials between workstations.

Boeing

Boeing was an early adopter of robots, using them for painting aircraft, and drilling and fastening on aircraft assembly lines. Assembling an aircraft like the Boeing 777 can involve securing over a million fasteners. Normally, this process is done manually by mechanics. This causes significant strain on their shoulders, arms and hands. The body of the plane must also be rotated so mechanics can access all riveting locations. This is a time intensive process but made quicker with robots, which can work at any angle. Through using robots fewer aviation workers suffered from repetitive stress injuries, and the quality of the finished job means less expensive rework.

Cornell Dubilier

Cornell Dubilier manufactures capacitors in North America. Their capacitors are used in aircraft, medical lasers, alternative energy products, welders, generators, and more. Their R&D team developed a vision system to inspect parts, a step that used to be done manually. They used a robot to carry out the inspections and have seen great results: they’ve doubled the speed of their labelling process from 125 parts per hour to 250 parts per hour, and freed staff from a tedious, manual process.

Digitising production: Cloud apps and Enterprise Resource Planning for productivity

Digitisation is often overshadowed by other technological approaches to improving manufacturing productivity, such as purchasing cheaper and faster machinery. However digitisation can provide a huge advantage.

But what is digitisation exactly? Enginess defines it as the process of taking non-digital formats of information and turning them into digital formats. Processes and systems can stay largely the same when processes are digitised. For example, going from writing out invoices, to creating them on Microsoft Word; going from signing physical contracts, to getting e-signatures via email.

Let’s take a look at how digitising processes using cloud technology and Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) helps manufacturers.

What is cloud technology?

Cloud technology, otherwise known as cloud computing or cloud technology computing, is the delivery of services through the Internet such as data storage, servers, databases, networking, and software.

Cloud computing makes it possible to save files to a remote database and retrieve them on demand. You’re probably no stranger to cloud technology — services like Google Drive and Dropbox are simple examples.

Software as a Service (SaaS) is a type of cloud technology. A SaaS application is provided over the internet, on demand and typically on a subscription basis. The service provider hosts and manages the app, including maintenance such as software upgrades.

What is Enterprise Resource Planning?

ERP is a type of software used to manage core business functions such as accounting, inventory control, supply chain management and more. ERP systems unify multiple business processes ensuring a single source of truth within a company.

On-premise ERP versus cloud-based software: which should you choose?

Digitally enabled manufactures typically use either ERP software, cloud-based software or even hybrid systems. We’ll illustrate the key differences by comparing cloud SaaS apps and ERP systems. Here’s how cloud SaaS apps and traditional, on-premise ERP systems compare across simplicity, flexibility, control, security and cost:

There are tradeoffs between cloud software and an on-premise ERP solution. Cloud-based SaaS applications are better suited to small and growing businesses because they are typically easier to use, and have the right levels of flexibility, control and security needed — at a lower cost.

ERP solutions, on the other hand, are more suitable for very large businesses, typically those with a parent organisation. SAP, the largest ERP software provider, has many large customers — companies with 1000 to 5000 employees and over $1 billion in revenue. The benefits for these companies include total data visibility across all departments, unified IT costs across the group, and advanced reporting and planning.

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The role of cloud software for manufacturers

Manufacturing demands have changed. Customers now want shorter product cycles and time-to-market schedules. They also have access to the global market. This means that manufacturers must be efficient, produce high quality products, and remain agile. On-premise platforms often can’t keep up with the demands of modern manufacturing. Cloud-based software by contrast gives manufacturers and their supply chain partners the data transparency and accuracy needed to make fast decisions.

Manufacturers rely heavily on having the right stock in the right quantities in the right place at the right time – as it can mean the difference between profit and loss. Inventory management can often be overlooked in the quest to boost productivity, but as it plays a significant role in the balance sheet, it is well worth looking into cloud-based inventory management software.

How does cloud-based inventory management improve productivity?

Boosting business productivity can be as easy as implementing cloud-based inventory management software and training your employees to use it. Here are three key ways cloud-based inventory management can improve productivity:

1. Improved efficiency

It’s hard to be productive when your stock levels are imbalanced, your staff can’t track stock throughout the warehouse and your suppliers fail to deliver on time.

Automation is a powerful tool for increasing productivity by boosting efficiency and reducing the margin for error. A cloud-based inventory management system reduces manufacturing employees’ inventory management workload around reordering stock, creating reports or tracking stock down in the warehouse. When they are free to work on more meaningful, value-adding tasks, productivity increases.

2. More capable sales teams

Sales staff need the right equipment and tools to do a good job. Selling products without an accurate idea of what stock is available or what lead times are is a difficult task. Inventory management software helps sales teams excel and sell more effectively, ensuring a better, more cost-effective pipeline of sales to keep production lines flowing.

3. Reduced waste

Business waste is a sign of poor organisation and can eat into productivity. Waste can be as innocuous as walking across a warehouse to fetch high volume stock, but it can also be as serious as having product defects or the wasted time of not having enough stock on hand to meet demand.

Cloud inventory management software enables businesses to make the most of their resources to forecast demand, plan ahead and be proactive, dramatically reducing waste of all kinds.

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What’s next

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