Greg Langfield is a business growth consultant at Enterprise Minnesota.

Automation is vast in terms of its applications, implications and opportunities, and while it isn’t always the end game, it is one viable solution for a productive workforce and to ensure the best return on your investment.

Automating with purpose requires a long-view perspective, not a short-sighted approach like an on/off switch. It requires year over year thinking across the organization by focusing on specific process details. These details include understanding the amount of value-added steps within the process as well as the amount of variation present. Insight and understanding of these process details ensure success when implementing automation. As the saying goes, “there is nothing worse than automating process waste.”

Automation challenges

It’s important to look at automation as an integrated part to overall workplace productivity. Instead of looking at a lack of automation as a challenge, it’s more helpful to ask: How do we get our workforce as productive as possible and let automation play a role in that productivity leap? When thinking about automation, the challenge is about building a sequence of small improvements to progress to full automation.

We should start with a definition of automation and how most businesses look at it as a technology tool. While automation might bring to mind terms such as consistency, reliability, standardization, unattended manufacturing, labor reduction, increasing efficiency, or standardizing safety, a better definition of automation in more precise terms is as follows.

“The application of a wide range of technologies, software and equipment that reduces or eliminates human intervention in both the transfer of data or information within a process and the control or monitoring of a process.”

More specifically automation is the use of technology as a process aid that improves safety, quality and productivity. Within this narrower definition, “process aid” can be a very small part of a process, or a large portion of a process — for example, implementing an ERP system or an automated paint line. Process aids are basically a tool to support the effectiveness of the overall process. And of the three improvement areas, historically productivity is far and away the focus of most automation improvements. And through productivity improvements, safety and quality will naturally follow.

Because automation requirements depend on a business’ unique needs, automation can solve challenges unique to each business — from flexibility in volume or production and labor shortage challenges to stability in operations and optimizing productivity.

Two paths to automation

Yogi Berra may not be known as an automation specialist, yet his quote, “when you come to a fork in the road, take it,” rings true when thinking about automation. There are two major paths that lead to automation opportunities.

The first path might present itself as a solution to high volume, a strong business need, and/or having a standard industry application. This is historically where manufacturers might think about bringing in automation.

The second path is more nuanced and involves a few more steps that are smaller in nature to arrive at full automation. This path has the most opportunities for many organizations but unfortunately is often not utilized as there is no “off the shelf problem/solution” as in the first path. This path’s automation solution might present itself to unique and incremental challenges as a business grows and changes.

Organizations need to be open minded for both paths, as they are exclusively not one or the other, but can be executed concurrently into a company’s overall automation strategy. Realizing that there are multiple paths will help organizations overcome challenges in thinking about automation and be prepared to support automation opportunities.

Automation opportunities

What opportunities exist to bring automation into your organization? The answer requires thinking differently about processes and gaining improved vision in seeing the details within these processes. Think of it as progressing down an eye chart to see if you can get to the smallest letters. Thankfully, there are two process methodologies that allow us to gain better insight into the details of our processes.

  1. Lean Thinking – eliminating as much process waste as possible
  2. Six Sigma – eliminating as much process variation as possible

Automation opportunities start by finding small process improvements. Within each organization there are many opportunities to identify areas where process optimization is lacking. By doing so, a company can make small improvements toward workforce productivity, even before automation is considered. These small improvements provide the foundation for larger process improvements and can then be considered for semi-automation opportunities, such as bringing in a piece of equipment that automates part of a process. But what does a process improvement opportunity look like?

First, it takes an understanding of the employee value add, which requires a perspective from the eyes of the customer by defining value in terms of transforming information or material that the customer is willing to pay for and is done correctly the first time. The end-goal is to understand employee productivity based on the amount of value-add tasks the employee performs throughout the day.

Second, we evaluate equipment value add. The equipment value add is similar to employee value add. The same definition is used — equipment transforming information or product that is going to be valued by the customer and is done correctly the first time. Likewise for equipment, the end goal is to understand the amount of value-add time the equipment is performing throughout the day.

When employee and equipment value add are identified, then those areas where value add is not occurring are the first opportunities for improvement. These tasks are considered non-value add. Non-value add are steps that consume time and energy without providing value. Look for areas where work should be performed but is not being performed. An example of this is the amount of time employees spend walking to/from their work areas. These are non-value steps in their process. When looking at the whole organization, the amount of time those employees took to take those steps is often equivalent to having three more employees. It’s important to get employees involved in understanding the value-add and non-value add tasks — if the walking could be cut down by half, that would make available at least one additional person to support the business, all without spending any capital on automation.

You cannot eliminate all workforce inefficiencies. There are opportunities to reduce them, but you must identify them first. You must ask deeper questions about the causes of those inefficiencies and shrink the productivity gap. You must take an opportunity to address a productivity gap in the context of labor shortages. Are you optimizing your workforce? Do you have realistic targets for productivity or improvement? Are employees involved and invested in your productivity optimization plan? You must ask yourself, do answers to these questions identify opportunities for automation where they weren’t previously identified as areas of obvious opportunity? Integrating employees and equipment adds value to overall organizational productivity and a clearer automation strategy if properly evaluated.

Your business has process improvement opportunities. We all want to take a big step in automation, but that is not realistic. If you want to follow a realistic strategy, you must identify the little things, and make those business adjustments so that we can get to the bigger opportunities. It can be difficult to identify large opportunities. Often, you have to work for them.

Strategies for a productive workforce

The five steps to automation encompass foundational elements that help us develop plans on how to take full advantage of semi-automation and full automation.

The first foundational elements are broken down into three steps: the Three P’s, consistent results accomplished manually, and touching “the product” once.

  1. The Three P’s: Process, Process, Process. Continuous improvement thinking should be process focused. Tools used (including process flow, machine integration and material handling) should be utilized while thinking about the overall process they will support.
  2. Consistent Results Accomplished Manually. Don’t automate if you can’t do the operation manually first. You must evaluate your processes and ensure they are stable, consistent, and controlled from a continuous improvement standpoint. Establish what processes and outcomes are normal versus abnormal.
  3. Touch the Product Once. Reducing the time and energy of product reorientation can reduce the cost of automation. Time and energy can be wasted trying to find the orientation of a part to allow your other processes to continue. Establish best practices to standardize and streamline the process to optimize productivity.

The fourth step to the path of automation is semi-automation, which involves a human/machine interface. That’s a gateway to your continued process optimization. It’s task-focused with employee involvement. Significant opportunities exist in most organizations for this low-cost, low-risk step. Businesses must be willing to explore possibilities beyond their industry. Different processes have applications across industries.

The fifth and last step is full automation. This requires an examination of the full-automation process. The cost of operations versus pricing must be considered. Think about the compromise between speed or flexibility, and accuracy or precision. Remember, we can’t accomplish it all. Think about what needs to be prioritized when implementing a full-automation approach.

Skills to support automation

Organizations must take a holistic approach when thinking about continuous improvement. It’s crucial that everyone, from employees to leaders, think about the process. Where is the value within the processes? That is what your customers are paying for and also where your employees achieve a sense of accomplishment and value add. Get rid of those tasks that rob employees of energy because they are not value test tasks. It’s necessary to make small improvements that make the process better. Take inventory of your value add and non-value add systems in the value stream. Use technical thinking and manufacturing engagement to analyze workflow. Include parts and features, labor, and material variances in the evaluation. Use your industry knowledge and application knowledge. That expertise can be transferred to process capability knowledge and support successful automation implementation.

Strategies for a productive workforce — managing expectations

Investment expectations must be considered when examining what is needed when working towards automation. Investment expectations come down to application implementation and making sure you focus on the processes, have a stable and reliable process, and then optimize that process so it supports efficiency and productivity growth. To make the process effective, look at both continuous improvement thinking and automation when evaluating organization and managing expectations. Consider automation implementation as one possible solution to support a productive workforce. If you decide automation is a good option, make sure the processes already in place are stable, reliable, and efficient. Ask yourself if they are crucial to the success of the automation strategy.
Recent industry polling data reported that 59% of the various organizations that made robotic implementations had favorable responses.

But 41% still hadn’t reached their robotic goals or didn’t realize them. The key to improving that success rate across all automation opportunities can be summed up by Bill Gates.

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency.
The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.”

A productive workforce strategy includes a long view to find appropriate solutions. They should fit the needs of your unique manufacturing business and those of your customers. Automation that is properly applied is one of those solutions, while taking the current state of your processes — both efficient and inefficient ones — into consideration.

There are two paths to full automation. The one you choose depends on volume challenges, dedicated product output, and custom versus common application. Your goal should be to automate with purpose and develop a strategy that leads to a productive workforce.


Both paths to full automation require a focus. They focus on the processes already in place and those you will need to add value to when automation integration is applied. Equipment intelligence needs to be programmed with ongoing maintenance. For a machine to do the work required, it must be programmed. You must teach it what you want it to do. This contrasts with employee intelligence. Employees come with intelligence and need ongoing training and development. A process focus links them together, and that’s the glue that holds them together. Consider the differences between what employees and equipment offer. Equipment never calls in sick. Machines lack the growth potential employees offer. That’s why you must maximize both automation equipment and employees to their full potential. That’s critical. Think about small process opportunities. How do you link them together and build on a continuous growth mindset?

Most manufacturers aren’t finding enough employees. As recently as last fall, Enterprise Minnesota’s State of Manufacturing survey found that attracting workers was the highest or the second highest concern among manufacturers across the state. It is no great leap to say that automation opportunities are seen as one solution to deal with the labor shortage. It isn’t just about deciding to automate. It’s important to automate with purpose and focus on the long-view strategy that leads to a productive workforce. Use a small-step strategy to tailor automation to your specific manufacturing needs and the needs of your customers. Consider the challenges, opportunities, tools and skills of your equipment and employees. That can shrink the productivity gap. Figure out how automation strategies will set you up for success and maximize your growth potential.

Featured story in the Winter 2021 issue of Enterprise Minnesota magazine.

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