This decade is when total automation for manufacturing processes will become a reality. How are manufacturers gearing up for this?

A fully automated production line at German car manufacturing giant Volkswagen’s headquarters in northern Germany. (Photo by John MACDOUGALL / AFP)

Why manufacturers need to plan for complete automation

TODAY, no industry is left untouched by the 4th Industrial Revolution (IR 4.0). For the manufacturers within the production sector, one significant change brought about by IR 4.0 is the mass automation of processes.

Automation has brought many benefits to the manufacturing industry. Through programmable logic controllers (PLC), it is now possible to automate isolated steps in the manufacturing process. While this process-specific approach increases operational efficiency, it is not seamless-human workers are still required to step in every now and again. This is a shame, as it does not harness all the benefits of automation.

Recognizing this, 2020 is the year where digital-first manufacturers are moving towards the complete automation of systems. To get the ball rolling, they can first look into a few key aspects, namely, implementing vertical integration, embracing data, and prioritizing security.

# 1 | Implementing vertical integration

Vertical integration is a strategy where companies control more than one phase of the value chain. This eliminates the ‘middle man’, optimizing resource utilization and avoiding unnecessary costs. With this, companies can also easily consolidate information coming from different sources, making it accessible to those who need them.

Essentially, vertical integration is beneficial as it unites all layers in a business to ensure information is free-flowing, allowing for a holistic view of manufacturing and business operations. Vertical integration delivers large amounts of data, but all these data will not be of use if no value can be derived from it.

Thus, to visualize and draw insights from the data gathered, companies must utilize software that is specifically developed with vertical integration in mind. Ideally, it should also be scalable, user-friendly, and easy to implement. With this, the stage is set for the gradual transition into fully automated systems.

# 2 | Bigger, bolder data

It is without a doubt that data is only going to get bigger in the near future. An increasing variety of data is constantly being extracted from various stages of the manufacturing process, uncovering patterns and trends that can add value to a business.

It must also be noted that while data is proliferating, its nature is also evolving. Many of today’s solutions are unable to support this, as they offer little flexibility in the collection, evaluation, and analysis of such data points.

Manufacturers will not be able to reap any benefits if the information gathered cannot be properly evaluated. Thus, it is crucial that automated reporting and analytics functions be standardized, allowing for effective data interpretation to produce actionable insights.

# 3 | Security matters

Manufacturers must make security a top priority, and this holds even truer when it comes to automation. Because machines are interconnected in a fully automated process, a security breach in one machine would trigger a chain effect, which can be disastrous.

Thus, the software platform used must always be developed as security by design. It should be upheld to essential security standards such as encrypting communications, ensuring binaries are signed, and developing regular updates.

Having manufacturing processes fully automated can soon become a reality. Manufacturers need only be careful to consider all aspects of implementation, and not rush through it.